Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur: depicting unseen lives and hidden depths

An overhead view of a busy road junction at night, photographed by Olivia Arthur.
This image from Magnum Photos member Olivia Arthur's Strangers project takes the viewer on a journey into modern Dubai through the eyes of a fictional survivor of a 1961 shipwreck – here with an aerial view of the Marina area. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/13 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

Magnum Photos member Olivia Arthur was born in London and grew up mostly in the UK, but her father's career as a diplomat meant her family moved house every few years. Maybe that’s why she has been so ready to embrace travel and exploration in her career in documentary photography, which has taken her across the Middle East and Asia.

It's certainly why, as she acknowledges, the concept of "home" for her is not about any given place, but a state of belonging. And that in turn might be why so much of her work depicts people with an uncertain or ambiguous place in the world, reveals the hidden side of their lives, or explores life at the intersections of different cultures.

Olivia fell in love with photography while working on a student newspaper at Oxford University, where she studied mathematics. After graduating, she studied photojournalism at the London College of Printing and won the Guardian Media Award for Student Photographer of the Year in 2002.

Olivia's early projects

In 2003, she started working as a freelance photographer in Delhi, India, where she was based for two and a half years. During that time, Olivia developed her enduring interest in the lives of women. She also evolved her photographic approach, finding stillness and calm in the midst of "a hectic, colourful and chaotic place".

Swimming goggles on a billboard, with buildings reflected in its surface, photographed by Olivia Arthur.
Olivia's 2013 photo of a billboard ad for a water park, with the modern Dubai glimpsed in its reflective surface, hints at layers of reality and illusion. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D at 1/40 sec, f/9 and ISO400. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos
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While doing a one-year residency at Fabrica – a freewheeling "creative laboratory" in the Italian countryside – in 2006, she pursued more personal projects. Invited to contribute to a collective exhibition for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, Olivia travelled along the border between Europe and Asia for four months seeking out stories about women at the points of crossover or "fault lines" between east and west. The resulting project, titled The Middle-Distance, encompassed stories from Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia. It focused particularly on young women at a stage in life when they have to make decisions between education, work and family.

That journey led to trips to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Photographing the lives of women in Saudi society in a surprising new light resulted in her first book, Jeddah Diary, which was published in 2012.

In 2010, Olivia began India Stories, an ongoing project with multiple narratives. In the same year, she co-founded Fishbar – a publisher and space for photography in London – with fellow photographer Philipp Ebeling, who is now also her husband.

Exploring hidden layers

Olivia joined Magnum Photos in 2008 as a nominee and in 2013 became a full member. Her second book, Stranger (2015), which she worked on while living in Dubai, explores the transformation of the country over the last 50 years through the eyes of a fictional survivor of a real shipwreck that took place just off Dubai's coast in 1961.

A group of men in the desert at night, with fresh tyre tracks, photographed by Olivia Arthur.
Young Emeratis perform car stunts at night in the desert outside Abu Dhabi. Olivia specialises in recording the unexpected or unseen side of Middle Eastern cultures. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/15 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos
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Intriguingly, the book is printed on transparent paper, giving the reader multiple layers and depths, glimpses of one thing peeping through another. She explains that this is about using design to work with the narrative, creating an immersive feeling, layering the images and text together and capturing multiple levels of meaning.

This spirit is something she embraces in her photography itself. As she said in an interview with the New Yorker: "For me, part of the power of still photography is the ambiguousness of pictures, the ability to give a hint about a scene or event without being too absolute. Photographers are always looking for ways to capture the atmosphere of an event without being too literal about it."

Capturing the atmosphere was key to Olivia's 2013 project Deutschlandreise. She was one of four young Magnum photographers commissioned to travel through various regions of Germany to record their personal impressions of the country and its people. Olivia went to Bonn, where her family had lived for a few years when she was a child, and revisited the annual Carnival. Her series is poetic and dreamy, with the strange atmosphere of Carnival rather than everyday life. It explores some of her characteristic interests: identity, multiple levels of meaning, and possibly discovering new depths not perceived before.

Q&A interview

Here, we talk to Olivia to find out what drives her, how she works with her Canon kit, and the lengths she goes to, to tell a story...

