The award-winning photographer turned Stink Rising director on curing her networking allergy, recognising privilege and a childhood of six foot high toothpaste tubes, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani
After entering the creative industries as a photographer, Olivia Rose made the shift into directing on a whim. She now finds herself directing at Stink
, with music videos for Skepta, Jorja Smith, Jess Glynne and Ty Dolla $ign under her belt. Olivia’s desire to find ‘real human connection’, shake the feeling of imposter syndrome and create lasting change are what motivates her in her career. But this isn’t at the cost of fighting for what she believes in.
If creativity is indeed inherited, Olivia was surrounded by a plethora of projects that exposed her to the creative industries from a young age. “I grew up with a DIY mum in the house (a prop stylist, set designer and costumer) who pretty much taught me that if you put your mind to it, you can make anything out of anything,” she says. Olivia developed a nonchalance towards the six foot high toothpaste tubes that cropped up in her living room and cakes in the fridge with ‘DO NOT EAT, THIS IS A PROP’ signs. Her friends, on the other hand, gave her an alternative perspective, “I wouldn’t blink an eye, but whatever friend I had brought home with me would have so many questions; to me, it was just how our house was.” Olivia’s upbringing meant she learnt a unique talent for when the holiday season approaches. “As soon as October came around, I’d be enlisted to wrap empty boxes for Christmas shoots. I’m still an excellent gift wrapper now… making things is part of my love language!”
Grateful for her upbringing, Olivia’s privilege isn’t lost on her. “I’m a white middle class woman who was privately educated,” she says. “So therein lies the basis of all of my ignorances and misconceptions of the world. That said, I am grateful for my education because I was given the greatest gift a child can receive at school - an innate understanding and confidence that no matter what the weather, I can land on my feet.” Olivia cites her mum as her inspiration, keeping her grounded and continually supporting her curious mind. “A born-and-bred Bethnal Green girl who lived in various council estates around E3 growing up, there’s always been a sense of the hustle in her house.” And while Olivia inherited her photographer’s eye from her dad, her business mind was undoubtedly moulded by her mum.
Reflecting on her education, Olivia says, “It wasn’t until university that I really discovered how lucky I had been, to have had the education I did and the opportunities I had been presented growing up.” It was at London’s Central Saint Martin’s (CSM) that Olivia completed her foundation year and her undergraduate degree in Fashion Photography. Though she yearned to leave photography behind, she began to embrace it and trust her eye, always mindful to keep diversity and representation at the forefront of her mind. “I’ve spent a lot of years unlearning my inherent biases and now hope that I am active in making a change; both in who is represented in front of a camera, but more importantly, who is being paid to work on a project behind the scenes. Who is informing the work? What cultural eyes are we bringing to any given job? Am I right for the project at all or should it be passed on to someone else?”
London being her home, Olivia couldn’t imagine another city she would want to live in. “This stupid expensive, grey-as-fuck playground of inimitable cultural overlap. There is nowhere else in the world that people are more dry, sarcastic and accepting.” Her upbringing in a city with one of the most diverse populations and home to many niches, has allowed her to embrace what she describes as ‘a very melancholy side, a darkness’. She says, “In the simplest sense, I’m full of daddy issues and seeing a therapist twice a week to try and overcome them. I’m also an unbearably ambitious perfectionist who is determined to find new ways of working to challenge the status quo.”
Following on from her degree, Olivia found that while being ‘allergic’ to networking, it was the most conducive way to break into the industry. Her fellow CSM alumni helped her as a photographer, as they went on to have ‘highly esteemed jobs throughout the fashion industry’, presenting plenty of opportunity. While she appreciated the support, Olivia always kept firm on her beliefs, “True to my contrary nature, I turned down the first big job I was offered as a photographer (a 13-page feature in i-D magazine), after meeting the creative director and being hurt by the fact that he was suggesting I shoot clubbers, at night, with flash. My entire portfolio was portraits in daylight, and I felt like I had been personally misunderstood.” Olivia was determined not to accept the role in fear that she would end up in the monotonous cycle of shooting in a style that wasn’t for her, saying, “I would rather not shoot, than compromise my aesthetic or my morals.” The CD on her shoot, both shocked and impressed, took a moment to hear her thoughts. “I suggested clubbers shot the morning after, in the daylight and ended up winning the feature back.”
Now, Olivia focuses on her directorial career, something that was a pure accident, or an example of what she describes as her ‘stubborn’ nature. “Either way, I had never even considered directing as a career option. A friend who worked for The Mill asked me if I knew any up and coming directors that might be good for a Spotify spot with The Brits, featuring Jorja Smith. I had just finished shooting her press shots and (feeling quite possessive of my new friend) boldly told my mate in production that yes, I would be perfect for the job.” A few laughs were shared, but Olivia was serious, won Spotify over and embarked on what she would go on to say was a ‘career defining moment’.
