WOMAN REDISCOVERED. Interview with Rebecca Zephyr Thomas
Thanks to Rebecca Zephyr Thomas. It's not easy to photograph me.
Thanks also for asking important questions close to my heart and how I co-found a skincare company, exploring and redefining ideas of 'beauty' through my work as a photographer which extends to my role as creative director for Girl Undiscovered.
I've been a photographer in a boys club of an industry for over 20 years now. We are in interesting times and for the first time I am hopeful for the future.
Sara Orme: Woman Rediscovered
Girl Undiscovered is the newest and most exciting ethical beauty brand to come out of New Zealand. The company was founded by three close friends; Charlotte Devereux, Sara Orme and Philly Gebbie. Girl Undiscovered taps into current beauty trends such as a clear, ethically sourced supply chain, real relationships with the people who produce the raw ingredients that go into the products and a message of female freedom at the center of the brand. These days no one wants a beauty product that has increased suffering in the world, whether it is human, animal or environmental and that philosophy is at the heart of Girl Undiscovered.
The products themselves are gorgeously packaged; they feature dreamy photographs of girls running through fields or swimming in the sea. A luxe hippie vibe: a vision of New Zealand by way of California. Sara Orme is the creative director at Girl Undiscovered and to her female freedom isn’t just a convenient marketing tool; it is something she has devoted her life to. Sara was one of the first New Zealanders to study feminism at university, she went on to work as a photographer in what was (and still is arguably today) a largely male-dominated industry.
I caught up with Sara to discuss her 1993 documentary photography series shot at Cannes Film Festival, the rise of Me Too and the fall of the male chauvinist pig, and what’s next for Girl Undiscovered.
Where did all this dreaminess and sense of freedom that is so evident in your work as a photographer and now Girl Undiscovered come from?
Well...I had a very creative childhood. We were always creating something growing up and beauty was something that I was always surrounded in. Beautiful paintings, craft, food, music, friends, our house was filled with it. I also grew up in a single parent family where we were encouraged to be independent and free thinkers. We didn’t grow up with many rules and lucky for Mum I was a pretty good kid.
I was a very girly girl and a lot of my childhood friends were also very creative, so we used to just slip into this very idyllic world that I guess was pretty dreamy. It’s kind of interesting talking about this now because another part of my life was quite feisty as Mum was such a big advocate for fairness in the world, she was very outwardly political about these things and never held back with her opinions. We’d be in the supermarket and Mum would say loudly ‘we’re not buying that Nestle chocolate, we’re boycotting it because it’s from South Africa’ and of course this was during the time of apartheid. So, I guess it was a crazy mix of dreamy creativity and stand up strong for what you believe in. What I love most is that history has proved to the world that people like my Mother were right. I think all radical ideas get proven right in the end. I love this about history and I love this about my Mother. I hate that word empowering but that’s what it is. It’s also a reminder to me to be brave and trust that if you believe something is right or wrong then stand by it. Be strong.
What drew you to photography originally?
My mother was an Art teacher and I am sure that had something to do with it. My childhood was very dreamy and creative and photography somehow slotted into that.
Do you really bare your soul as a photographer?
Absolutely yes. Everything I shoot is like a tapestry of my life. Everything I am about and more.
The freedom that is in a lot of my imagery is just me projecting myself into my imagery. I become that person when I am shooting and directing as well…it’s like I am channeling. Quite crazy really. I get so lost in the moment when I am shooting that nothing else matters.
I remember a quote from Susan Sontag and it speaks to me in every way as a photographer and human. It’s something like…
“The image before you is simply the surface. It might be someone sitting, standing, pondering, sleeping, laughing but every frame runs deep in her gaze. You have indeed entered the windows of her soul. The image before you is really about her. The taker, the visionary,
the lover of life. Revel in her spirit and know that each glimpse you see is her gift to you…” What else can I say!
Wow. Tell us how you got into shooting Cannes which is different again.
Fashion and documentary photography were the things I really loved when I studied. My Cannes project was the very first project I ever did at uni when I was there for the second time studying photography, a hundred years ago. I shot it at the Cannes Film Festival.
How did you get access?
My husband is a filmmaker and he had a film in there. I am not just boasting up myself, but when I look at those photos, I think that was a fucking good piece of work.
That would have been a photographer’s dream.
It was, but I had two little kids, there was no way I could just do documentary photography, not in New Zealand. I had access to an incredible subject at Cannes; no one gave me that access. I was six months pregnant when I shot it. I’d been to Cannes the year before, my husband was doing meetings and I would just watch this activity down on the beach of the girls being shot by this gang of photographers. I had done a degree in feminist studies; that was my major before I did photography. I was the first intake at Canterbury University to do feminist studies. I did feminist studies and on top of that, I studied the sociology of sexual politics.
What prompted your feminist awakening?
I was very lucky in that my mum was a feminist, she was a single parent, she raised two children; this was in the seventies when there weren’t many single parents. There was no such thing as the Domestic Purposes Benefit in social welfare; so she always worked, she was an art teacher and a great inspiration for me.
