A Kid From Somewhere: Olivia Bee begins with Olivia Bee, 24, hugging a plastic-wrapped load of laundry, looking grateful. She's sitting in a dimly lit bedroom — a true-to-size New York City bedroom, not your traditional TV bedroom.
"My photography began as me just simply saying, 'This is what my world is,'" Bee says in a voiceover. That's also, essentially, what A Kid From Somewhere is doing. The short film is part of a series directed by Paul Johnston and Adam Beck and produced in collaboration with The Creator Class, a creative community development program. It examines Bee's world from a perspective that is not her own — she is not handling the camera, for once.
"It's pretty awesome because it shows what actually goes on in the life of a creative person," Bee told Refinery29 over the phone from the airport, where she's waiting to board a flight to New York. In New York, she'll be shooting a project that she's not yet allowed to talk about.
"I feel like your life on Instagram can be so, 'Yes, Olivia Bee's always at stuff, exploring electromagnetic fields and feelings,'" Bee continued, "But also my life's all these other things. It's sad sometimes. It's also wonderful." Part of the documentary focuses on a project Bee did in honour of her late sister, who died before Bee was even born. A Kid From Somewhere follows Bee from prep — she awakes before dawn for most shoots — to filming, all the way to the darkroom, where she develops and almost "discovers" the photos. The film is a glimpse at Bee's process, which, because of her age, has been somewhat romanticised.
Bee is a photography prodigy. At age 14, Converse reached out to the then-amateur Bee and asked if she would be willing to photograph a project for the brand. By 2013, she was photographing for the French magazine Le Monde and the New York Times Magazine. Bee's photographs are muted and infused with youth — they're often awash in what's now known as millennial pink, although Bee's rise preceded the overwhelming ubiquity of the colour. People who get famous so rapidly are often regarded as outliers. Bee, because of her success, must have some sort of inexplicable magic, right? For the 24-year-old, though, it's not so simple. She herself is still unsure about her own artistry.
"[Making the documentary] gave me a lot of validation of my process. Just to have someone there who's like, 'Wow, that's cool' made me be like, 'Yeah, that is really cool,'" she told me.
Her process, as much as she can have one specific formula, is far from simple. "I shoot a lot of self portraits. And the self portraits have some kind of emotional arc behind them, and I try to make them about something that's happened in my life," she says. In A Kid From Somewhere, Bee shoots a self-portrait about her late sister. "I usually go to these remote places," she added, "from sunrise to sunset, and shoot 15 hour days of myself." From there, she develops the photos, often discovering details about the photos in the process.
"It was cool someone film that. It was validation [hearing] 'Yes, you're on the right path. You're doing what you're supposed to be doing,'" she explained. These days, her path is leading her to narrative film, a more robust medium. She loved Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, she told me, and she's interested in telling more comprehensive stories with moving pictures.
In Bee's words: "I feel like photos aren't able to tell the stories that I want to tell all the time anymore. [Film is] a medium where you can touch people even more than pictures."
As for her age, Bee is wary of the obsession with it. People — myself included — like to hear from the youth, she says, because we have the sense that young people have a better idea of what the future will be like. "Everyone wants to know how the world is changing, and I feel like young people offer a perspective on what the future's gonna be like and how the world is changing," she said. That said, "I think our culture fetishises youth a lot, and I feel like it's actually quite damaging to people who are in their quote unquote youth, and people who aren't," she continued.
And, at that, Bee's plane started boarding, ready to whisk her off to a new, top-secret project.
A Kid From Somewhere premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival's Next Wave program in February. The series also includes episodes about and the music producer LA Timpa. Watch A Kid From Somewhere: Olivia Bee, below.