In conversation with Nadia Lee Cohen

Nadia Lee Cohen
© Nadia Lee Cohen

Nadia Lee Cohen is a director, photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California. She is best known for her work with Miu Miu, A$AP Rocky, Kali Uchis and Nowness, as well as her surreal dreamscape and self-portrait photography series.

Hi Nadia, how are you?
I'm totally fine. There is nothing that I can complain about right now, I don’t think. It’s just menial, boring stuff. But, generally fine. How are you?
I'm really well, thank you. It's 7am here in Hobart and the sun is coming up. I like the morning light.
I do, too. I love having jet lag when I wake up super early.
Is it a public holiday there today?
Yeah, it’s really dead. A lot of people have the day off. I don't really know about the holidays here. They have weird ones.
And I suppose that you work to your own schedule anyway, so you wouldn't be impacted?
It's difficult because I don't know what tasks to set myself for the day. I'm trying to finish a book at the moment, so I make my own schedule which can be really hard to stick to.
What’s in the book?
The book is staged cinematic portraits showing women in varying states of nudity. Each woman has her own character and narrative. I've been shooting it for six years and I think now is the time to finally get it out. I didn't realise it had been that long until I started to organise it this year. So, yeah it’s been a while.
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© Nadia Lee Cohen
That’s exciting. You’re originally from the UK and you've been in LA for a few years, which I've read has inspired much of your work. I can see that too. I'm really interested in your life in LA and what keeps you there?
Basically I came here for a school project, originally, be- cause I looked up to certain photographers that captured Americana and I wanted to see how I could make work in the environment that inspired them. So, really that was the initial reason. I was bursting with inspiration when I came here and I still love some of the images that were made then. That was for my final masters project at the London College of Fashion. So once I'd made that trip, I started to make friends and gather a team here. I love my team, I've surrounded myself with people that have a shared taste level and we work together on pretty much on every project, which means we already kind of know what each of us are going to bring to the project. So I'd say, aside from the weather, that is the main thing that keeps me here.
I also find that I need to leave a lot of the time. I mean, I have to leave anyway because I'm constantly traveling. 
But each time I leave and I come back and see LA in that magical way that I did initially. The same with England. But when I go back to England I start to notice the quirks and quaint things that I miss about it when I'm in the US, the tea shops, the small sandwiches, M&S and general cynicism.
Yeah, I think that really rings quite similar to my experience. So, for context, I'm on an Island off Australia, but not in a tropical sense. It's quite a cold place, actually. It’s called Tasmania...
Oh, you’re in Tasmania!
Yes! I relate very hard to needing to leave a place to be able to enjoy it. Leaving is a big part of it because everything is condensed... You're under a microscope constantly, which is an interesting experiment. And we partly feel that we're on school camp all the time.
That’s kind of fun.
It is kind of fun.
There's not a lot to read about you. It’s made you sort of an enigma and hard to get to the bottom of. But I did read that you've been drawing since you were a child. I’d like to know how, and when, you started to share the work publicly?
I grew up in a very small town. It's not even a town, it was a house in the middle of a field. My mum is very artistic and we used to draw a lot together. There is one distinct project, if you can call it that, that I drew when I was re- ally young. I wish I still had it, it was in a neat folder with metal clips and had pages and pages of these Amazonian women with huge tits, some with two heads, some with three eyes for no reason. I wish I still had it, there's probably about 80 to 100 of them. But sadly I don't know where it is and it’s gone forever.
Oh no, your parents definitely don't have them?
They do not! We’ve lost a bunch of old artwork while moving houses. In answer to the last question, I don't really remember a conscious decision to share my work? Unless you mean exhibit?
No, no. I think that's probably the answer in itself. Some people I think really will keep things very close to their chest for a long time but I quite like the idea of Nadia, the child, grabbing people with her pen and paper.
Yeah. [laughs] What, like, the three people in the village by my Mum and Dad's house? There's not many people around to show it to. But now I guess people just started to notice it at some point.
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© Nadia Lee Cohen
Instagram's a strange place. People probably give it more credit than it deserves. But for people of our generation the evolution from a MySpace to Insta- gram is quite natural. I’m interested in the tipping point of your success. Was it your social media presence or how this work sort of started to come to scale and fruition for you?
I guess it is an evolution from MySpace and MSN. I also think that that means that it has a sell by date because both of those things are no longer a thing. So nothing lasts forever. Honestly, I find that question strange because people talk to me about it all the time. At first, it's just sharing bits of my work and bits of me, and then it just gained some traction. I don't really know how it happened.
I also don't feel that I have that much attention on me compared to, you know, some of some people on there have a ridiculous following. I did a project recently for a brand and we were casting people and the agency and the client wanted to cast people that had a particular following. It blew my mind. I was like, why? It's so crazy. But I guess it's free advertising for them and that's when it comes down to, which is a little bit of a shame.
I find it really interesting how people get so hung up on this certain part of one's promotion or whatever you want to call it. It really depends on where you sit in the world. A hundred thousand followers can be big or small depending on who you are.
And it doesn't keep any merits for how good somebody's work is. Because there’s real trash out there with a big following. Instagram is almost your own gallery space but not necessarily all the time. There's obviously some personal stuff. It's a curated way to show what you're
into and for all this to get insight into your character. I think there's definitely a darkness to it. But also I find that interesting. And it's just about consumption. If you don't get consumed by it, it can be positive. I would have hated to have grown up in a time where Instagram or social media was so prominent. It must be so tough being a teenager, or even a kid, now with this as a reality. I don't know where that's going.
I can remember coming home from school and checking people's top friends on MySpace to see if I've been moved. That was such a tiny version of what it's like now.
And it was cut-throat.