Three years on from her directorial debut, Olivia reflects on how her background in photography was the perfect foundation for directing. “That first Spotify shoot taught me that my style of photography (focusing on everything but the technical and the camera in favour of getting the best from my subject), leant itself perfectly to being a director. Finally, I could concentrate on everything I loved and could leave the camera to someone who knew how to translate that into lenses!” While she was able to navigate certain aspects, creating seamlessly narrative pieces or understanding camera movements, came far less easily. She says her ‘imposter syndrome’ still lingers, but her determination means she’s eager to get things just right.
It was the perfectionist in Olivia that was relieved to not have FOMO from other directors’ endeavours when the lockdown period made everyone down tools. But not being busy for a workaholic, left her little too much time to think, she says. “So maybe the most frustrating part of life-after-lockdown is that we had all hoped for a better, more emotionally rich experience going back to work (having had time to think of all the ways we batter our bodies and minds in this industry) and that hasn’t yet happened.” And that is where Olivia believes change is necessary, in an industry that still has a reputation for ‘fun’. “I see the fight for it bubbling under the surface, but as yet we haven’t really made any meaningful changes to the industry. Our conditions of working reflect our job as a serious career rather than something we should be grateful to do because it’s ‘fun’. Because believe me, it isn’t always fun!”
Olivia’s passion and motivation come from the people, the people, the people. “I have long thought of myself as an anthropologist or sociologist more than an artist because the people I meet are why I do what I do,” she says. This sentiment is something she has carried throughout her career so far. “I feel lucky that I can have such a varied on-set life. It’s never the same team twice.” But of course, filmmaking is a minefield when it comes to preserving the sanctity of our all important work-life balance. “Our jobs come in threes, meaning we spend a lot of time worrying about if we will ever work again, burrowing into holes of directorial depression, before winning three jobs back-to-back and feeling like we might literally die if we don’t catch a break.” Olivia describes the process as taxing on not only herself, but the friends and family that surround her. “Do you know how hard it is to book a holiday when you’re freelance?!”
The goal for Olivia has been one that has stuck since she was a child: “Awards. I would like to win lots of them and eventually become a name that university students’ study in film making textbooks.” She materialises this by keeping her work fresh and looking forward and backwards, rather than laterally at her peers. “I prefer to look backwards, at what the great masters did - or forwards - to culture, to change, to society and what’s going on around us, for new ideas.”
In the realm of music video, Olivia says, “Sometimes it can feel like the industry is rigged: nepotism, politics and friendships create bias and that can leave us, directors, feeling like we have put our hearts and souls into work that doesn’t always get a fair chance.” While this can feel encompassing of the industry as a whole, Olivia explains how pitching for free means good ideas are lost and efforts are only awarded in one in five instances. Her bugbear lies in the age-old phrase of, ‘well, that’s just how it’s done’ which she rejects, challenges and encourages to be dropped as a norm. Instead, the industry should focus its efforts on scripts that ‘can really make a difference, spark conversation, and push the world forward in meaningful ways.’
Olivia believes it’s time for the industry to make strides towards the future, changing the statistics which are skewed towards a certain profile. “Our world, whether we like it or not, is still run by a majority of straight, white, cis men. And statistically, those directors still win the biggest jobs. They still win the most awards. They are still the most ‘trusted’ demographic. I think we need to diversify the people who control the purse strings and ultimately award the jobs.” Not only does she believe that one in three directors on a pitch being a woman isn’t sufficient, but she also reflects on diversity bringing with it a difference in cultural sensibilities and the scope to appeal to an entirely new, untapped demographic.
But there’s more to life than work and Olivia spends her free time indulging in things she loves. “I smoke cigarettes, I flirt with too many people, and I watch true crime documentaries until my dreams are full of horrible murders. I also walk my friend's dog, Coco, a lot - or does she walk me? I can never quite decide, but Coco has given me back a sense of how much I love to be out in nature with my headphones on to drum up some new thinking.” And this thinking took her back to her 15-year-old self, which was the last time she remembers actively pursuing her passion for creative writing. Olivia is now working on developing her screenwriting projects, while cooking delicious food and trying to incorporate some self-care into the mix.
“My motivation seems to come from the fact that I always feel the need to prove something to someone,” says Olivia. “But I’m not sure who. I just know that I never feel like the last project I worked on was quite good enough, so I’m always trying to top myself. It’s not a very healthy way to live, but it’s my life, so I treasure it and try to balance it out with the self-care skills I have learned with the help of my therapist. Check back in five years from now and see if I have learned the art of a work-life balance… and if I have, remind me to tell myself that I’m proud of my progress!”