Sundance Award Winner
Queen of Versailles, THIN, and
Interview By Heidi Legg
Lauren Greenfield is an American photographer and filmmaker who holds a mirror to our insecurities and mistakes, suggesting we pay attention. This interview was published in May 2014, and since then, Greenfield's #LikeAGirl campaign for Always, named #1 Superbowl Ad when the Patriots took home the 2015 Lombardi Trophy, has soared into the public psyche.
Lauren Greenfield has an incredible cult-like following. Her film Queen of Versailles, which charts a couples’ dream to build a 90,000 square foot palace in Florida based on Versailles, premiered at Sundance 2012 and won her Best American Director Award, and her work in both film and photography with THIN, Kids + Money, Fast Forward, Girl Culture and Beauty CULTure have been adopted as educational curriculum for American youth in schools and museums across the country. Her focus on wealth, consumption, adolescent girls growing up too fast, and the American Dream has gained her followers around the world.
This spring she will show in Beijing with twenty-five American photographers for a series called Power of the Image, a collaboration with Eastman House. I sat down with her when she recently spoke at Harvard, herself a graduate of the Harvard VES program, to discuss her impact on American culture with her very distinct lens. Her next show and book, "The Influence of Affluence" will focus on American wealth and will open is the fall of 2015.
What are you working on right now?
A thematic retrospective book and an exhibition that will include a short film about wealth and the American Dream, and the way that it’s been exported. I am exploring the way the values of consumption and materialism have been exported and the way global consumerism and the market crash connected us internationally, including the mistakes that were made leading up to it.
What's your mission?
I don't have an activist mission. I really like that the mission comes from my work and by the end of [my films], there's always a strong point of view. When I made Girl Culture, I ended up as a feminist more because of what I'd seen in the process. I really go in as more of a documentarian.
The subjects I follow are always sociological. I'm interested in looking at our cultural values and showing people things that I see that I think are often as present as the air we breathe, but we don't really notice. I try to take the extreme expressions of our time so we can see it and then think about it and discuss it. I think there's a value in having that kind of consciousness about the lives that we're living and the choices that we're making. What is our cultural context? What's influencing us, and our kids, in terms of our behaviors? I'm not going in with a mission to change the world.
But do you see an influence? You seem to make clear points.
I do see educational potential in the work with Girl Culture and with THIN, and they were incorporated into high school and college curriculums. We saw how kids responded and identified strongly to the pictures and to the interviews. With Girl Culture, the Center for Creative Photography created a formal curriculum that's still available free online. It allowed people who couldn't buy the book or who didn't have access to the exhibition to still work with the pictures and the interviews. We also did one for THIN.
I also did a film called Kids and Money, which was also really applicable for education because it was a thirty-minute film. It was a very provocative view from rich kids to poor kids across the spectrum in Los Angeles, talking about their relationship with money. Bullfrog designed the curriculum and distributed it.
Are there others we have not seen as widely?
Beauty CULTure is not available to buy as it was done for the Annenberg Museum, and it has a lot of educational potential but the museum decided not to distribute it. It was really made for the site-specific museum. Thirty thousand people came to the museum to see it and it was really great for young people.
Queen of Versailles had its morality tale and it was entertaining enough that people would just watch it and kind of create discussion on their own about it.
Would you define yourself as a 'social anthropologist’ or 'pop artist?'
I definitely think there's an anthropological and sociological perspective in the work, and that was my training at Harvard. I have a more journalistic, intuitive, and emotional approach.
Why do you think your subjects say ‘yes’ to you? You don’t always show them at their best.
Each situation is totally different. On the Spring Break series, the woman doing a back bend, that's a total exhibitionist act, like she's fine being photographed. She's out in public. That’s the point of what they're doing. It's like Girls Gone Wild. I was documenting the culture of exhibitionism. There is an element of misogyny, too, but the girl's in control in that situation and it’s totally exhibitionistic. You can't compare the girl in the anorexic clinic with the girl emulating a blow job on spring break when she's in public wanting to be seen that way.
