Victoria West is a photographic composite artist and portrait photographer based in New Brunswick, Canada. She is a multiple-award winner for her work, including being the first person to win Portrait Photographer of the Year from the Professional Photographers of Canada three years in a row (2019–2021).
I sat down with Victoria to discuss her unique process, her deeply personal and occasionally issue-driven subject matter, the role religion plays in her work (Victoria is an atheist), and more.
MP: Your photographs take quite a bit of time between shoots and editing. How do you know when you’ve found the right idea to commit so much time to? Is your process more conceptual or intuitive with regard to moving from one project to the next?
VW: Generally, when I start, I have no idea if my ideas are going to turn out or not. Usually, I’m doing things that I’ve never done before or I don’t really know how to do. I just decide it’s something I’m gonna figure out. I have never approached my art like a business. I have a portrait business, and in that, I care about how much time is being spent on things. When it comes to the art, it’s more like a compulsion that I have to create this thing. Regardless of how much time it’ll take, I’m going to try.
Whatever it is that I want to make, it’s usually pretty clear in my head. Then I think about what I can photograph to pull it together. I’ve got lots of ideas on my phone that I haven’t figured out yet.
MP: How do you document the ideas on your phone? Do you sketch these ideas? Or are they just notes to yourself?
VW: Little sentences that would make no sense to anybody reading them. I don’t sketch it. I can’t really draw. I just have random phrases written down. A lot of times, I will see the image, so I just need that little reminder of what it was that I saw in my head.
MP: With the piece “Exsaguinate,” I saw that you posted on social media a bit about how it came together and your comment was that people don’t naturally move like this, but you had spliced several photos together to create this realistic scene. Was that extreme pose in your mind at the outset or did it come of playing with the pieces?
VW: Actually, that particular piece is modeled on a painting, “Dante & Virgil” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. So I already knew what pose I was going to do. But that one was the first time I’d ever tried to duplicate somebody. I had a model, but it took me three photo shoots and 80 hours of editing. It went through photo competitions and no one knew that [both characters] were the same guy. But I have another one that was created in the same way, but I didn’t model it on anything. It’s called “Michael.”
MP: I’ve seen that one. Both characters are your husband, right?
VW: Yeah, so pretty much all of the naked guys are my husband. There are no models here [in Oromocto, NB, Canada]. I can’t call a modeling agency every time I have a new idea. We’re married so I can make him do shoots that he doesn’t really want to do. I had a few ideas going into that one, like Greek or Roman sculptures of gladiators wrestling and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t directly modeled after anything. These both are more like figure studies than my storytelling pieces.
MP: How do you approach storytelling in your work?
VW: Every image that I make starts with the story. It’s easier for me than coming up with the story after the fact. It’s organic. It’s what’s important to me, what I’m thinking about. Though I might talk a lot, I don’t put my deepest feelings out there, so I put them into the art and let the art speak for me. But then people want you to talk about the art.
MP: Just as I’m forcing you to do right now. I’ve looked at a lot of your output, and I can definitely see that. “Humane Meat” presents an understandable narrative. “The Last Supper” was, I believe, in response to the Australian wildfires. Is that how these story-based pieces come together, from your own reaction to issues or causes that you care deeply about?
VW: Yes, it’s my therapy. I did a piece in the first or second week of May when I first heard that Roe v Wade might be overturned. With the Australian wildfires, at that point, we thought it would be the worst thing to happen in 2020. But it was driving me crazy that no one wanted to talk about the cause and the reality of the situation. But I don’t want to write up a post and engage in some big discussion about my thoughts on it. People can look at my art and take it or leave it, but I don’t need to get into a debate.
MP: How much improvisation goes into the editing process to create your final photographs? Do you have a precise plan at the outset? For instance, “Humane Meat” seems meticulously constructed, but as you’ve said, your pictures come together quite organically.
VW: My inspiration for that one was actually pigs in slaughter trucks. But I had no idea how I was going to find a truck that worked. I knew I wanted it to have a vintage feel, but it needed to be the right shape so I could put the cage on the back. Then I needed a cage that could fit a lot of people. I thought about using a dog crate, photographing it, and blowing it up, but the bars weren’t right. I knew what I wanted but I had no idea how I was going to get it.
