Marianne Olaleye is the London-based portrait photographer whose stunning work is on the cover of our latest issue. She is currently studying full-time for her master’s at London School of Economics. Her work is focused on black and minority ethnic (BME) women, whom she aims to bring to the forefront in order to challenge mainstream beauty ideals.
When did you discover photography? What does it mean to you?
I’ve never felt like I had the typical inspirational story of how I started photography. I was a bored 16-year-old who spent a lot of time on Tumblr, and I would always come across stunning, high-quality photos and think, “wow, I wish I could take those.” I was lucky enough to receive a camera shortly after, and I started off capturing flowers in my garden (thanks to my severe social awkwardness at the time). As my confidence grew, I took photographs of my friends at school.
Photography has taught me more than I expected, and I have grown as a result. When you’re a photographer, a massive part of your job involves meeting complete strangers and making them feel comfortable in a matter of seconds. Prior to photography, I wasn’t the most extroverted person, but I’ve certainly come out of my shell. I can now confidently walk into a room full of people and get the job done. Sixteen-year-old Marianne would never be able to do that. I’ve been a photographer for as long as I’ve been a university student, and I’ve always said that I would never have survived university so far without photography. It’s incredibly difficult to balance the two, but photography takes me away from academia sometimes, and it allows me to express myself more freely. There’s no better feeling than going to a photoshoot after a long lecture or taking a break from essay-writing to catch up on editing.
How did you master your craft?
Lots and lots of practice. There were times I took my camera out with me every day, as I started off doing street photography. I also watched a lot of YouTube videos from other photographers and I follow many incredible photographers on social media. The one thing that changed a lot for me was reading Ways of Seeing by John Berger and On Photography by Susan Sontag. I picked them up at the Tate Modern bookshop and they made me think of photography in a completely new light. Berger taught me the importance of training my eye to any form of art, and that’s something I still practise today. Before I click the shutter, I know what shot I want to take, and how I want the final result to look.
When did you realize that photography was more than a hobby?
For the longest time, I took photos for fun and never thought much about it. Then in 2013 I was about to start university and I figured it would be good to earn some money on the side. I had worked in retail a few years back, but didn’t enjoy it. I have always been clear about my professional ambitions: I knew I wanted to be in a job that would meet my high standards, while allowing me to be creatively engaged. Coincidentally, around the same time, my photography had picked up on social media and I had people contacting me for work. That was the moment photography became a commercial prospect for me – the moment people paid for my work. I’ve always said that no one would pay hard-earned money for a mediocre service. So the moment people were willing to pay for my services, I realised that it was worth taking it to the next level.
How would you describe your aesthetic? Where does your inspiration come from?
I focus on the natural beauty of women. I tend to photograph people outdoors, mostly in parks, so you’ll find lots of greens and browns in my photos. I feel like it’s important to portray BME women in soft settings, as they are rarely represented in the media and even when they are, they are often sexualised or fetishized. As such, I photograph women in their natural settings, as everyday women, to present a counter-narrative that re-tells the story of the marginalised. Inspiration comes from various places—sometimes from the person I’m photographing. I’m very much inspired by the beauty of the women I photograph, and not only in the physical sense, but in the various roles they undertake in their lives.
Where do you hope your photography takes you?
My parents are very entrepreneurial, so I definitely grew up in an environment that fostered creativity. As such, I’ve always tried to look beyond taking photos only for my own enjoyment, and instead wondered what impact my work could have. I feel as though my desire to reach commercial success with my photography business is always coupled with my creative ambitions and the political content of my work. I am very happy with how far I’ve come so far, as I have achieved so much, but of course, I plan on growing my business further.
I plan to travel across the world someday and work with brands and on personal projects. Also, my sisters and I hope to open a school in our hometown in Nigeria someday, and I’d love to teach the kids photography.
What is your advice for young African photographers who want to make a living with the creative arts?
I’d say have an action plan and be business-savvy. It’s not enough to have talent, you must know how to execute your ideas and how to present your ideas in a way that demands respect from others. It’s important for people to value you and your work. Surround yourself with a supportive network, people who can help you move forward, people who sing your praises to others. My friends and family have been absolutely incredible from the very beginning, and it’s rewarding to share every success with them.
Tell us about any projects you are working on.
I’m currently working on a project called “The Coloured Lens.” It’s essentially a series of photos portraying the diverse beauty of Black and Minority Ethnic women photographed in London. The long-term goal for this project is to publish my very first photo book. The project emerged from the realisation that the women I work with lead interesting lives that reflect the complexity of womanhood. I feel like this is often ignored in visual representations such as those in the media, which often fetishize women of colour or portray them as homogenous. I decided to reverse the trend of the objectifying gaze of the photographer by giving voice to their rich social lives. While shooting, I get to learn more about these women, and I am constantly amazed by their many talents. I feel it’s no longer enough for me to simply photograph them and share pretty photos, but to inspire others by highlighting their stories, too. They are more than just women and they are more than just their race. They are drummers, physicists, dancers, artists, mothers, and so much more. And that’s what I find so compelling in my work.