The last time we sat down with Ashley Armitage she was just a photographer from Seattle. Maybe, even after moving across the country and successfully venturing into film, she still is. It's that girl next door feeling that makes her photography so powerful. Armitage counters the mainstream visual culture that all too long has edited out normal, healthy bodies giving priority to skinny white shaved female models when defining terms of beauty, success, or just happiness. Ashley continues to record in the most light-hearted, beautiful, empathetic way. Today, she joins us for another conversation about navigating girlhood, beauty standards, and film sets. 
A lot has happened since the last time we spoke with you. What are some recent milestones that you’re most proud of?
Oh my gosh! It’s been so long! A lot has happened, personally and professionally! I moved across the country, from Seattle to Chicago and then to New York! A couple of big things happened for me. I directed my first ever commercial for a shaving brand called Billie, which also happened to be the first ever shaving commercial that actually showed body hair on women! That commercial went on to win some awards — it even won a Glass Lion at Cannes!
Back then, you’d never worked with professional models. Why did you choose to photograph your friends instead and how have you managed to do so without compromising the work – or the friends?
I began shooting with my friends for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was really practical. I didn’t really have access to models when I was first starting out, but I had friends! And then creatively, I thought it was a lot more fun and interesting to work with people I knew personally. The process felt a lot more intimate. The incredible thing is I still get to work with my friends, the projects are just much bigger! That’s one of the best things about my job.
Speaking of friends, have any artistic collaborations lead to moments of mutual understanding – or even friendships – you didn’t think would be possible?
Oh my god, it happens all of the time. Some of my closest friends are people I’ve met in the film industry. I think this industry tends to attract a certain type of person: scrappy, genuine, hardworking, and usually a little weird! I was just talking to a friend (who I met on a job) recently about how photo and film shoots are kind of like summer camp — we’re a bunch of people thrown together sometimes for 14-hour days and so we all get to see a side of each other that we probably wouldn’t see if we all just worked at an office.
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Looking back, how does the way you see girls now compare to the way you did growing up? Did you ever go through the dreaded ‘not like the other girls’ phase?
Oh don’t even get me started on the ‘not like other girls’ phase. I absolutely went through that. I was a tomboy growing up and felt like I was constantly competing in every single subject in school or sports to be better than the boys. It was only over the last several years that it hit me: that’s such a misguided way of thinking!
I don’t blame myself or any girl who’s felt that way, but societally I think we all need to realise that girls can be good at things without rejecting ‘the other girls’ or femininity. We can all be whatever we want and it doesn’t have to be gendered.
Although you’re best known for your photography, you’ve studied film. How has this affected your artistic approach?
These questions are making me laugh so hard because my answer to everything is ‘YEP’. I did study film before ultimately majoring in photography. When I transferred to photography school my professors always told me my work was ‘cinematic’, and that was most definitely because of the film background. Now I do both professionally and I think they influence each other. My photography style is filmic and my directing approach is visual.
Have your ‘casual’ movie nights been ruined forever?
My movie nights are absolutely ruined forever. I’m constantly thinking about everything behind the scenes, sometimes more so than just actually watching and enjoying the movie itself. It’s so constant that in a way, it’s just background noise that I’m able to tune out.
I think maybe actually the answer to this question is that I’ve ruined movies for whoever is watching them with me, because I’ll lean over and just start whispering about the lens choice or the type of dolly, or the camera movement.
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How did you get into photography and what inspired your first images?
Photography was honestly something I was always interested in. I grew up with cameras and camcorders around the house so it became my go-to pastime. When we were kids, playing with my siblings usually involved us making little home movies that we all wrote, directed, shot, acted in, and edited.
One of the first images that really stuck out to me was this photo by Ryan McGinley that I saw on Tumblr when I was 14 or so. It was a black and white photo of a naked lady with all of her body hair, holding a wolf around her neck. It was a big moment for me because all of the imagery I grew up seeing was this unattainable standard of a perfectly shaved, hairless, thin, white, blonde-haired woman and that photo made me realise it can be so much more than that.
Do you have any particular methods of achieving the right comfort level and atmosphere for a shot – lighting, conversation, music, etc.?
I think having a comfortable and cosy set is one of the most important things. I think a hugely important thing is just being surrounded by good, chilled, and down-to-earth people. I work with a lot of people who are genuinely my friends, and I think that is what makes a set fun and comfy.
One earlier interview mentions your own ‘obsession’ with Italian disco music. Could you elaborate on that?
Oh my god I love this interview. So it all started when I was 15. I somehow stumbled onto a song called Polaris by Cyber People, and then I just kept digging and going deeper. I listen to Italo Disco basically every single day, I have a playlist on Spotify that I’m constantly adding to, and I’ve even started buying and collecting Italo Disco records. I think a lot of my style is inspired by Italo Disco. I love that chintzy, 80s, neon, over-the-top style.
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When talking about your transition back into film, you’ve emphasised the importance of asking questions and learning from others. How do you do this without inviting questions and ‘expert opinions’ you never even asked for?
(Laughs) There is a huge difference between solicited and unsolicited advice. I think that learning from other people is one of the best sources of education ever. That being said, unsolicited advice is a very real thing in this male-dominated industry. One time I was directing a commercial and had a male PA come up to me and just start explaining to me what aspect ratios were. Like what the definition of an aspect ratio even is. I was kind of shocked, because of course I knew what that is, and I just let him go for a minute before interrupting and saying “I know”, but then he kept going.
Reading about the hate comments your work has provoked – especially from older men who assumed it to be sexual – distantly reminded me of a nineties sauna pants infomercial, wherein the pants were marketed as a means of ‘enjoying the sauna without strangers staring at you’. Why do you think it’s so difficult for us to think of nudity without the implications of sex or judgemental stares? People do still shower, right?
(Laughs) Right! That’s like inventing an unnecessary band aid for an issue without resolving the actual cause of the problem. Like, how about we all just stop sexualizing bodies in non-sexual contexts? I don’t really have an answer for you, but it would be cool if we lived in a world where women and LGBTQIA folks weren’t disproportionately sexualized more than men.
Recently, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Megan Fox have all been ‘redeemed’ by the general public. What do you think this trend says about our current attitudes towards femininity?
Honestly, this is a huge breath of fresh air. I think it means we’re finally realising, “Oh! Women are three-dimensional humans who can simultaneously be beautiful and incredibly smart and talented!”
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