They say a picture is worth a thousand words and Arielle Bobb-Willis justifies that saying with her photography. Having transitioned from New York to South Carolina to New Orleans, Bobb-Willis now resides in the city of New York. Her photographs have a masterly finesse to it from her distinct colour palette to her unique way of photographing her subjects, sparking a rush of emotions when we first came across her work. We spoke to the photographer about her transition between places growing up, how she chooses her subjects and the ups and downs of living in New York.
“I was born and raised in New York City. I moved to South Carolina when I was 14 for high school. It was an extremely difficult transition, which turned into depression and depersonalisation. My first year there I was randomly placed into a digital imaging class and that’s where I fell in love with photography. Living in South Carolina was not fun at all but without it I would have never realised my passion. Photography has always been therapeutic for me. I got to turn my surroundings into something beautiful when, at the time, everything actually looked pretty grey. My dad is from Brooklyn and my mom is from New Orleans. I decided to move to New Orleans for college and it was the greatest decision because it’s where I learned a lot about myself. It’s so calm, fun, and obviously not like NY at all. I started shooting how I do now there… It’s such a dreamy colourful place yet it has these really dark heavy undertones. I hope to live there again one day it’s honestly one of my favourite cities.”
"Photography has always been therapeutic for me. I got to turn my surroundings into something beautiful when, at the time, everything actually looked pretty grey."
“It’s kind of sad to say but my depression definitely is what got me into photography! It’s so weird to say. But I think for a lot of creatives you go to your medium as an outlet or an escape from whatever your reality looks like now...it’s a release. I did grow up in an environment that praised creativity. My mom was in fashion and my dad worked in the music industry. My dad was the first person to fully support my photography. I had a black point and shoot digital camera and he took me around the city taking pictures of the architecture. Nothing amazing but it really helped me see that my love for art wasn’t looked down upon. I have little siblings and I try to always do the same for them.”
When we first saw Bobb-Willis’ photography, we were immediately captivated by the amazing colour palette and her focus on human movement. “I honestly just love seeing the human body represented as a part of the entire composition instead of their face being the main focus. I think the best way to do that is to show the body contorted. I don’t think right now I find meaning in shooting the every day…how bodies look everyday. I want to create another world and bodies seen in another way. It’s something that I think a lot of photographers do in different ways…making the world or people look more beautiful than they are. For me I just wanted to create a world that I would like to live in. I would describe my photography as stimulating. I think all of these photos reflect who I am entirely. It makes so much sense to me. So if anything I think I’d like to evoke a feeling of self awareness and appreciation...in any form. I just chose to put it in my work that I’m not physically in. I think my work shows that good things can come from bad times…lemon into lemonade ya know. It’s about using what you have and just basically it shows me getting to know myself and liking what I see.”
“The subjects that I chose are people who are interested in being a part of my art. I wanted people to be open to the idea of doing a photoshoot that allows them to be a part of the bigger composition and melting into the photo instead of staying on the surface. It's a challenge for the subjects usually and I love that people really work hard to get these poses out in public. I am drawn to people who aren't necessarily "models" but are open to getting out of their comfort zone, letting go of their ego, and just do something that's not in their normal day to day routine. I love choosing people who are excited to create with me!”
The colours in Bobb-Willis’ photographs are a visual treat; from the perfect combination of pastels to her intricate use of primary colours. “I think I just enjoy the intensity of it if anything, Willis says about her distinct colour palette. “I didn’t really want to water anything down. I’m inspired by New Orleans architecture obviously and I have three siblings under the age of 11. I respect kid culture and how saturated it is. I never saw my little siblings drawing with just black or grey crayons. The shows they watched were very bright and I love children and what they have to offer when it comes to art. I save all of their drawings for inspiration because it’s actually great and just free and light hearted. They’ve inspired me to create this paracosm filled with all the things i’ve ever experienced.” Bobb-Willis also mentioned Jacob Lawrence, Benny Andrews, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Alex Webb, Matisse, William H Johnson and Anish Kapoor as some role models who have influenced her photography.
Willis currently resides in New York, a city with an incredible creative scene you could compare to the ranks of other places like London, Paris, or Berlin. We talked to Bobb-Willis about how the city has shaped her as an artist. “Growing up in the city my family and I would go to a lot of exhibitions and museums. It was fun to be able to be introduced to contemporary and abstract art at a young age. I got to see some amazing works of art and be immersed in it all. It was great. I feel like New York has allowed me to remain open and to be surrounded by people who really appreciate diversity, culture, and the arts. I like to say that I am a healthy mix of my parents. New Orleans, my mom, is my more emotional side and has taught me a lot about figuring out how to feel productively, and New York, my Dad, is the more business side that has taught me to put my work out there and really hustle.”
As many creatives would know, it goes without saying that living in a city like New York or London comes with a price to pay. Take London for example, where rent is one of the main struggles faced by many young creatives living in the city. Bobb-Willis talks us through the similar struggles faced in New York. “The down for me, and many many other creatives here, is money. It’s a struggle to just pick up your things and move here if you don’t have any family or support. But you can do it and it’s possible. New York really can beat you up. It’s hard and unpredictable but I think that’s what I need as a creative to keep me somewhat uncomfortable...so that I continue to grow and learn about myself around millions of different types of people. The ups are obviously there are so many opportunities that I don’t think I could get anywhere else. It’s allowed me to work in my field and meet people who I can get advice from.”
"For me I just wanted to create a world that I would like to live in."
With such an amazing body of work, we’re incredibly excited to see what Bobb-Willis has in store for the future. Visual storytelling has and always will be a beautiful way of expressing feelings and emotions; something that the photographer excels in doing. “It’s extremely important. It’s my favourite thing of all time”, Bobb-Willis says about the importance of visual storytelling to her. “Putting who I am out there and expressing my story has honestly kept me sane. It has allowed me to escape into something productive, fulfilling, and just makes me feel the most. I feel the most beautiful when I shoot and I feel like I’m allowing myself to be brave and do the things that scare me. I love watching other people do the same and tell their stories…it really fuels me.” Bobb-Willis’ photography also seems to have an element of performance art to it and we wondered whether she would be open to experimenting with other mediums - directing a performance piece perhaps? “I will like to in the future! People have compared my work to performance art in the past. I love doing my shoots in public where people point and stare and ask what exactly is going on (haha). Its fun I would definitely love to do that. I also want to try out video!” In terms of where she sees herself in the next few years, Bobb-Willis sees herself continuing in photography and exploring more mediums. She also “would love to also have more physical copies of my work and just keep shooting as much as possible!”