Magnum Photos Workshop Showcase: Olivia Vale

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Last year, Magnum Photos and British Journal of Photography announced a special partnership around education that sees the world’s longest-running photography magazine work with the participants of Magnum Photos’ international workshop programme to showcase selected portfolios online.


Initiated in 2007 as part of Magnum’s 60th anniversary celebrations, Magnum’s workshops provide opportunities for photographers at different stages in their careers to benefit from the vast experience of Magnum’s established photographers.

In January, Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey hosted a workshop in Austin, Texas. At the end of the event, he selected Olivia Vale’s portfolio to be featured in British Journal of Photography.

We speak with Olivia Vale about her work.

BJP: What is your story about?

Olivia Vale: There’s a synchronicity between a thumbs-up sign as “it’s all good” and “I’m all good. Invite me into your car”. I hitchhiked around Austin for three days. Most of the time was spent standing on the roadside – a tall blond girl in a fur-hooded arctic parka, blowing periodically on her thumb to warm it up. The cars that stopped always asked where I was headed: “I don’t have a destination. I’ll go where you’re going.” And then the clincher: “And I’d like to take your photo.” I noticed those of a similar demographic to me (young, white) were more likely to pick me up, and that most of the people who gave me lifts were either students, artists, musicians, or worked in the non-profit field. But all the cars were incredibly different: I stepped into cars with nuns, dirty cars, family cars, cars where drugs and beer were being passed around (and offered). After the first day, I ditched the big D700 at home… the shutter noise and bulk of the camera seeming intrusive in such an intimate space, so all the accompanying photos here are from my iPhone 5S.

BJP: Why did you choose this particular subject, and how did you go about shooting it?

Olivia Vale: Being a wedding photographer necessitates some level of bravery in the face of strangers. I wanted to push my limits further by doing a project where I literally had no control over the scenes I’d find myself in. I’m a bit of a chaos addict, and I loved the idea of randomly exploring otherwise inaccessible spaces belonging to strangers. I’ve been wanting to do a hitchhiking project for a while, and the workshop with David Alan Harvey gave me a convenient starting point. Some of the other (male) members of the group expressed some concern for my safety, but I was delighted when Harvey’s response to my proposal was “you go, kid”!

BJP: Why did you decide to sign up to the Magnum workshop?

Olivia Vale: I’ve been intrinsically involved with the Foundation Workshops – which is a photojournalism workshop for wedding photographers – for a while now, including being an attendee and then a mentor at the workshops. I’ve learned so much from my experiences with Huy Nguyen and the organisation, and remain very active within this group. Taking a workshop from David Alan Harvey was something outside of the Fearless/Foundation Workshop realm, and I wanted to learn from a purely PJ photographer whose work I ultimately respect and admire. I live in Austin, so when I heard this workshop was going to be held in my current hometown, it was a total no-brainer. I signed up right away.

BJP: How was the experience of learning with David? What’s the best advice you received from the workshop?

Olivia Vale: I’m admittedly not a “newbie” photographer, since I’ve been a pro for some years. So some of the most valuable advice Harvey gave me was on the publishing end of things, as he stressed the importance of recognition through books. He’s a very intelligent guy with an infectious zest for adventure, and that enthusiasm rubbed off on me for sure. He shone a light on some really phenomenol photographers working outside my bubble of the wedding photography world, and was also very encouraging about pursuing the sort of wild photo-adventure projects that get me excited.

BJP: What are you planning next?

Olivia Vale: The hitchhiking project is a work in progress, and I’m hoping to set aside some concentrated time to travel “by thumb” outside the boundaries of Texas this summer. I’ll of course continue to shoot lots of photojournalistic weddings over the next few years, but I’m excited to work on this project, as well as others.

Visit Olivia Vale’s website.