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Harley Weir has a genius for intimacy. Celebrated for her ability to capture romantic, dreamlike images of her subjects, the young English photographer has become one of fashion’s most in-demand talents, shooting editorial commissions for French Vogue, Pop, Document, i-D, and Dazed and Confused, and lensing campaigns for the likes of Balenciaga and Calvin Klein.
Weir’s tender, often uncomfortably vulnerable personal work is currently on exhibit at the FOAM Museum in Amsterdam. Titled “Boundaries,” the solo show features a selection of the 28-year-old’s magazine portraiture alongside documentary photos taken during travels to conflict zones, including those she took on the border between Jerusalem and the West Bank when visiting Israel with her sister in 2012. “I’d known a little bit about the wall but hadn’t seen anything that so obviously described the state of the world, how dark it can be,” she says. “After that, I decided to explore borders, and I did a few different projects.”
That endeavor culminated in a series she shot last fall at the Calais Jungle, the notorious refugee camp in northern France. Weir focused on documenting the Jungle’s makeshift homes over three days shortly before the French government demolished the camp in October.
“Everyone said it was the worst refugee camp they’d ever been to, but I was astonished by how beautiful it was and how kind the people there were,” she says. “I felt like I should do them some justice — take images that showed that without harming them.” Her pictures are a singular and compelling record of the European refugee crisis, making evident the desperation and hope of the Jungle denizens’ hardscrabble living spaces. The photos place human suffering in the present tense: This is how it is. (The images were collected in Weir’s first book, a limited-edition release called Homes, all proceeds from which were donated to a French charity that defends the human rights of refugees.)
Weir says it was a conscious decision to photograph only the camp’s shelters, not its residents. “People were excited to have me there,” she says. “They were very hospitable: ‘Come into my tent and have some tea; I have lunch made for you.’ But I feel like it would have become transactional if, at the end, I had said, ‘Oh, can I take a picture of you now?’ It would have ruined the whole idea of having a sacred and precious interaction. It would feel like stealing from them.”
Raised in southwest London, Weir began honing her craft at an early age, using one of her parents’ old film cameras along with disposables to snap pics of friends and family members. (She says she originally wanted to be an artist or an actress, but “neither of those worked out for me.”) She counts Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, and David LaChapelle among her early influences, recalling a picture she drew for a middle school art class of one of LaChapelle’s portraits. “[My teacher] said, ‘See me after school about that drawing you did.’ I thought, ‘She’s going to tell me it’s great!’ Instead, she said, ‘This is disgusting! Do you realize what she’s holding?’ The woman in the photo was holding two dildos. I was like, ‘Oh.’ I didn’t register it, because I was twelve.”
Eventually, Weir’s Flickr feed brought her work to the attention of magazine editors, leading to a job shooting for Vice when she was eighteen. She went on to study fine art at London’s Central Saint Martins, where she worked in film and mixed media, graduating in 2010. Her skill at conveying emotion through understated shots earned her a fan in Grace Wales Bonner, with whom she has collaborated on projects in Senegal and India, as well as Demna Gvasalia, head designer at Vetements and creative director at Balenciaga. Weir photographed Balenciaga’s most recent campaign, stark images of models Alek Wek, Shujing Zhou, and Eliza Douglas clad in the house’s stocking boots.
As FOAM’s exhibition website notes, the photographer insists she’s not out to make “statements,” but that her work tends to address, if not transgress, boundaries. “The whole idea of taking a picture of someone else is realizing a lot of boundaries you have to work through,” she explains. That instinct has occasionally led to mild controversy: Weir’s campaign photos for Calvin Klein included an upskirt image of actress Klara Kristin, and Instagram deleted her account — and eventually restored it, with apologies — last September after she posted a nude from an i-D shoot featuring a model with menstrual blood on her thighs.
But neither is the photographer out to shock. Rather, her skill lies in discovering the unexpected in the ordinary, making the strange seem familiar and the familiar strange. The subtle emotion that Weir teases out in her work takes on an outsize resonance, whether in her commercial fashion shoots, documentary series, or other art projects. “Photography allows me to figure stuff out about the world,” she says.
That’s evident in her next book, out in May, called Paintings. Among her most personal endeavors, it features a series of shots of walls, unadorned except for paint, captured on her travels and during fashion shoots. “People were what originally attracted me to photography,” she explains. “But I fell a little out of love with the idea of taking pictures of people — telling someone what to do, this transactional idea, the question of consent and ‘Who does the image belong to?’ It exhausted me. So this book is really simple. The gist of it is that it’s about me falling back in love with photography by not taking pictures of people. It’s one of the purest projects I’ve ever done.”
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