Arvida Byström X Nafisa Kaptownwala



About a year ago I met Arvida Bystrom. I moved into an apartment building that she lived in and one day she showed up at my door to introduce herself. I made her tea and we chatted about a bunch of stuff and very quickly we started to talk about art and intersectional feminist politics. I was a bit surprised to hear Arvida express interest in photographing someone that looked like me. Up until then, having lived in Canada, my creative contemporaries rarely represented images of people that shared the same complexion as me. I found Arvida’s critical position intriguing and visited her Tumblr to find that a lot of other people find it pretty interesting too. Arvida photographs a range of diverse subjects and I am the founder of Lorde Inc, a street-casting agency which focuses on casting diversely and engaging the coded language underlined in visual representations of people of colour. Here Arvida and I chat about representation and photography.

I wanted to ask you about some of the Asks that you get on your Tumblr. I’m actually going to go on your Tumblr right now, so this is going to be live. Oh my god I love that this person says, “hairy pits are super sexy.” I also love that this chick says, “shave your armpits you dirty bitch.”

It’s annoying when people tell you what to do with your body, like putting a photo of yourself online, you happen to have a body and happen to do things with it—no, it’s not an invitation for people to tell you what to do with your body. I put up a photo of myself with blue hair and hairy armpits with some makeup on then people want to talk to me about the photo. They’ll say things like, “your make up looks nice,” “your blue hair looks nice,” “how did you get your blue hair?” or “how did you do your makeup?” At least asking me how I achieved my blue hair is different from people telling me something about my armpit hair and telling me they don’t like things that I obviously can’t change about myself. I don’t care if you think I look “pure,” something that someone wrote on my Tumblr just recently. I don’t want to look pure, that’s disgusting!


Ew, that’s fucking weird. Mostly, I wanted to talk about one question I saw a while ago, but it’s been so long that I can’t even remember how it was phrased. I guess you must have made a comment online that read something like, “I want to shoot some people, but I don’t want to shoot exclusively white people, so if you’re not white please get in touch with me cause I’d like to take your photo.” And someone had sent you an Ask that was like, ”What the fuck is wrong with you where you don’t have people of color in your life, where you can’t just shoot the people in your life, or the people that you see around?” or something.

I think it also said something like, “You live in London, which is the most multicultural city in the world, you could just ask someone on the street.”

I thought it was a pretty valid critique. So what do you think?

Basically, I am white and I have mainly white friends, which has changed loads since I moved to London, and obviously that is a huge problem, especially as a photographer. When I look for someone to shoot, most of the people that get in touch with me are really young white girls, who are super pretty but they’re just the people that are asked to get their photo taken often. They know that they’re like the most desirable object to shoot.  People of color are out of the norm of what’s considered beautiful, [white girls] will always get in touch with me unless I’m really specific.


How about when you approach friends? Or approach people on the street? Have you ever received negative responses from people of color?

I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching anyone on the street to ask about shooting them because of the photos I take. It’s just nice to get people that know my work a little bit because it’s quite specific stuff that some people might have a problem with. I don’t think I’ve ever approached anyone on the street.

I’m still trying to find your question, but I remember your answer being something along the lines of , “People of color often don’t come forward because they’re never asked to, essentially.” Which got me thinking, how are you meant to internalize this idea of beauty when you’re never represented? I wanted to delve into that a little more. Why do you think it is that you’ll always get responses from the same types of people? Is it that they feel like they can model whereas other people don’t?

This is really cheesy but, it’s so hard to think you can be something if you never see people that look like you represented as beautiful. You just think that you’re going to be turned down all the time. I shoot a really specific style of photography and I don’t really adjust it that much, a bit to make everyone feel comfortable. At the same time, I don’t want people asking to make too many changes after I’ve shot. And if there’s a problem then I’ll start to think, well how do I really see this person? I’ll start reading into it too much and worry about shooting people of color in a more ghetto way, or shooting guys in a more macho way, or girls in a really vain way. Otherwise, people in my position that take photos just have to try to include as many different people as possible. Also, I’m in a position where I can highlight other artists and whomever I’m highlighting, it might give them a certain status, and I just want to make sure that more people are invited than just middle/upper class people.

I remember having this conversation with a white friend of mine and she said she found that approach problematic, being a white person and going out of your way to take photos of people of color. The fact that you have to consciously find people of color is problematic. As being sort of fetishizing or tokenizing. You’re trying to fabricate this idea of diversity when as an individual maybe you don’t live a diverse life, maybe you don’t have those people in your life.

I think it is actually really interesting, something that I do think about quite a lot. How much does it matter that it’s intentional if it doesn’t look like [a fabricated image of diversity]? But at the same time, loads of white people that I know and like and shoot are not necessarily my closest friends. So already there I’m kind of picking people to surround myself with. I don’t know. It’s so complex.

