Jenavieve Belair’s following is not surprising when you consider the content of her photographs: her portfolio is a diary of beautiful lifestyle images of her half-naked supermodel friends. But this isn’t what makes her a special photographer.
I wanted Jena to be our first photographer feature because of the nuances that make her work stand out amidst the over-saturation of flat, highly-sexualized fashion photographs. Jena doesn’t make her subjects sculptures. Her images are more about freedom, movement, and the documentation of her life in Southern California. Yet, it is Jena’s unique ability to capture these real moments with such clarity and intention that makes her a valuable photographer to fashion and lifestyle brands that value grit and authenticity (and indeed know what’s best for them), including Free People, Urban Outfitters, and RVCA.
Will: I think you’re in a pretty good position right now with your photography. People hire you for the right reasons.. Basically shit you would photograph anyways.
Jenavieve: Ya, I know, which is crazy. I think about that. When I was in high school I would take my friends out, dress them up, and go take photos of them, and then come back and edit them — and that’s the same thing I’m doing now, 10 years later…. I was so convinced at the age of 17 of what I wanted to do with my life.
Will: It was extremely fun to curate your work for this interview.
Jenavieve: I wanna see what you pulled! (See below) Ok, so this is so much what I’d rather be known for than just hot girls… I mean there is so much life in this. I think a lot of people think I’m limited to sexy women.. But I don’t like photographing sexy women.
Will: But your subjects are sexy.
Jenavieve: Ya, but I try to make them southern California beach sexy, more lifestyle sexy than Sports Illustrated sexy…. I try to bring movement, and a feeling of comfort and relaxation… but it’s so weird, when I put something out there it gets so much more attention the sexier it is. I like when somebody’s naked, but not in a sexy way. It’s not about their body, but more about freedom, and youth, and the adventure.
Will: Exactly, what impresses me about you is that your work transcends objectification. You have this certain look that people love, and it is affording you a lot of opportunities, but there’s also this classic style that underlies your images: 3-dimensionality and realness that is hard to find in fashion and beauty.
Jenavieve: Well, I mean, when you open up a magazine, what do you respond to? Do you respond to those ads where somebody’s like, high fashion — that classic movement pose in-studio, or do you respond to that beautiful 6PM light when someone is looking over their shoulder smiling?
“I have no shame looking at that and being like ‘That’s Fucking Awesome!’… Sometimes when I’m editing stuff I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I created that!”
Will: Of course.. then why do you think the other style is so much more prevalent?
Jenavieve: I think that women have become this perfect object in a lot of our society’s eyes. But I feel — I don’t want women to be perfect. I know we’re not perfect. The way a woman’s body works, where the imperfections are — that’s what’s beautiful. I don’t sit around photoshopping scars off of legs. I think people put too much effort into what they’re doing… and too much thought.
“ The way a woman’s body works, where the imperfections are — that’s what’s beautiful.”
Will: I agree, but tell me more about this — because photography, to me, it’s one of those things that becomes degraded when overdone.
Jenavieve: Right, and you can always tell when it’s overdone. When images have a documentary vibe, I mean, to me, that’s the purpose of photography — literally to preserve the moment. Sometimes I feel like I’ve strayed from that — and the fashion industry strays from it. I feel like my struggle is trying to get back to it.
Cont: Ya… if I’m in a studio and something’s more set up… like if there’s more makeup artists, and stylists, and if the moment is literally having to be created in front of you, it comes across in the photograph. When I’m going to shoot my girls, I tell them to not do their makeup, and to wear their hair messy, and to bring whatever they wanna wear. When things are more contrived, the whole reason of it being a photograph is gone.
“When things are more contrived, the whole reason of it being a photograph is gone”
Will: What would your photography look like if you had a different taste in friends?
Jenavieve: Incredibly different, people have asked me that before. I don’t realize how blessed I am to have such good looking friends.
Will: Do you choose friends because of your photography?
Jenavieve: Noooo.. hahaha! Half of it is that I’ve made friends with these models now, after working with them, so I have like a rolodex of hot friends.
Will: So, let’s move past photography. What would you say is the greatest adventure of your life so far?
Jenavieve: I use the word adventure loosely. Everyday is an adventure, every emotional battle is an adventure. I’ve been to different countries and had broken hearts and those have all been amazing adventures. But the move from Minnesota to California when I was 18 was a world shifting kind of adventure. I changed mentally, creatively and emotionally. It changed my shooting style and helped me define my look.
“I feel like a lot of my brand is sunshine. I reek of sunshine.”
Will: What person had the greatest impact on your life?
Jenavieve: I truly believe everyone you come in contact with on a daily basis, whether it’s a waitress, a banker, a boyfriend, all of them impact you to some degree. I look back and I can see how and where different people impacted my life… But my mother, she taught me how to believe in myself and how to trust the universe. Because of her, I believe in my vision, my abilities, my heart, all of myself. She allowed me to create outside the lines, pushed me to be different and to stand out.
Will: What was the last film or book that really inspired you and why?
Jenavieve: I was recently inspired from this little two minute video. Ira Glass, one of my favorite story tellers, the voice of NPR, speaks about the growth of an artist and how we change. It took me years to define my look. He mentions in the video how we have taste, we know what we want our work to look like, but it takes time and practice to eventually achieve that look. It wasn’t until the last few years that I was able to hone in on that.
Will: Any advice you’d like to share with the next generation?
Jenavieve: I think the belief you have in yourself and your abilities is just as important as a class. In fact, I think they should teach a class on confidence and self worth.
“I would tell them to trust their passions, to work at it and do what it takes to make it your life.”
Cont: Whether it’s being a doctor, a designer, a chef, there is no such thing as a normal job, or a normal life. Do whatever it is you wanna do.