Why documentary photography?

"I love the discovery and the exploration that photography brings. It gives me a way into the world and the people I meet. It's a way to dissect what we see in the world around us."

The Middle-Distance was your first project that wasn't for the press. Did this affect your style and technique?

"I suppose it was the first time I worked on something that wasn't exactly a 'story'. It was about looking at the bigger picture somehow, and it freed up my photography in that I was looking around me and reacting and taking pictures in a much looser way. Everything could be part of the work, and I felt like I never stopped looking. It was liberating and exhausting!"

Your images depict a multi-layered insight into your subjects' lives. Is this intentional?

"Actually quite a bit of that is subconscious. It's something I am definitely drawn to. I like the idea that you can come back to them again and see something different. They're quiet. That reflects the way I spend time with people. When people view my work, I'd like to hope they get a connection with the people or the things they see in it."

Speaking of the people you spend time with, how long do you cultivate a relationship with a subject for before you photograph them? And what do you look for in a subject?

"It's a process. I meet people, I spend time with them. Sometimes I have more time with them, I really get to know them, we hang out. Sometimes I get to stay the night and it becomes much more of an experience, and other times it's more fleeting. Sometimes you photograph people and you feel that there's that connection, there's something more that you can add to it, so I suppose I'm looking for that."

A view from a high point of a drizzly city street at night, photographed by Olivia Arthur.
Essen in the Ruhr region of Germany, photographed by Olivia as part of her 2013 project to record her personal impressions of the country and its people. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at 1/50 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

So all of your subjects are aware of you rather than being caught covertly?

"There may be a couple of incidental pictures, but I'm really not that much of a street photographer. There may be a few in the Stranger project because there was that feeling of wandering around trying to understand the place through the eyes of the imaginary survivor. So there's a bit of both there, but predominantly I cultivate relationships with my subjects. These projects take a long time, and it's often about spending time and getting to know them personally, not just as a photographer."

As a woman you were able to photograph women in Saudi Arabia for Jeddah Diary in ways that perhaps a man wouldn't have been able to. Has being a woman in this industry helped you in any other ways?

"I've done a lot of work about women in relatively conservative societies, which I would never have been able to do had I not been a woman myself. I also think people have been more open with me because I am a woman, often only because they perhaps don't see me as much as a professional but as a person."

You're known for 'mixing it up' when it comes to format and choice of camera. How do you decide what kit to use for each project?

"As the format gets bigger, the process gets slower. So it's more about choosing the speed at which I want to work. Sometimes it's appropriate to work slowly and in a more formal way, sometimes I need to work a bit more on the fly, and other times I want to mix it up and work in both ways.

"I've often used digital alongside film. I use a Canon EOS 5D and Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which allow me to work a bit more freely alongside medium format kit, for example. You see that with Stranger, the pictures that are a bit quieter-feeling are shot on film, compared to some of the pictures shot on digital. But I'd like to think there's a consistency more in feeling, even if I'm using completely different cameras and formats.

"Also sometimes it's nice to just play around. For example, the Deutschlandreise commission was all shot on digital, which was quite liberating, and that work feels a lot freer as a result. I think the Canon EOS 5D is great for that. I have always liked the Canon EOS 5D Mark II because it's easy to use in all situations. It's fast and you can just get on and make your picture without much fuss. I chose this camera in the first place because of how well it does in low light, when film particularly struggles."

An underwater view of a shipwreck entangled in fishing nets, small fish swimming around, photographed by Olivia Arthur.
The wreck of the MV Dara lies in 20 metres of water off the coast of Dubai, entangled in fishing nets. Olivia learned to dive to photograph this shipwreck for her Stranger project. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/5.6 and ISO1250. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

And what lenses do you tend to team with your Canon EOS 5D Mark II?

"I love the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM for portraits; it has a wonderful quality, and I use it a lot as it's quite versatile for other options, too. I use the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM for more general things and documentary images. The Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens makes the camera lighter and is great for making it more discreet."

Is it true you learned to dive especially to photograph the shipwreck of the MV Dara first-hand?

