Interview: Petra Collins x Tavi Gevinson On Instagram, Bodies & Rihanna

Shot by Ryan McGinley for Oyster 104: The Exposed Issue.

I first discovered Petra Collins when forming the staff for my magazine Rookie, in 2011, and knew right away that her sensibility was exactly what our publication should aim to capture. Petra’s photos depict the private moments of her young female subjects with a unique sensitivity to unexpected beauty – thousands of young women identify with her documentation of female friendship, sexuality and self-discovery. More recently Petra has stirred up controversy on talk shows and in tabloids for her projects questioning Western culture’s view of the female body. I talked to her early this year about body image, Instagram rules and Rihanna for Oyster 104: The Exposed Issue.
Tavi Gevinson: Who were your influences when you started, who are they now, and how has that changed?
Petra Collins: I didn’t look at much photography when I started; I was really influenced by film. Ryan McGinley was one of my biggest influences back then but for a totally different reason, ‘cos it’s not like I looked at his work and wanted to emulate it — it was just something that really liberated me as a teenager. I saw his photos in grade nine and it was this really refreshing experience for me to see these images of freedom in adolescence. Right now I am so desensitised to everything and I don’t think twice about nudity, but as a young person, seeing these young bodies experiencing nature was exciting. It made me more comfortable with my body, in a way.
It made you see your body as natural.
Yeah! Because at that time of your life — 14, 15 — you’re so freaked out by your body and it’s so not this natural, beautiful thing, so to view these images at that age was really important for me.
Your subjects are usually teenage girls. What is so interesting about this state to you?
It’s a time in your life when you’re form- ing who you are as a person and so many things are happening to you. It’s really scary and hectic. For me it’s something very interesting to capture; there are endless possibilities. There’s always pressure on teenage girls that I think has reached another extreme today, so I’m interested in talking to these girls, finding out what their lives are like and documenting it.
Is that why you started your workshop for girls?
I took a fifth year of high school to go to a school called SEED Alternative in Toronto and I started this club that’s still going on — I live in New York now — that’s basically just a safe space for girls to talk to each other. It’s literally the simplest thing, but it’s some- thing I realised is really important. We hang out with our friends and everything, but there’s not always a time to talk about scary things that we don’t like to speak about. The first meeting we did was just overwhelming and got really loud by the end because it was all these girls who just didn’t really get to talk about these things. There are so few spaces for girls and women to voice their opinions or to just get out what they want to say, and when it happens it’s really exciting. It was like a big group therapy session. It still goes on once a week.
Let’s talk about your t-shirt and Instagram controversies [Petra designed a t-shirt for American Apparel that featured a line drawing of a menstruating vagina being masturbated. At around the same time, her Instagram was shut down after she posted a photo of herself wearing a bikini with pubic hair poking out]. What was your biggest takeaway from the way people reacted?
It just really showed me to what extent we are intolerant of these topics. It really worried me and scared me that something like that would make the news — that it was so ‘shocking’ and ‘disgusting’!
Why do you think people felt so repulsed?
The bottom line is that I put these things we don’t see images of in mainstream culture on a t-shirt you could buy at a store that’s on every corner.
I think it’s cool what you did, because a lot of feminist artists have been doing stuff like that in an art context for a long time but to use your connections to put it on a t-shirt is a huge deal.
Yeah, it was cool because I wasn’t just preaching to the choir this time; I was actually able to speak to a wider audience. That’s the point of Rookie, too — getting bigger and being sold in Barnes & Noble or whatever: to get these views out into the public instead of creating this little insular environment where we just talk and agree with one other. It was really awesome being able to partner with a really big company that could sell a very large quantity and have it not just available to a small group of people. Art is really important and having shows in galleries is important but it’s not something that’s always accessible to everyone, and for me the t-shirt was a form of public art. I feel like that’s what I want to create and that’s what you want to create: work that is accessible on another level. To go in the opposite direction is pointless to me.
I just looked up the bikini hashtag on Instagram and there are over six million posts. The one difference is that everyone has a waxed bikini line and you did not. Wait, so did Instagram report you or did a user report you and Instagram approved it?
I think a bunch of people reported me and then they approved it. It wasn’t Instagram, it was a group of people, which is even scarier and more hurtful — that the public is able to tell you what to do and what not to do with your body. I was really shocked by it and it actually hurt me deeply, because it solidified that feeling we all get from the images we see every day urging you to perfect your body. But this was people literally censoring me and telling me my body was wrong. It was kind of crazy.
It’s also really insane that in every other way that image met the beauty standard, but a few pubes were enough to shock people.
Yeah! I am aware that I have these privileges and that I do reflect some beauty ideals, but it’s just really interesting that such a tiny deviation made people so angry and caused such a stir. The fact that we have such low tolerance for anything other than the norm is frightening and upsetting.
I still haven’t watched that episode of The Wendy Williams Show where they talked about your photo.
It was really, really cool because that’s a big mainstream show and the women on it were advocating for me. At the end Wendy was like, “It shouldn’t be anyone’s business. You can shave or not shave but no one should control your body.” But what was also interesting was that on the show their lawyer said that they had to blur the photo out and Wendy was really angry about it. Isn’t that crazy? I can’t even fathom it.
There are girls in bikinis on game shows! Hair is natural! Why are people trying to pretend that the altered state is the natural state?
With men their sexuality is on the table. They’re allowed to catcall women, sex is apparently always on their mind, they are allowed to own their sexuality and it becomes synonymous with dominating women. But it’s the opposite for females, so growing body hair or, for cisgender women, getting your period — they’re signifiers of growth and we try to hide them because we’re supposed to stay children.
Do you ever have trouble differentiating what’s empowering from what’s exploitative? Where in your own work do you ever feel like you’ve crossed that line?
Yes. My photos are not completely rid of any male gaze that I’ve internalised. It’s such a crazy thing that I’m still always working through. How do you own your sexuality and feel totally in control? It’s something I’ve learned as I’ve grown up. I started taking photos when I was 15 or 16, so I was going through puberty, my first encounters with the male gaze, being aware of attention from men and kind of wanting that attention but also struggling with making it my own. As I kept creating images I’d constantly look back to see the differences between my photos then and my photos now. I also see it in images of myself — not necessarily in my artwork, but sometimes I’m like, “I just created an image that I know was just for a male viewer,” and I have to think about it and work through those issues with myself and my body and my self-worth and my confidence.
I know Rihanna has also been huge for you. What do you like about her and how does she influence you?
I’m actually making new neons of her lyrics now. I love her! She’s one of my favorite pop stars. I love the Top 40 — I listen to everything — and I’m also really interested in listening to music that’s characterised by its young, female audience. I remember when ‘Rude Boy’ came out people found it so scandalous and I was interested in why, so I looked up all the lyrics and they’re actually really awesome and empowering. One of the lines, which I made a neon sign of, is, “Baby if I don’t feel it / I ain’t fakin’ no more,” which is not really something you hear said so explicitly in any other pop songs. It just gets me going! It empowers me.
Read our interview with Stoya x Neil Gaiman shot by Tim Barber. Oyster 104: The Exposed Issue — out now.
Photography: Ryan McGinley
Text: Tavi Gevinson
Special thanks to Zara Mirkin