Petra Collins Leads a New Wave of Feminism Through Photography


As a photographer, an artist, a director, a model, and a Gucci muse, you might say that Petra Collins inhabits more roles than most. But the biggest difference between her and her peers, is the fact that she’s leading a new wave of feminism that’s sweeping through Generation Z. This is most evident in her photography, which centers around the recurring themes of all that young womanhood entails: crushes, best friends, first loves, periods, body hair, pimples, and all. Yet with great praise, inevitably comes critique. Some complain that Collins’ subject matter is almost too visceral, as if the acknowledgement of the aforementioned bodily functions is dirty in itself. Case in point: A collaborative tee showing a vagina oozing blood that she made for American Apparel caused a major stir in the States (even making it to the pages of Time and The Daily Mail), and her Instagram account has been blocked multiple times for her candid, un-airbrushed photos, which often show wisps of pubic hair escaping from her models’ underwear.

Here, we talk to Petra about how she became an assistant to photographer Richard Kern, her burgeoning relationship with Alessandro Michele, and how she’s paving the way for a movement she’s named “inclusive womanhood:”

How did you get your start in photography?

“I grew up in Canada, doing every single kind of art, but my main passion was ballet. I even went to school for dance and very nearly didn’t become a photographer, but then I had a really bad injury and had to figure out another outlet for my creativity. Photography is really accessible when you’re young, so I started with that. I was about 15 and I would just take photos of my sisters and all of the girls from my school. It was an exploration of my teenage life and teenage life in general.”

How would you describe your approach to photography?

“I’m entirely self-taught, so it’s taken me a while to get to know and own my aesthetic. Over a period of time I began to truly see what my photos look like and so I stuck to my style and exaggerated it more. Color is something that’s very important to me. It just happened and I remember being like ‘okay this is what my photos look like.’”

When did you get your first big break?

“I got my first leg-up assisting Richard Kern. I met him at a show in Toronto when I was 17 and I just went up to him and asked if I could be his assistant. I didn’t know how to use lights or fancy cameras. He would ask me to do things and I couldn’t do any of it, so from there we became friends and I would help more with the casting side of his business more. Eventually I started getting some of my own work published in Vice and from there the ball really started rolling. Then Tavi Gevison approached me when she was starting Rookie Mag and that brought my work to a much wider audience—an audience that was more in tune with my inclusive vision of womanhood.”

Did you consciously decide to anchor your career around themes of womanhood?

“I think it was just a natural thing because, as a young girl trying to ‘make it in a man’s world,’ I’ve faced a lot of roadblocks. I’ve had to fight really hard to be taken seriously and have people listen to my opinions. I want girls to know that they can make it too, so it’s been really important to me to assert myself, be a good role model, and shine a light on life as a woman. I’m not trying to be confrontational, but I feel like woman are viewed so flatly, and I want to make us three-dimensional people.”

You’ve been criticized for your use of nudity and depiction of female body hair and menstrual cycles—why do you think that people find that offensive?

“I recently read a random article about Kim Kardashian and her Instagram and I think it made a really good point about this. It goes back to how people are allowed to enjoy looking at a woman’s body, but she’s not personally allowed to enjoy it herself. As soon as she starts to feel good and proud in her natural state, society punishes her. It’s this weird push and pull and so confusing to girls as they grow up. It’s like you can be sexy, but you can’t be sexual, you have to be submissive, but also in control, and you have to be beautiful, but you can’t show what goes on behind the scenes.”

Who inspires you?

“A lot of my inspiration comes from the women that I cast, but there’s also a lot of filmmakers like Sofia Coppola who I love—her films are so beautiful. Another favorite it Vin Vanders. He has a book called ‘Once,’ and in it is maybe my favorite photo of all time. It just his dog looking back at him in the beautiful spot.”

What do you look for when casting models?

“Personality is the most important thing, because it really comes through in photography. If you have a model who’s kind of dead, there’s nothing of substance in the photos. I’m always trying to tell a story through my work, so I need people that are expressive. It’s not so much about a physical look, but a mood. I find most of my models though Instagram or just by wondering around on the street—there’s always some character that will just pop out at you.”

How did you come to work with Alessandro Michele and Gucci?

“I guess Alessandro Michele must have seen a photo of me somewhere or something, because Gucci contacted my agent and then I went and met with them. I walked in the Fall 2016 show and they didn’t ask me to do a test or anything which seemed crazy. Alessandro is just killing it right now. I feel like everyone was getting sick of fashion before him and now he’s made it fun and cinematic again.”

What’s your advice to aspiring creatives?

“Don’t give up on your first try! I feel like so many people do and that’s what ultimately separates the winners from the losers. If I had given up, I wouldn’t be doing what I am now. I’ve worked like hell on my photography for the past eight years and sometimes the path has been frustrating, but I’ve never given up. You have to be ok with learning slowly. Nothing is perfect the first time. I used to get so annoyed as a teenager because I knew that my taste level was good, but I couldn’t capture my vision in a photo.”

What’s next?

“I’ve also been working a lot more with film, which is a really exciting way to extend my aesthetic. I would love to do a full-length feature, maybe a horror movie or just something really fun.”


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