"Yes it is. Through my research I found some divers who knew where the shipwreck was, so I learned how to dive and got them to take me down there. It was the first time I had done a proper dive in anything other than a swimming pool, but it was wonderful. I was finally swimming in this shipwreck that I had been researching for three months, and it was very moving and extremely breathtaking. The underwater images of the shipwreck, interspersed in the book with those images of the city as I'd seen it, helped to play around with the idea of memory, drowning, and the past.

"For the underwater shots I used the Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a special waterproof underwater casing, which was essentially like a thick plastic bag. I could just about press the shutter, but because I couldn't have access to the dials, I had to use it on automatic. I just had to trust that the camera would work well in auto, which was one less thing to worry about.

"Another thing was that, before the dive, I had to guess roughly how dark it was going to be down at the bottom. I wouldn't be able to increase the ISO, for example, once I got down there. So it was definitely the right camera to be using for that."

Did you find it difficult to break into the photography industry and make it in the fine art documentary world? How did you overcome those challenges?

"I came into the photographic industry very much from a journalistic perspective. In the beginning, all the work I did was for newspapers and magazines. I think then I became dissatisfied with making work just for these outlets. The way photography is used in them nowadays doesn’t give much value to the photographer – it becomes about illustrating the piece, filling gaps. So as the opportunities arose I started making work for other kinds of clients.

"For example, a commission for a pair of photo festivals in Brighton, England and Bombay, India, and a commission for the Hull City of Culture, England, were much more satisfying. That was because they gave me freedom to do something I really cared about.

"In terms of the challenges, I think it is hard for all of us, and there is no clear path. But we have to keep looking for opportunities, for different ways to present ourselves – ideally in the non-traditional ways as the traditional ones are very busy!"

Two women on a massive concrete stairway, photographed by Olivia Arthur.
An interior photographed by Olivia as part of her contribution to Deutschlandreise, capturing her personal impressions of Germany in 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Olivia Arthur / Magnum Photos

How has becoming a Magnum Photos member shaped you?

"I've grown up as a photographer with Magnum. Magnum has always been a big influence for me. I'm very passionate about storytelling, and prioritising a series over individual images. Magnum for me has always been about the bigger picture and that is what makes it special – it sets the photographers apart from just being image-makers."

What's next on the horizon for you?

"I'm finishing off a project on India and gender and sexuality, called In Private/Mumbai. I'm also doing more work in the UK, and at some point I'd love to get out and finish my work on India Stories. It's something I keep coming back to. It's motivated and inspired by my experiences from when I lived in India – it's about the influence of the British class system on society and the caste system there, through the vignettes of smaller stories. I also have some more personal projects closer to home, and not enough time to finish any of them, of course."

How has your career evolved as the industry has changed?

"I make my living mostly from assignment work, but I also take part in exhibitions and make books. Perhaps the books define what I do most, and yes that has changed a bit from when I started out. I made my first book in 2012, which is not that long ago, but even since then the photobook world has exploded. I think although it has become much more accessible for anyone to make a book, it's also much harder for the good books to get seen in a sea of production."

Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary photographers?

"Do the things that you really care about and enjoy doing. You may not get all the rewards you want or deserve, so make sure you enjoy the journey. If you do that, your work will be better and more sincere and you will increase your chances of being recognised."

Kirjutanud Natalie Denton

Olivia Arthur's kitbag

Key photojournalism kit

Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II around her neck


Canon EOS 5D Mark III

A full-frame 22.3MP DSLR with 61-point autofocus and 6fps continuous shooting. "Easy to use in all situations. It's fast and you can just get on and make your picture without much fuss," says Olivia.


Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture and ultrasonic autofocus, this super-fast lens is a consummate low-light performer. "I love it for portraits," says Olivia. "It has a wonderful quality, and I use it a lot as it's quite versatile for other options, too."

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM

Offering a wide-angle view with a natural perspective, this classic focal length is loved by documentary photographers. A large f/1.4 maximum aperture makes this an ideal lens for handheld photography in low-light conditions.

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM

A versatile, compact pancake lens, which "makes the camera lighter and is great for making it more discreet," says Olivia. A fast maximum aperture enables low-light shooting and depth-of-field control. STM provides smooth quiet autofocus when shooting video with compatible cameras.

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