“Photography completely changed my perspective on Los Angeles. Looking through the viewfinder transformed something that I thought was ugly and unattractive. I fell in love with Los Angeles, and it became my muse.”
Olivia Fougeirol is a photographer based between Los Angeles and Paris. Born and raised in France, she began her career as a theater actor. Fougeirol shifted her career to photography after moving to Los Angeles in 1999. For the past 12 years, she has worked as a photojournalist, shot for commercials and editorials, and travelled around the United States and abroad shooting for films. In 2016, she published a book of photographs titled DAVID, a 5 year study of a man who lives between downtown Los Angeles and Venice Beach. Fougeirol has exhibited at Gallery 8633, the Sundance Film Festival, Keystone gallery, Show Gallery in Los Angeles and Galerie Catherine et André Hug in Paris.
In this interview, Olivia Fougeirol shares how she left a career as an actress to pursue photography, how Los Angeles became her muse, and what it's like being a photographer on film sets and in the contemporary art world.
TGL: How was your childhood?
OF: I grew up in the South of France in a small village of 400 people until I was 18. I have two older brothers that I am close to, both artists. My parents are very oriented towards art, even though they are not artists. My mom is a homemaker, and my dad sold old houses and castles in the South of France. It was a lively household, I grew up in the 1970s with a lot of freedom.
When I was 11, I wanted to become a theater actress. I started to take acting classes in a nearby town when I was 14. That's what I wanted to do. It was either that or become a defense attorney. As a teenager, I couldn't wait to get out of the village and move to Paris. As soon as I got my highschool diploma, I packed my bags and went straight to Paris to take acting classes.
TGL: When did you go to Brussels?
OF: I applied to a drama school called INSAS in Brussels. It is a great school. I didn't like Brussels though. After spending two days there, I thought, no way, I can't live in this city. I came back to Paris, not even knowing if I had passed the first round. When I checked, it said that I did and needed to come back for the second one. I didn't go. Like every choice in life, it affected the rest of my life. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone. Maybe if I had stayed in Brussels, I would still be in the acting world. Environment is very important to me.
TGL: What kind of acting did you do?
OF: I did a lot of plays with young theater writers. I did a lot of improv. I had a group of friends who were actors, and we wrote little skits that we performed. That was a lot of fun, which is why I watch SNL. I'm a big fan of the show.
I was in a few movies. I really enjoy doing that. Around then I met someone and fell in love. Together, we did two short films in Crete about Greek mythology written by Jean-Pierre Faye, who's a great French philosopher. One is about the Minotaur and Ariadne and the other is about Narcissus and Echo.
TGL: Your short film included Keanu Reeves as well, right?
OF: Yes, Keanu Reeves stars as Narcissus in that story. That was beautiful.
TGL: How was your husband involved with the process?
OF: When I met him, he was a photographer. I introduced him to a lot of movies, such as Pasolini's, all those great movies that French people and people who live in Paris have access to. He wanted to become a director, which is why we started doing short films together. We were supposed to do a feature about King Midas too. Unfortunately it didn't happen. Movie making is so challenging.
TGL: When did you decide to move to Los Angeles?
OF: When I had my first son, motherhood was amazing to me, and I really wanted to raise him. Being a theater actor was a challenge. I decided to embrace being a mother and stopped acting. When my oldest son was five, we decided to move to Los Angeles where my ex husband was from. He was starting a production company, so we decided to move here. I had been to Los Angeles with him a few times to visit his family, and I didn't like the city. I would say, "Oh, I would never live in Los Angeles," just like Brussels. But because of his work, I thought, “Let's give Los Angeles a shot for two, three years and see how the company evolves, and I'll raise the kids.” I was pregnant with my second child, when we moved here. Then I had a third child. It was really hard to be in Los Angeles. Culturally, it was difficult for me to adapt here.
TGL: Why did you start taking photos?