With THIN, from my point of view and also from their point of view, they're saying 'yes' because they think it's important for people to know about anorexia as an illness that is a life or death situation for them, and they're taking that decision really seriously. I followed four women over two years, and they had to really think about it at many stages. Anybody could decide that they didn't want to be filmed at any point in time. Once we were filming Shelly and her therapist said, 'why do you choose to be in this HBO documentary?' and she said, ''because I want people to know what this illness is like' and he said, 'well, that's kind of general. Who do you really want to know?' and she said, 'my dad.'
Many of the women had stories like that, where someone didn't really understand what they were going through and that was the point of that film. Many women with eating disorders who are recovered watch the movie, but in a way it was less for them because their journey is therapy and a really hard kind of therapeutic recovery. The movie doesn't try to be a replacement for that, but many women with eating disorders feel that nobody understands their illness because they think it's a choice. And what the movie shows is it's a life or death pathological mental illness and that is very, very hard to treat and very hard to get better from, and the movie un-glamorizes it. It's an illness that's been trivialized in a way.
What about Jackie and David in Queen of Versailles?
Jackie and David are a different story. They wanted to tell the story about this house they were building and by the time that wasn't the story, we were part of the fabric of their life, and Jackie really loves attention and loves to be in front of the camera, and we’d built a relationship.
For David, I think it was hubris. He wanted to show the house and have this story out there and then, I think, as we went on, he also thought that I was going to be able to tell a story about his heroic comeback.
I read they're suing you.
We've had our arbitration. We won in Florida court and the judge said that David Siegel's testimony ‘rips the fibers of the imagination to go so far as to believe David Siegel's testimony,' which she also called 'incredible'. She didn't believe them at all and she threw it out of Florida court, and then we had arbitration.
Is the case done?
It's done, but we haven't gotten the result yet and there's no case. It was basically that he didn't like the ending. I think he wanted to say to his investors and future buyers that it wasn't true, but it's all told in his own words. Luckily Jackie was extremely loyal to the film and actually promoted it all around the world with me for a year. She came to London. She came to Helsinki.
Would you call your stories An American Tragedy?
I wouldn't have come up with that but I think it's a good description. The thing about Queen of Versailles is that it starts out as a comedy and ends up as a tragedy, and I think that's why the story was so compelling to me. In the beginning I thought it was going to be a look at this crazy dream of building this house and as somehow symbolic of how what we want has been super-sized and super-sized again, and then at the same time a look at the class dynamics. There is a ‘Downton Abbey’ in that household, with all these nannies and domestics who are also seeking the American Dream coming from the Philippines or Latin America.
I think for Jackie, she was able to show David that she really loved him for him and that the house and money wasn't as important to her, but in it they also had to let go of the dream.
What public opinion would you most like to change?
I would like to change the idea that everything created should be free. If you're a content creator and somebody makes intellectual property for a living, this idea that everything should be free on the Internet is really threatening to our ability to be able to continue doing this kind of work and for quality journalism to be funded and supported. I think people value it but they don't want to pay for it, and I wish I could change that. I think it's changing gradually.
One of the exciting things in the last ten years in media and journalism has been the technology explosion and how we can shoot with these incredibly high-quality small cameras and edit in our in-house studios. We are printing my next show in our studio and that offers a lot more creative control. I also love the reach that we can get with our work through the Internet, through things like Netflix. More people saw Queen of Versailles on Netflix than any other way.
How has reality TV affected your work?
We went to the beach and filmed THIN one day with the women from the clinic and people were like, 'oh, what show are you on?' There was kind of an acceptance, whereas when I started as a photographer people would ask, 'why are you photographing me brushing my teeth? What's so interesting about that?' In fact, David said that the only thing I didn't film was him having sex with Jackie.
What was your first break?
