Documenting a New Generation
Whilst most people in their twenties are out finding themselves, photographer and filmmaker Liza Mandelup is on a mission sourcing outsiders and subcultures to document. A fresh, new voice in storytelling, Mandelup is a definite one to watch in virtue of her keen eye for observing the irregular, her adventurous choice of subject matter and the humility she bestows on them.
We first came across Liza’s work through her intriguing mini-documentary on Hedi Slimane’s muses/twin brothers, The Garden. Since then she has shot exclusively for i-D and Dazed and Confused. We caught up with an exhausted Mandelup from Los Angeles, whom after working tirelessly on a new project, opened up to us about her unique working style and what it’s like to be compared to a whole new generation of very young fearless entrepreneurial artists like Petra Collins, Signe Pierce and Tavi Gevinson.
So how did you begin in this area of documenting subcultures, what influenced you or inspired you to get into this?
LIZA MANDELUP: Basically, I started doing a lot of travel photography and then I actually did this one project where I was travelling with these two train-hopper kids, and they were really lost and trying to catch a train out of town. I was just really interested in their life and started taking a bunch of photos with them. I didn’t really feel like the photos were translating, and so I started filming them. I started from there. I really do still see everything from a photography stand-point; I studied photography. But, I don’t feel very satisfied by photography. Even if I make a book or an installation or something, I feel like I can’t experience it, and I realised that my work is all about experiences.
Where your work really connected with me – was when I was watching your new series with i-D, and there was a video you did on a beauty salon in South L.A., and you were talking to these girls like you were friends, and then it was contrasted by this montage where they were outside and they kind of flicked their hair amongst this beautiful music. It reminded me of David Lachapelle. I just felt that you have a really great eye to understand the irregularities, and perhaps the satire in the topics you create – a really fresh voice.
LIZA MANDELUP: I’ve never thought about it like that before, but I really connect with what you said about irregularities, because when I walk into a scenario with these people, the first thing I notice is that something is slightly off. The hair salon, for example, there was just hair everywhere, and I remember thinking when I was walking in, “This is so weird, there’s just hair without a head sitting in all these places.” That was the one thing that was slightly off and that’s something I wanted to incorporate into that, in the intro montage there’s a couple shots of just hair without a head sitting around. That’s an example of something being just slightly off. I’m drawn to that, people functioning outside of society.
Getting a couple different people and asking them the same questions, you start to think about how people are related but how things look so different, but at the centre they’re the same. Especially, for example, that Real American Beauty series, where in all three of those different cultures, looks aren’t the most important thing in life; confidence is. I really think it’s fascinating to find completely different societies or people of different backgrounds and I get to make across-the-board connections.
What I think is really exciting is the way that you tell it; all the stories that you tell are short epithets, but they make sense, because you really get really intimate and close with these people. For instance, The Garden, those two models, it really looks like you live with them for a couple weeks. How does the discussion go with these subjects, like the beauty parlour and The Garden, how do you find the story, how you wanna shoot and what you’re going to do with these people?
LIZA MANDELUP: Honestly, it’s very casual. The Garden mini film, for example, we were just planning on spending a day together, and then a day turned into a whole summer. We started shooting and it worked out really well. I’m going to do a music video with them in the next two weeks. A lot of it can be like therapy, where I’m just listening to what they have to say and a lot of it is just trust. I explain that my end thing is to celebrate who they are as people, and to show who they really are. I feel like I present it as a chance for someone to show who they actually are as people, and I actually fell in love with them as people and if you give me who you are, so will everyone else who sees this.
That was where it launched from. It comes from a place of celebration. The salon one was difficult, they didn’t necessarily know the outlet I was shooting for and hadn’t experienced someone coming and shooting them before. I feel like they didn’t really understand what I was making, but when you keep coming back and showing someone that you’re genuinely interested and genuinely want to share their story, it’s almost like something clicks. It takes time, especially when you’re coming out of your comfort zone and there’s no common ground right away.
I remember with the salon, I felt like they weren’t so into it, but by the sixth time I visited, they loved it. They all wanted to be on camera and all wanted to tell their story. A lot of it just translated to relationships in life; if you meet someone on the street and say, “Hey, what’s up?” They’d be like, “Who are you? You’re a stranger…”, but if you ask that person to spend a day with you and introduce that person to some of your friends, and you have an experience with that person, they go from being a stranger to someone who’s now you’re friend.
“I explain that my end thing is to celebrate who they are as people, and to show who they are really.”
It’s funny, there used to be a TV show in Australia, where I’m from, called Front Up and it was done by a guy called Andrew L Urban, and he used to just go up to people on the street and just start talking to them, no prejudice, he’d just talk to anyone and everyone. It would turn into an incredible discussion, they would just tell you about their whole lives.
LIZA MANDELUP: I love that stuff, I’m so inspired by all that stuff. The piece we just shot while we were travelling, we stopped and interviewed all these random people we met a long the way. Giving someone the chance to say something, even though you just met them. Sometimes one sentence from a stranger can be so telling. I love that kind of stuff.