OF: After my third child, I was taking pictures like everyone does, but I have a friend who saw the pictures and said, "You should really do something with your photography." My husband was a photographer when I met him, and he still had his cameras. I took his Pentax and started to take pictures. Photography completely changed my perspective on Los Angeles. Looking through the viewfinder transformed something that I thought was ugly and unattractive. I fell in love with Los Angeles, and it became my muse. Since then, I've been happy living here, even though sometimes it's still challenging culturally.
TGL: What do you love about Los Angeles?
OF: L.A. is really my playground and has incredible light. When I started to take pictures, I began going to estate sales. It has been amazing to discover neighborhoods that I would have never gone to and enter the intimacy of people who had just passed. They were homes filled with their lives.
TGL: When did you begin taking photos for the film industry?
OF: When I started to do photography, I did a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark. That's the only photo workshop I've ever done, but it was a great one. She was very encouraging. I showed her my portfolio, and she said, "You should really do something on movie sets." It was good advice.
Soon after, I became friends with the documentary filmmaker Amy Berg. She asked me if I wanted to come work on a project she was doing in Arkansas. It's rare to have a set photographer on a documentary film. That was one of my first experiences being on set as a photographer. It was life changing. I've been working with Amy for more than 12 years now. It has been fascinating to discover America through subjects like the Mormon community, Janis Joplin, Hollywood child abuse, The West Memphis 3, the Adnan Syed case...
TGL: What is your method for photographing people on set or off set?
OF: Improvisation is always part of it. When people are playful and want to interact with the camera, it’s the best. Actors are always a lot of fun for that. Sometimes you meet someone who's not an actor, but could definitely be one. Sometimes people don't have that extraverted streak, they're shy or just anxious to be in front of a camera. I always say, "If you don't want to smile, don't smile." I want people to be who they are. We have an exchange and see what happens. Most of the time, if you really look at people, they will open up and give you something. Sometimes it's in between two takes when my subject thinks, "Okay, let me fix myself." They will have a theatrical movement, which reveals a lot about themselves. That's what I'm interested in.
TGL: Can you tell us more about your exhibition Last Summer Blue?
OF: Last year in 2020, I was lucky to be able to get through the cracks of the pandemic with a show in Paris in September. It's a series called Last Summer Blue, which includes images from estate sales and images of people who are still alive. It's about the relationship between the vanishing and the present.
TGL: Is acting still a part of your life?
OF: In a way, yes! Photography is an extension of it. It's about capturing the theater of life. I'm interested in people, emotions, the stage we're on, the hardship, love, and all those things that we all experience in life. That's what drives me. Landscape is a character for me as well.
TGL: What are you obsessed with right now at the moment?
OF: After what we've all experienced last year with the world changing so radically,I have a strong desire to move back to Paris. I haven't lived there for 22 years. I'm craving to be with French people, eat French food, and jump back into that culture.
I would love to keep bringing work from the United States there and do a body of work in France to bring to the US.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't know?
OF: I would love to have dinner with Anne Frank. I studied her a little when I was young at school. She really affected me. As a French person, the Second World War was very present growing up in the '70s. My parents were kids during WWII, my grandfather was a prisoner, there were a lot of stories.
When my kids were little, I read Anne Frank's diary to them. I started to really read and research her. She is such an inspiration to me. It would be pretty incredible to have a meal with her. She was profound, sensitive, smart, witty, and courageous. When things are tough in my life, I think about people like her, who've been through monumental challenges. I would love to cook for her because I love to cook. I love to feed people and share meals. When the food is good, people relax, laugh, open up and they want more.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
OF: Don't get paralyzed by doubts. Use doubts to challenge yourself. Do things that make you feel like yourself, even if people don't like those things. Be who you are. As a woman who grew up in a generation where women were often considered to just be housewives, standing for equality and being yourself is so important. We are in the eye of the cyclone right now, it's a battle, but it's good.
We all experience good fears and bad fears. There are fears that paralyze you and make you not be proactive. There are fears that are like fuel. It's all up to us.