I think my first break was going to Harvard, because of the opportunities and the teachers. I see a really strong connection to what I do and that time. I just had lunch with my film teacher Rob Moss and was asking him his advice. I feel really lucky to have had that experience and I remember my photography teacher, Christopher James, saying 'follow your heart.'
The second break was an internship at National Geographic; it was a portfolio-based internship and it was based on this project I did after college about the French aristocracy.
I feel like I am living my own dream. I think there's no greater gift than getting to express yourself. If you can make a living from your art, that's the luckiest thing ever and I think that's why my husband works with me and I think that's why he tolerates all the time I'm on the road and all the juggling we have to do with our children. We were at Harvard together and he's been on the journey from the start and for both of us, it’s like, ’this is actually really great and we'll make it work.' Nobody would sign up for that job today if they just met me now.
Does fame help or hinder you?
For the most part, it helps. It speaks to another theme of my work about fame and celebrity and how important it is in this culture. If you're a photographer or filmmaker, there's no benefit to being famous. It's not like an actress where it means a certain thing. For me, the benefit is people value it and it helps me with access. I went over to Moscow for a film festival for Queen of Versailles, and I photographed while I was there and the worlds that I was able to enter because I was there for the film festival were really important to my work.
I think that as photographers and as documentarians, we use what we have. When I was starting out, people didn't really take me seriously or think the work would go anywhere. They also gave access because of that, but the reality is if you want somebody like Jennifer Lopez or a presidential candidate, they want to know that it's going to be in the pages of New York Magazine. Being an editorial photographer has always been really important to my work and I haven't gone off into the personal or the art world because I really like to be in that mainstream. My work's always blurred those boundaries. But I think the most important thing in my work is the person.
Queen of Versailles was a labor of love. Girl Culture was also a personal project, and the way that it was made was I took a lot of editorial assignments during that period that had to do with girls. I think life's too short to do things where you're saying it's just for money.
Why do editors or subjects buy into your version of the lens?
The most important thing, for any artist, is finding your voice. Once you have a voice that people can see and understand and say, 'ok, that's a Lauren Greenfield picture' or 'that's a Lauren Greenfield idea,' then they can buy into that. They can say, 'we want that point of view on this assignment'
I was relatively young, 30, when my first book called Fast Forward came out, and that was my ticket to getting my own work. It took several years making those pictures with no audience and another two years getting turned down by seventeen publishers. When you’re able to put that out in the world, it saves you from a lifetime of corporate portraiture or weddings or this dichotomy between what we do for money and what we do for our personal work.
For young photographers I always say you do need to think about your work as a sculptor or painter who would not necessarily expect to make their living from their art at first. It’s nice when those things merge.
Any differences between LA and Cambridge?
There are so many differences. I was born in Boston and then my dad lived in Newton for a long time. My little brother still lives in Newton and teaches at Newton North, so we have a lot of Boston connections. For one thing, it’s freezing and I'll be happy to go back to the weather in LA, but I love Cambridge. I love the intellectual atmosphere and how there's always something exciting going on and all the people who come through and the conversations that you have. LA is a good place for an artist because you do your own thing, but then there's the downside to doing your own thing. There are not as many rules of living but then there's not the community.
What are your favorite haunts in LA and Cambridge?
My favorite restaurant is LA is Gjelina. I live there and Abott Kinney is my haunt.
As for Cambridge, I posted on Facebook yesterday that I couldn't believe Pink Berry and Starbucks were in Harvard Square. I do like that tea place, Tealuxe.
Where did you go when you were at Harvard?
An event you're looking forward to?
The opening of my next show in Fall 2015, but I also have so much work that I'm nervous about it. We're just finalizing the contract now so they haven't announced it.
I'm having a show in Beijing with twenty-five American photographers for a show called Power of the Image, a collaboration with Eastman House. I'm bringing my thirteen-year-old son so I'm really excited.
Lauren has published three books of photography: Fast Forward (1997), Girl Culture (2002) and THIN (2006). Her work is a part of several major collections including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Getty Museum.