Every month, in our new franchise Behind the Lens, we will be getting to know the women behind the beautiful images that fill the magazine's pages and illustrate our online storytelling at Harper's Bazaar. From celebrity cover stories to fairy-tale fashion editorials, every image is lovingly captured by one of our talented pool of visionary photographers, without whom the brand wouldn't be what it is today.
This month we're turning the spotlight on photographer Olivia Lifungula, recently responsible for shooting some of Bazaar's most beautiful celebrity and feature imagery.
How did you get into photography, and did you always know that was what you wanted to do?
"I was definitely that kid that was fascinated by MTV and watched a lot of music videos. I also religiously collected magazines and constantly looked at them and I think that's where my love for image-making started. That said, it took a little while to start taking photos; I never even thought of photography as a career because I just didn't grow up seeing anyone that looked like me, or was from where I’m from, doing it.
"Moving to the UK at 21 and living in east London at the time where everybody was a photographer, clothing designer or an artist of some sort definitely gave me the confidence I needed to just go for it. We were all kind of struggling, but the friends I made here definitely put the batteries in my back and made it possible."
What was your first photography job or commission?
"My first real commission was from the Rachel Brown at Harper's Bazaar. I first photographed Cush Jumbo and her son Max and then a couple of days later, Jourdan Dunn and her son Riley, for the same story called ‘Letter to my Child’, inspired by Maya Angelou’s 2008 collection of essays ‘Letter to my Daughter’, which was dedicated to the daughter she never had, but saw all around her.
"It was my first time photographing high-profile talents, the first time working with children on set and very first lockdown shoot. So it was a lot of firsts in one go, but thankfully it all went really well and it's still one of my favourite commissions to date."
What was the shoot that changed your career?
"All the personal projects I worked on with my two friends, make-up artist Laila Hassan Zakaria and stylist Palesa Dlamini. The years before any of us started getting work in the industry will always feel special to me. We constantly planned shoots to submit to different online publications, often getting rejected or ignored. It was very discouraging at the time but in hindsight, I really cherish all the work we did because it gave me the opportunity to learn to create freely, figure out what my work was about, and build my confidence as a photographer and director.
"I couldn't have learned that any other way. I also made life-long friends that became my family here in London; I wouldn't change that for anything."
What's the best piece of career advice you've ever been given?
"Probably the power of saying no and speaking up without fear of coming across as difficult. I’m very reserved so it's sometimes a bit challenging to speak up in rooms full of people, especially as a woman. It's something that I’m quickly learning to do."
Which person or location you've shot stands out the most for you over your career, and why?
"I was commissioned by Ronan Mackenzie and WePresent to photograph myself for an exhibition in Ronan's new creative space called Home by Ronan Mackenzie in North London. The exhibition, titled The Self -Portrait, was a celebration of Black female photographers, demonstrating the nuance of not only the stories we tell, but the people behind the lens telling them.
"As a photographer, being a part of this beautiful and historic moment, as well as having my work in such a beautiful and inclusive space, next to other insanely talented Black women, was the honour of my career so far. As a woman who has often struggled with seeing myself, it was a great moment of self-discovery and confidence. I felt beautiful and empowered throughout the whole process and now get to keep that feeling with me forever."
What has been your favourite Bazaar UK shoot and why?
"Naturally, it will have to be the story with Cush and Jourdan. I'm always in awe of Black women, especially Black mothers, and couldn't have dreamed of a better first commission."
Who or what do you find interesting subjects to photograph?
"I’m really drawn to photographing people in love. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to romance and its ability to allow me to escape and explore human emotions. There's always been a constant longing and idealisation of love in both my work and personal life and unfortunately, as I grew older, I realised that nearly every love interest in films that I loved and shaped so much of my vision, never included people that looked like me.
"As an image-maker, I’ve always felt called to forge my own path and create more of what I wanted to see in the world, so I’m always super intentional about creating work where you see Black people, hugging and kissing. I want to share a different perspective of our experiences as human beings and showcase Black love in a way that is rarely represented in the media, highlighting our vulnerability, our intimacy, and our joy."
What makes a good photo?
"Good light, the one right before the sunset, is always my favourite - I’m still figuring out how to recreate that in the studio. I’m most definitely a planner and spend a lot of time looking at references and creating mood boards before all my shoots, but my favourite images always end up being that little intimate and spontaneous moment between my subject and me that I didn't see coming."
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