Women. Soft light. Shadows. Intimacy. Johanna Stickland mostly portrays girls, both with her camera and in oil painting. When she was 14, she modelled for Jil Sander, Chloé, Givenchy, Dries van Noten, Christian Dior or Yohji Yamamoto. The experience must have had a huge impact on her, because a few years later she’s decided to switch roles and now she’s the one standing behind the lens. She says she’s obsessed with art and love, and because of this she moved from Calgary to a small village in Portugal, finding, by chance, the most peaceful place on Earth to work. She really admires the work of Louise Bourgeois, probably because she’s also fascinated with women. Oddly enough, she loves listening to doom metal as much as photographing or painting delicate girls. The equation is simple: Johanna is sensitive but strong, and so is her work.
Who is the Stickland girl?
Anyone that happens to wander into my life, and who allows me to photograph them.
Do these girls have something yours?
Since I'm taking the picture, I suppose there are similarities, a lot of the girls I photograph are creative and living sort of transient lives as well.
Why only women?
I think women are beautiful, I feel comfortable and inspired around them. In the future I'd be interested in shooting men more also.
You were a model when you were 14 years old. When did you decide you wanted to switch roles and become the photographer?
When I was modelling at 14 I was really interested in the more artistic photographers I worked with, observing them and enjoying seeing the final result of shooting. I guess all of that stuck in my brain and a few years later I began taking pictures because it felt like a natural and familiar thing to do.
Did you enjoy being a model? What’s your best memory from that time?
While it was happening I didn't really enjoy it much, but I can appreciate having those experiences now. Having a surreal life for a while threw me out of time and shaped my character. My best memories from those times were just being able to travel and live in different cities, to have independence so young and to visit museums.
How does it help you now that you’re on the other side? Does the perspective change a lot?
I’m very sensitive to how the person I'm photographing is feeling. I try to be kind and aware, and make sure they feel good, and not make them do anything that I wouldn't do.
What did you learn from the photographers who used to take photos of you?
I learned about how I like to be treated as a subject and the way I prefer to be portrayed. I learned that I like to take pictures quickly because as a model I got really bored if a shoot took a long time.
Who are your mentors?
While I've never really had any teachers of photography, there are certain shoots I had as a model that really made an impact on me. Working with Manuela Pavesi when I was younger inspired me and I remembered that experience a lot when I began taking photos years later. She really created a certain feeling and mood when photographing – she lived in her own world completely. It was also special to work with Willy Vanderperre, I was always really moved by that kind of pure and sensitive imagery.
Your girls seldom wear clothes and if they do, it is not the main issue. The situation is quite different from when you were a model. Aren’t you interested in fashion photography anymore?
Fashion photography can be beautiful and interesting, but a lot of the time it's just focused on the product and looks too polished for my personal taste. I'd be interested in shooting clothing in a natural, beautiful way with some kind of narrative or atmosphere in mind.
What would be your perfect setting?
A large room with beautiful soft light, or anywhere beautiful outside on a grey, foggy day.
Your photos are very intimate. Do you prefer taking pictures of people you know?
There's a level of ease and understanding when photographing a friend, but a lot of the time I'm shooting a stranger or acquaintance. If the subject is comfortable and trusts me, then I don't think it matters how long I've known them.
Do you take lots of pictures or are you more reflexive?
I don't really take too many pictures. Shooting with film limits me in this way, which I think is a good thing because it forces me to be more in the moment but thoughtful too.
It seems that each photograph is hiding a story. Is it all fiction?
I prefer when an image is not too literal, when it hints at something rather than giving it all away.
What about the girls you paint? They seem more mysterious…
With photography I'm capturing what I see in front of me, with painting I can create my own world in a way.
Do the girls you paint really exist?
They exist somewhere between reality and imagination, which is what I love about painting.
Would you say you have the same style for both photography and painting?
The subject matter is generally the same, just interpreted differently. My favourite kind of photography is raw, soft and intimate. What I love about taking photos is how instant it is. I capture what I see, then spend a lot of time editing and deciding which pictures to put out into the world. Oil painting is such a long and thoughtful process, the use of colour and shadow can change the feeling and mood so much. The paintings have more thought, since I sit with them longer.
You're from Calgary (Canada), you've lived in New York and now you’re based in Portugal. What led you there?
I was led there because of love. I live in a very small town that no one’s heard of, an hour outside of Lisbon.
What has each city you have lived in provided you?
Calgary is where I grew up, but I don't feel very attached to it. It always felt so conservative when I lived there and I had a big desire to get away from that. New York inspires me and makes me feel more ambitious. Portugal gives me solitude and peace to make things unselfconsciously.
Do you have any new destination on mind?
Berlin is a place I keep going back to and that I could see myself living in someday. I was recently in Poland and completely loved it and would be interested in exploring more.
Are you dealing with any project that you want to share?
A book, somewhere out there on the horizon.
How would you like to see yourself in 10 years?
I'd like to see myself still with the person I love, making things everyday and in a calm state of mind.