Have you got a crazy anecdote for us that you’ve come across in your work that’s truly surprised you?
LIZA MANDELUP: There’s been so much. Everything I do is so crazy. The nature of it all, meeting with total strangers. In terms of the South Central piece I was shooting, I was actually doing a casting, and I met this guy on the street, who was in a gang and he was like, “What are you doing?” and I was like, “I’m doing a casting for something.” We started talking and I told him I was actually also working on something else, working on hair salons and he was like, “Yeah, I’ll help you scout it, I’ll hit up everyone I know and I’ll find the best salon for it.” I just basically drove around the projects in LA, with this guy I met on the street, and I was just like, “This is such a weird life.”
Events like that happen all the time. It’s all so surreal. For example, we came across this rodeo and we literally talked before and then turned up in Arizona with ten rodeo girls ready to film.
Trust is a big thing. Especially now there’s so much media, everyone’s broadcasting themselves all the time, a lot of people want to say ‘no’ before ‘yes’. I love that there are people who still say ‘yes’, almost to the point where I show up and just want to hug them, because I love that people are still believers and trust that people have good intentions.
That’s the thing, I still believe that it comes down to the eye. No matter how many photographers you put in a room, it’s still going to be up to the person with a camera to choose what content is interesting and I think you have a really good eye.
Just moving on quickly, there’s no doubt that the work you make is very serious and you’re very serious about it, but it’s still channeled through – for want of a better word – fashion or contemporary culture to a certain demographic out there. Are you happy with that? There a lot of artists doing stuff at the moment, like Signe Peirce.
LIZA MANDELUP: Yeah, I just did a group show with her.
And Petra Collins and Gavi Tevinson, all these younger people of a new generation, new storytellers, yet, they still very much funnel contemporary culture. Is that something you feel comfortable being associated with, do you feel part of that generation?
LIZA MANDELUP:I feel like that just happened, I didn’t aim to be that. None of my references were any of whats going on in that whole world. I think that the style I shoot in maybe connects with the fashion world. But, it also comes down to getting your ideas made and so you connect to these different channels where your ideas can be funded and put out there, whether that’s in a gallery or getting independent funding to make a film or a book, or linking up with one of these media outlets. It really comes down to understanding where your ideas can be financed and can be made. I have, like, a thousand ideas all the time, but the hard part is figuring out which idea is appropriate for which outlet and which channel, so it can actually get made. I’m so honoured that these outlets pay for my ideas to happen. It’s a collaboration, they come to me, but the fact that they allow me to do what I want to do, I love that.
Speaking of fashion and contemporary culture, fashion magazines like VICE and i-D, do you think they perhaps scrutinise or ‘exoticise’ these sub cultures, and then filter to the rest of the youth or of our generation?
LIZA MANDELUP: Subcultures are very inspiring. I view most people within subcultures as outsiders and then I pull out what I think is weird or interesting or beautiful from it. But, there definitely is an element of glorifying it – just filming someone is glorifying them, I think. I have made pieces about stuff that isn’t exotic to me, but I do try to view it as someone who might think this is a weird, bizarre world. For example the piece I made recently titled, Real American Beauty about high school graduates in Long Island, New Jersey, that was something I knew about from first hand as I grew up in that world, it was real but also so interesting. Essentially, I’m interested in painting a picture with what I find unique about a subculture.
Are you also aware of Gregg Araki, the director? Your work also reminds us of his work, especially Mysterious Skin, this innocence of youth element.
LIZA MANDELUP: Yeah, I love his work, it’s really funny that you say that.
Has Hollywood shown any interest in you, would you go down that path?
LIZA MANDELUP: I definitely wanna make a feature, but everything happens in due time. These short films, you learn so much on and each one that is actually an important step for me in my development. By the time it comes around you’ll know exactly what to do with it and how to handle it, definitely with the aspect of developing stuff. I don’t know how someone would go right into a feature, because for me it’s been important to do it all like this, because it’s from start to finish on a small scale each time.
So, the last question I have for you is what are you working on next?
LIZA MANDELUP: I just shot a piece about these kids who are allergic to sunlight, so I’m going to be putting that out soon. It’s a short film about a camp for kids allergic to sunlight.
Sounds interesting, When does that come out?
LIZA MANDELUP: It’s not even in post-production yet, we just shot it. We went and did this thing for i-D, and edited it, in between two other pieces. I’m feeling like I have so much on right now. But, yes, for me personally, the next project will probably be the piece about the kids allergic to sunlight, they have this rare disease called XP, and there’s only around a hundred cases in America. This woman brings together as many people suffering from this disease at at specific camp. It is like a reverse society where everything happens at night, instead of day.
Favorite music to listen to. Can’t quite figure out what genre her music is but thats what I love about it.
I love her portraits of young Ukranian criminals which out of context each image could look like something out of an editorial. Theres something dreamy and slightly odd in her work. Always inspired by this combination.