Whether dead or alive, should you have to explain to people what something's about? I don't think you should.

Chris, the curator, kind of cringed at this question because he didn't want me to define restlessness, but it felt like a really good way for me to get to the point of what I wanted to talk about. He'll also listen to this transcript and hear me tell you that.
Hi Chris!
So, the global theme for this year is ‘Restless’. By its dictionary definition, I don’t find your work to be restless at all. Your photographs feel like inhumanly human moments in time. Can you talk to me about the worlds and characters you create here?
Thank you, I like that description. So, I think that that stems from me being inspired heavily by cinema. Storytelling generally, anything narrative driven. I like the images to resemble a moment in time, sort of as though a movie's been paused. It has no sort of before and after and exerts its own strength. I find that's the type of imagery and photographs that I like to look at. So I'm trying to make something that I would also like. I don't really ever show anything that I don't enjoy looking at myself. What I'm inspired by hopefully comes out in what it is. And I think that all of those things, they do have a certain sense of restlessness.
And then in terms of your body of work. It certainly feels that there's a restlessness there. For your age and the length of your career, you have created so much in a short time...
Have I?
I think so. Do you not?
Oh my God. That is such a nice thing to hear because I genuinely panic every day that I haven't done enough.
If I’m honest, it sent me into an existential crisis when I found out we were the same age. I remember working on a shoot, maybe two years ago, and your work was on a mood board. It feels like you've been around forever...
Being on other people’s mood boards is such a mind blowing thing to me.
I wondered whether we’d talk about that. Sometimes they are genuinely for inspiration and sometimes they're for carbon copying...
Well, if it's the latter they either do a good or bad job of it. It’s flattering to an extent, but when a big company does it that's when it gets a bit upsetting. When they decide to use a more established person to copy something that a younger person has created.
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© Nadia Lee Cohen
In the context of Semi Permanent ‘Restless’ incites urgency for makers, doers and thinkers to join some of the most important conversations of our time. Are there examples within your work we could discuss? Governance of the female form seems like a good jumping point. So I’m pretty interested in...
In what I’m going to say?
[Laughs] Well, yes. From the outside I see views in your work. But they don’t feel explicit.
I think it’s obvious I’m a feminist. But I’m not overtly striving to push this or make that statement. I think the images themselves are almost a dreamland. Or some kind of made up time where women are the only species and escape any politics of today.
If I were to answer this properly, it kind of defeats the object of what I’m about to talk about next. I feel like that it's not up to me to inflict my own opinions as to what somebody should feel. It is subjective. When I explain something, it loses its magic. I'm very aware of that. I think Philip Lorca Dicorcia said something that was like ‘the more specific the interpretation suggested by picture, the less I'm happy with it’. So, I think that’s a thought I share.
Everyone is accessible now, or at least to a degree. I wonder if that’s where the accountability... or the de- sire to hear their opinions? And do we actually care? I'm not sure.
I'm not sure.
This is where I was thinking in the context of your work.
Well, I think everyone has a social responsibility to some extent. But when photographers move into film it seems they are expected less to make these explanations or justifications for their work. What one person feels isn't going to be the same as what somebody else feels. And it depends on what the work is.
