Eva O’Leary, an artist split between her Irish and American heritages, is a recent graduate from the Yale MFA program, working and living between New Haven, CT and New York, NY. Her work has been shown internationally and published in New York Times Style, Vice, DIS, Wired, among many other periodicals, as well as receiving the FOAM Talent award in 2014.
“Like many of my generation, I grew up in an environment of rampant consumerism and football zealotry. In my work I draw from these experiences, both as a producer and consumer of images. These photographs were made in response to capitalism’s contradiction; promising individualism while ignoring the individual.”
A–B: Hi Eva, it’s so nice to have you on Aint-Bad, I’ve been quite curious about your work for a while now!
Eva: Thank you, it’s great to speak with you!
A–B: Right off the bat, in your statement you mention that you, “grew up in an environment of rampant consumerism and football zealotry.” I must say I’m very interested in hearing more about your upbringing and how those experiences shaped you as a person and as an image-maker.
Eva: Absolutely. The environment I grew up in has really impacted the way I see the world / my work. Both my parents are painters; they met in grad school at SAIC. My mom is from Ireland, my dad grew up in the US. They moved to Pennsylvania when I was 4 for teaching jobs at Penn State University. Every summer we would go to Ireland to visit my mom’s family (her family is based in Wexford, where they run a Bed & Breakfast called O’Leary’s farm).
My parents hated capitalism and rejected a lot of American culture. My dad was really into Irish history and mythology and they both really encouraged a certain kind of escapist / imaginative mindset. I believed in fairies until I was 10, not the friendly ones, but the more complex, terrifying creatures that fit into Irish mythology. The back and forth between the U.S. and Ireland created quite a crazy headspace. For much of my childhood I had two accents, two names, two identities.
The town where we lived for the other half of the year was a college football town in the US — a place that economically survived on a culture of drinking, sex, objectification of women, rape culture, and sports. My parents totally rejected all of this and hated this part of US culture passionately.
By the time I was a teenager, (as most do) all I wanted to do was rebel. The answer for me was a complete assimilation into the local culture: I became a clone. I went to frat & college parties at 15/16 and saw a lot of badness. A lot of these experiences -from the inside out -shaped how I see this type of social brainwashing. They made me understand how powerful these forces are, especially the impact of advertising and media on the identities of young women.
A–B: Your early exposure to fairytales and mythologies definitely shows in many of your images. At many times I can feel an underlying terror, an almost frantic anxiety that lives within the many layers of your work. Could you delve more into this magical realist aspect of your images and its relation to consumerism and the powers of advertising?
Eva: Something I think about a lot is the connection between the seductive quality of advertising, the gloss, what it chooses to idealize, and the similar qualities of mythologies to a certain degree. I’ve also been obsessed with Yeats for a long time. My dad made me memorize his poems when I was little, this one specifically.
We were talking about the seductive quality of mythologies last weekend when I was visiting him in Pennsylvania. He described advertising in conjunction to this desire he had when we went to Ireland – this need to escape into a fantasy that had the same pull of the fantasy world that advertising is building and selling. It has a lot to do with fantasy, what kind of fantasies are being built, what kinds of fantasies and narratives are being encouraged, and the type of propaganda that is being used (which is something I try to focus on in my work).
A–B: With the advent of the internet and mass awareness, advertising continues to morph into new shapes and forms, masquerading as different iterations of “genuine moments” that are crafted with extreme precision. Your images seem to reflect this through your recreation of social media imagery, which begin to break down the boundaries of reality and fiction. Are there any defining characteristics you search for when culling these images from the web?
Eva: I try to work from my community; looking for images that reflect something that’s been on the tip of my tongue. It differs, sometimes it’s recognizing something I haven’t found a word for yet. A lot of the images are sourced from pictures that might be ignored, experiences that are considered “women’s issues.” I look through my friends pages on Facebook, people I’ve known since high school, and I am genuinely interested in pictures that mothers take of their children and their lives (especially younger mothers). Alternatively, I look for visual patterns. Sometimes I see an image and save it, then a day later I see another image that is almost identical. When that happens, I start to collect as many of the same types of images, trying to figure out the cultural impulse and what makes people take the exact same picture. I question what those pictures reflect about contemporary culture.
It all relates to my own fears, insecurities, desires, recognizing them in others, and wanting to make these things visible. For example, here is an image I remade that came from a “pattern”:
A–B: That is quite a stunning image, and I myself have definitely seen this “pattern”. One thing that strikes me in what you said, and is a sad reality, is the general public’s ignorance of issues due to their femininity. Hyper-masculinity is still rampant, disseminated by every form of media to certain extent, and unfortunately manifesting in real-life events such as the high incidence of sexual abuse on a national scale. How do you see this trend relating back to your work?
Eva: This culture is visible in the work in two ways. First, the fact that I am a female photographer who has experienced the ingrained trauma of living in a hyper-masculine culture. Trauma reshapes reality: you see things that others might not see. My daily experience involves a whole list of fears and encounters that are very much related to macho culture. Growing up in a football town made me very aware of how I was being perceived at a young age. Walking down the street had a certain danger and risk; you had to be aware of your surrounding at all times. This way of seeing translates into the pictures, the images I make truly reflect how I see and move through the world. Secondly, I wanted to create a different type of narrative: one that mimics the masculine nature of media but is centered around a female experience.
A–B: Last question: any last words you would like to impart to our readers, other photographers, and people who live through the same experiences as you?
Eva: Hmm, that’s tough. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound super cheesy, but I think it’s important to believe that your experiences have value and urgency.
A–B: Thank you so much for your time!
To see more of Eva’s work, check out her website.