A lot of times, it’s luck. I was sitting in my studio one day and looked out the window and the perfect truck was parked outside. But before that, I had to get the models. How do you get models to agree to do this? I had seven. I knew I wanted more, but I just multiplied them. So I did that first because I just wanted to jump in and go. Then I found the truck. I wanted it to be dark out. I wanted the lights on. I had no idea how I was going to do any of that. The alien, I had no clue how I was going to do that. The piece probably took me a month from when I shot the models to when I finished the piece.
It usually works out. It’s pretty rare that it won’t work. It’s not well planned but I do know what I want.
MP: Do you typically have multiple works in progress going? By the sounds of it, you occasionally need to wait or spend time searching for certain elements to work with.
VW: Now I do, but before NFTs, I didn’t. Before coming into this space, I’d never tried to sell my work. Where I live, there’s no one to sell it to. No one here is really interested in this kind of work. Creating it was a luxury for me, as therapy and for my own enjoyment. And I could really only justify doing that once every few months. Now that I’m involved in this space, I can now feel like I should be doing more. But now I have something like three different pieces that I’m working on, but I don’t know when they’ll be done. But it’s great how the space has inspired me.
MP: Do you see your photos as singular works or do you consider certain pieces as part of one or more series? If the latter, can you explain a bit about the series?
VW: I didn’t start out with the intention to create any series, but because everything comes together so organically, there is a cohesiveness to most of it. There are social justice issues that care about that pop up a lot.
I also have noticed a lot of thoughts about life seeping into the work, especially in the last few years. I lost my mom, and that affected my thoughts about life and death and everything that goes on in between. That’s a theme that keeps coming up, and I keep seeing it. But it’s not like I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do a collection about this.” Things just start going together.
When I look at the work, when I actually put it together, I’m surprised and impressed at how cohesive it is. I’m surprised by my consistency. At the same time, I’ve been a photographer my entire life, and I know what I like. Even in my client work, the aesthetic lines up.
MP: Your work feels quite classical while commenting on contemporary issues like animal cruelty or climate change. Do you find that a familiar style helps you communicate?
VW: I just like to say what it is. I’m very upfront. I wish I could say that I was thoughtful enough to think about something like, “What is the best way to get people to receive this message?” When I create, I don’t really think of anyone but myself.
I am also more drawn to painters than I am to photographers, but I can’t paint, so I became a photographer. I like to call myself a failed painter.
I’m very drawn to the drama of religious artwork. I’m an atheist, even though I use a lot of religious visuals. But I just like the drama and the timelessness. I don’t want anyone to look at my work and know when it was made.
MP: Are your portrait clients familiar with your artistic body of work? Do they ever ask for something a little edgier after familiarizing themselves with your work?
VW: Yes, they are familiar with it. But I very rarely get asked for any of that. People come to me because they want to look great. They don’t want a strange, potentially controversial, portrait. I haven’t done a paid “creative shoot,” because I have to be inspired to do something.
There are two pieces on MakersPlace, “The Battle” and “The Climb.” The model is actually a portrait client of mine. She wanted to hire me to do a photoshoot to celebrate her successful battle overcoming PTSD. She’d been through a lot and came out on the other side of it and wanted to do a photo shoot about that.
I told her I wasn’t sure, and I’d get back to her. After a few weeks, I was in my car and the story just popped into my head. And I was inspired to tell it with her. I didn’t actually charge her because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out.
MP: What is your relationship with religion and using it in your work?
VW: To me, religion is stories. Stories I don’t believe to be true, but some of them are quite dramatic and interesting. I’m an atheist but I was raised in the Anglican Church. My dad tried really hard to make sure I don’t go to hell, but that didn’t work out for him. But there’s something about the tradition of it — it’s a part of my life even though I’m not a believer.
MP: Do you see any parallels between the religious overtones of your work and the contemporary social issues you often represent?
VW: The thing about the big main religions is, who on earth has been a better storyteller? Everybody knows their stories because they’re captivating. People dedicate their lives to these stories. Maybe I’m just co-opting that. There’s a weight to it. A seriousness. A feeling of importance. So maybe that’s why I’ve taken that.