Coming from my perspective, as a person of color, I feel there aren’t diverse enough representations of people of color. And I mean like, not everything has to look like United Colors of Benetton and not everything needs to have a token black, brown, and Asian person, that’s not at all what I mean, but as people of color we aren’t represented for the diversity we have within our own communities. Not all Muslim females wear hijabs, or not all Muslim females are covered from head to toe, some of us are, some of us aren’t. Some of us have our hair out, some of us don’t. Some of us are alternative, some of us are punk. I mean whatever example you can think of, the point is within these communities there is so much diversity in itself and I just think we’re not given credit and spaces to be seen for our differences and when those diversified images of us do surface they’re not taken seriously. We’re then seen as acting white or trying to be black. There is no such thing as any static type of any identity, so for it to be said that a woman in a hijab listening to punk and wearing doc martens is uncharacteristic of what she should be isn’t fair. That’s unfair and that’s ignorant of the diversity of those people. I don’t personally have a problem with white people saying they’re going to consciously go out of their way to include people of color, my problem is when we aren’t represented in a fair diverse way or represented in a fetishistic way—when we’re used to enact those stereotypes, those static images of what people of color are pigeonholed as.

Yeah, I’m just thinking about the Dazed & Confused Women’s issue and how I was so annoyed because it looked like most of the people who shot the editorials were males. I talked about this with a friend of mine who thought it was so sad that when it comes to these things they don’t completely hand it over to women to curate the magazine. That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking about as a white person, especially when it comes to net art or girls online doing things, whether or not there are only white people contributing and I try to include PoC [people of colour]. I can imagine that there must be so many PoC girls that feel like they can’t be involved in this Tumblr culture and that they don’t fit the aesthetics, like the soft grunge shit. I keep on looking for people that are outside of the norm, so that we can make the norm bigger or make the norm disappear. I’m working as a curator sometimes and I’m picking people for certain things and highlighting people so I try to be considerate of when I’m taking too much control over stuff and when I should step away. I do think it is important and good to think about so I don’t step in and try to take on what is a PoC’s struggle, because I could never do that obviously. I can just find people’s work that I like, I don’t want to be some Macklemore, picking every disprivileged person’s fight as a person of privilege.


I don’t want to play devil’s advocate but I feel like I have to include this argument because you know people are going to be reading this thinking, “Well that’s unfair because it’s exclusive and isn’t that what oppression is?”  What about the deliberate exclusion of white straight men? What would you say to people that pose that as problematic and see that as reverse racism or sexism?

There is already room for white males where they can act without even thinking about being white males, so I don’t see why I have to include these people. Just look at my Asks on Tumblr! If I happen to put up a photo where you can see my armpit hair, so many males (I don’t think I got loads of females saying this) seem to tell me that my armpit hair is so sexy. I’m like, “excuse me, I haven’t asked you.” It’s almost like they’re trying to do me a favour because I have armpit hair and that’s what they assume most guys wouldn’t like. There are some straight white males in my life that I can work with and that see me as a human being but often I don’t think that males see me in that way. Yeah, I’m going to exclude people that make me feel like shit and most of the time that happens to be white straight males. Also, I never want to have to question myself or be paranoid because I don’t think that is something comes from me, it’s provoked by discriminatory society.

In a lot of ways I’m not ever going to feel bad for excluding white straight cis males when they make up most of the spaces we operate in, including most creative spaces. Ultimately what it comes down to is that women, people of color, queer identities etc. are pushed to the periphery especially when it comes to representation and visibility. In a lot of ways it projects the idea that we’re not good enough, we’re not beautiful, we’re not creative enough, we’re not going to provide the same quality of work as our white contemporaries that are on the cover of these magazines, or have their work included on all these outlets. And I can’t have a problem with people that want to go out of their way to consciously try to expand their scope of representation, because we need that. We need more people that are critical and conscious of race and gender representations.  I think it has a lot to with pretending like something doesn’t exist when it clearly does and when plenty of women, plenty of people of color, and plenty of queer identities have made it clear that they feel excluded, yet their narrative doesn’t seem to be powerful enough for people to take seriously. And I just think we’re not living in a fair space until everyone is represented and everyone is represented fairly and identities don’t feel like they need to defend themselves, which is what we’re doing right now—defending our right to exist.

Yes, just as I want to include all types of people, sometimes I’m weary that there might be certain people that are uncomfortable in being in that kind of an environment. But yeah, I mean I have been getting a lot of different types of people to pose in photos and stuff.

What would you say if a person of color thought that you were taking on a “white savior” approach in your work? Do you think that criticism is fair?

Yeah! This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Sadly enough, I know there are certain people that might listen to me more because of my white privilege. Sometimes, I’m just like ugh, when am I crossing the line and talking too much about something that isn’t my fight? But I am aware that some people would rather listen to me. And since people are listening to me, what is my responsibility? When do I become Macklemore and when am I just trying to get white people to listen to people of color?