Whether dead or alive, should you have to explain to people what something's about? I don't think you should. I think it ruins the magic. But, it just depends on what kind of effect those images are giving.
If it’s intense war photography, Lee Miller for example, you sort of have to explain a pile of dead bodies. Or maybe you don’t? Maybe it’s strength is that the image speaks louder than words ever could.
I don't know how I feel about it really, but I know how I feel about my own work, but maybe that's not necessarily the way I feel as a viewer. Maybe I'm intrigued and I want to know more about what that person wants me to feel.
It also varies between the works. Each photo, each video. You want a different kind of reaction dependent on what it is. 
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© Nadia Lee Cohen
I hadn’t really considered this question with you as the viewer, but I like it.
Me as the viewer wants to know things like ‘what break- fast they like to eat?’ ‘What car do they drive?’ ‘What annoys them?’ Knowing someone’s mundane quirks is far more fascinating than reading general interview questions.
That's probably the human element of them, especially when you have people on some kind of pedestal. I'm so impressed and then I hear they have oats for breakfast.
You have oats?
I have oats. Do you think there is a line between Nadia the person and Nadia the artist?
Well, I would feel really pretentious calling myself a 24/7 artist. Because I don't know what is artistic. Is it artistic when I'm making tea or going food shopping. So, I don't know what the line is. Could you give me an example?
Well, no, I don't think I can. If you can't see it, then it's probably not there.
It’s honestly a problem how consumed I can be with it.
I work constantly, but I do enjoy it. I like waking up early and feeling like I'm ahead. I'm working on this book project at the moment. So, I'm pretty consumed by it and constantly looking for inspiration around LA. I’ll be staring at people in shops and restaurants as potential character inspiration. Oh, the line! I guess it’s not there. But I won’t call myself a 24/7 artist because I’ll sound like a wanker.
I'm interested in art, but I have no practice. I find getting dressed up quite performative and the way that I can present myself to the world.
Exactly. Or making a house homely, buying flowers, that sort of shit.
In terms of your commercial work, specifically video clips, there's some pretty fucking big names there... Can you talk about how they sort of come to fruition? Is it concept driven?
I think if somebody is asking me to do something for them, it's because they want it to look a certain way, which tends to offer me more creative freedom. I’m generally trusted. It's good to have commercial work now and again. When I’m working artists I usually get on with the person so we can come up with something we’re both really excited about.
© Nadia Lee Cohen
It’s quite interesting how you touch different subcultures. I’ll talk to someone who’s familiar with your portraiture and then someone knows you from working with ASAP Rocky—which isn’t how I know you.
I know, a lot of people don’t even know I take photos. For the Rocky video I’d written the ideas for Marilyn Man- son two-years prior, which never got made so it went into the ‘rejected treatments’ folder. I sat on it for ages, hoping that someone was going to come along and be into the idea. Then when Rocky and I met up he said I was thinking of doing something with the police...’ And I was like ‘well I have the perfect thing for you.’ I’ve never really wanted to be a music video director, it’s just a great platform to be able to show people what I can make.
Next is a feature.
Yeah. A feature. Wow.
Hmm. Terrifying.
I think I'm going to let you go do that. This has been really, really wonderful. Thank you.
Same thank you! Have a nice day. Speak again sometime.
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© Nadia Lee Cohen
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