Art and People
Earlier this year Eazel met up with artist and photographer Layla Love at her studio in Chelsea where she and her team were busy planning Rise of the Butterfly—a far-reaching project somewhere between art show and NGO conceived of by Love and her collaborator, the renowned social activist Gloria Steinem. After a long search all over Manhattan, Love’s team had just secured a venue for the project’s launch event to feature an exhibition of 70 artworks spanning various media and speaking to Love and Steinem’s initiative of aligning select nonprofits behind the mission of raising awareness and financial support for victims of human trafficking.
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Earlier this year we sat down with artist and photographer Layla Love and her team to discuss Rise of the Butterfly—a far-reaching project raising awareness and financial support for victims of human trafficking around the world through art that celebrates the human experience.
One of the items on our agenda was an interview with Love to learn how—as an artist—she had become involved with such a heavy subject, however once the conversation got going it would end up shifting to the details of a potential collaboration for the project’s launch event, and it would become clear that the interview would have to be for another time.
Later that week a member of Love’s team reaches out to us and proposes a drive up to the full moon gathering at visionary artist Alex Grey’s Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in Wappingers Falls as ‘another time’ for our interview. We just had to arrange for a car.
So on a Friday evening in a Ford Escape we rent at the last minute using the Turo app we pick up Love from her studio and head north toward the George Washington Bridge—our full faith in the GPS.
Eazel: Layla, it’s good to see you again. Why don’t you start us off by speaking to how you got started as a photographer.
Layla Love (LL): It’s good to see you. I’m glad you were up for the adventure! Regarding your question, photography has always been an obsession of mine. I went to high school in California and during that time if I wasn’t in the darkroom I was out photographing people. It wasn’t something that I thought about too much. And I wasn’t approaching it as a potential career. It was something I just had to do.
Eazel: Was it your subjects—the people you would photograph—that obsessed you?
LL: It wasn't so much the subjects, as much as it was their human quality that captivated me. I was very shy back then. In fact, my teacher in high school had to submit my work to an art showcase without telling me. It wasn’t until after the ribbons were sent out that I learned I had won first place. That was the first time I got a sense that my art had the potential to evoke a response from people.
Eazel: We read that you got your first paid assignment in West Africa when you were 21. How does a shy person end up travelling the world as a photojournalist?
LL: In that case it was the valedictorian of my class at Richmond University in London who got me the assignment. He saw my work and passed it along to his father—an anthropologist studying women in West Africa who had mutilated themselves to avoid being taken hostage. When his father saw my work he facilitated my travel and set me up as a photojournalist to cover his research. That experience turned out to be a real turning point both in my career as well as with regard to how I view my place in the world.
It was then that I decided I wanted to explore the human condition through photography—to affect people by showing them images of humanity that capture the full range of our being and potential. After West Africa my work began to circulate and assignments started coming in. I travelled throughout Africa—Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria—resolving to open people’s eyes to the depths of human suffering with my photography.
Eazel: You have a way of becoming directly involved with your subject. Is this part of your process?
LL: As far as my process is concerned, it typically begins in the abstract and consists of three stages. First I submit to the transcendent experience of making art. This is where I discover some inner truth about how the world affects me and either capture it with photography or translate it into media. Once I have realized this experience I turn my attention back to the aspect of the world that inspired me—my subject—and I seek to understand how I can serve her—how I can give back to her for sharing her truth. It’s only after this dialogue has taken place that I am ready for the third and final part, which is sharing our connection with the viewer in what comes to be recognized as art.
EAZEL: It would seem that the human subject is an essential part of your art.
LL: Absolutely. In my youth I was obsessed with the humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. His candid photography inspired me to capture the human element in its purest form. As I was developing my craft I remember flipping through photo albums, poring over images I had taken, trying to understand how my art would reflect the psychology—the inner truth—of a human subject I had photographed. I see art as the ultimate expression of the human experience.
EAZEL: What are your thoughts on photography as an art form today?
LL: Before digital photography took hold as the industry standard, making photographs was as much science as it was art. In the darkroom you had to be ambidextrous with the right and left sides of your brain—and this developed a certain kind of thinking that photographers seem to be missing these days. Before Photoshop there was a certain beauty in the photograph as an imperfect representation of a subject. Photography used to be about capturing the truth, while now the world has become obsessed with perfection.
Eazel: Do you see yourself as being closer to artist than to photographer?
LL: I’m half artist and half media maker. To me art is about connecting with something beyond oneself, while media is about translating that experience into quantifiable change in the world. Photography is just a medium through which I channel my art.
Broadly speaking I would say I’m closer to artist as I connect more with the project of art rather than the practice of photography. I believe art is fundamental to the human experience—that it’s humanity’s most powerful means of affecting change in the world.
Eazel: In researching your work we found it difficult to reconcile the narratives of surrealism and photojournalism you seem to be developing. What’s the connection here?
LL: I’ve always had this desire to prove to myself that life is as interesting as my imagination wants me to believe it is. In travelling the world for photojournalism assignments something I’ve come to realize is that in exploring the extremes of human experience—capturing the full range of suffering and emotion that exists in the world—I’m also exploring my inner truth. My art calls attention to the connection between reality and the inner truth of the human condition. There’s something about how we see the world that we’re not supposed to understand and it’s only when we explore the limits of the human experience that we gain insight into this connection. My work isn’t about reconciling these ideas—if not exploring how art connects them.
Come to think of it, it was actually Alex Grey who inflected my career from photojournalism to the surrealistic imagery my work explores today. It was at his full moon gatherings—back when his chapel was in Chelsea—that I experienced his visionary art and was prompted to revisit my photography and see magic in the human condition. Before he moved to where we’re going now I used to attend his gatherings every month, and it was through him that my portfolio began to circulate in New York. He was the one who connected me with artists in California and through him I met David Block, Android Jones, and Amanda Sage—with whom I’m collaborating for Rise of the Butterfly.
Eazel: Tell us about Rise of the Butterfly.
LL: I have this thesis that humanity is imperfectly perfect—that in order to truly understand how we are all connected we have to dive into life and explore the edges of our humanity, culture, and society. As I said earlier, I believe art is fundamental to the human experience and that it’s humanity’s most powerful means of affecting change. It’s what inspires us to shape the world for the better. Rise of the Butterfly is a foundation that aims to eliminate human trafficking throughout the world by channelling resources from the art world to destination programs vetted by Gloria and myself that promote equality and freedom around the world.
Layla Love, Soulmates, a piece from Layla Love’s Lucid Dreaming series, photographed in Sardinia, Italy, 2011. Courtesy of the artist