What do you think about feminism in New Zealand today? I’ve lived out of New Zealand and then came back so I think I see the culture with fresh eyes, but what are your views?
In our industry, I guess I place it back to photography: terrible. I started twenty-five years ago, ‘who were my icons?’ I am a mum with two children and I think I am pretty good at what I do, where are the opportunities for me? I can just remember thinking if I was overseas there are these amazing women photographers like Ellen Von Unwerth, Sarah Moon, there were a handful of women who were making it internationally, either from the States or Europe. I can just remember thinking we’re so backwards here.
Because it felt like it was all men taking the photos?
All men; a real boy’s club. Add to that being a mum, maybe if I was an ex-model?
Ellen Von Unwerth is an ex-model!
Deborah Tubberville was too.
Do you really think that’s changed that much?
Let’s face it there’s something about a gorgeous woman who walks into your office and says ‘hey!’ I get it; I get the attraction. I’m not stupid. Here I am thinking about how I am going to put food on the table for my two children. No one in those days was interested in the fact that I had done feminist studies; that was dormant.
But people are impressed now.
They are, but that’s also because I am pushing it, sometimes I am like ‘I forgot I did all those things. I’m in my fifties now and it’s just like ‘fuck it, you’ve got nothing to lose’, so it’s very liberating. That for me has come with age and not having dependent children. People have this illusion that I was a bit of a housewife type. My husband had a successful career as a director and maybe people thought ‘oh she’s the wife’ and I lived in the suburbs, so I think people saw me as that. But I never felt that, and it probably didn’t help that I was shooting weddings and portraits at that time. That’s pretty uncool stuff to do. But I was on top of my game then, I could command high prices and ran it as a topline business. Not that I am throwing it out there, but I was probably NZ’s top wedding photographer at that time. I’m just that kind of person who has to be the best at everything I do. It didn’t matter that it was only weddings. I still wanted to be the best. I was also hell bent on pushing the envelope and always doing things differently. At a point when everyone was shooting with big flash camera’s on tripods, I was hand holding my old school camera and making my bride and groom run like crazy. I just wanted the energy. No one was doing anything like that then but it just felt so right to be doing something like this.
I also always kept my hand in advertising, I don’t know how but I just did, I landed a couple of really good campaigns when my kids were little, and I pumped it up again when they were growing up. That is where the money and kudos is, but you have to work really hard and smart and it is really such a boy’s club. You only need to look at what women earn and what men earn. At that point I was the only female advertising photographer commanding the same high rates as my male counterparts. Crazy right but it was and probably still is true.
I read a quote recently about how Trump picked his Vice President because he thought he looked straight from central casting. When the President of the United States is choosing people based on whether they look right, it has to be all through society, tickling all the way down, even to photographers.
That’s really interesting, you have Trump, all the reasons why we loathe him, talking about grabbing pussy, but then we have this whole other thing, I tell you it is amazing, the whole Me Too movement. This is history for feminism. Honestly if someone told me this was going to happen ten years ago, it was a dream. The fact you can pick up the paper and read about all these people who have lost their job or their TV series going to be dropped, that’s incredible and this is just the beginning. I think that women should not forget how incredible that is. I think that there is a little bit happening in feminism where women aren’t realizing these triumphs. I remember reading in The Herald about all these guys, Louis CK, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, there was about thirty and this is just the beginning, all the companies have just dropped them.
Yes, that’s new....
It’s just incredible. The companies have to listen now; they have to do something about it. They can’t ignore it. This has been happening forever. I have Me Too stories, all of my generation and I am sure your generation too. We’ve got real; we didn’t have the voice to stand up before. You have that happening in America and then you’ve got Trump. It’s just sort of like a backlash.
The whole Me Too movement has got people interested in the Cannes project I shot 20+ years ago. I love that I shot that. It reminds me of how feisty I am, and the world seems to really appreciate that now.
Do you think people are starting to vote with their wallets more than in the past and see the connection with spending money on products that they don’t believe in?
As in people buying things that they do ethically believe in? I think definitely, we are seeing those shifts. Just to relate it to our brand Girl Undiscovered, we started two years ago and as I was writing the brand strategy it was just effortless because I started tapping into my memories of being a kid, going on political and environmental marches with my mother when I was eight. I thought for my brand it really came absolutely from my heart, I am really aware now that it’s just become marketing speak but that isn’t something I even have to think about because for me it isn’t marketing speak. It’s real.
One of the things I noticed about Girl Undiscovered, is that the products are all ethically sourced, was that a goal from the beginning?
Literally from the first week when we decided to do skin care I was like, ‘it has to be made in New Zealand and we have got to find families who we can work with directly’. ‘I want our brand to be fair trade’. Going back to that whole authenticity thing…the fair-trade aspect and everything around this...I know comes from my life with my Dad. I am proud of my Maori heritage through him. I am also proud of how he fought for the underdog as a lawyer. As a kid I was exposed to some of the poorest regions in New Zealand, but it was never something I noticed. I just saw them as beautiful people and could only see their goodness.
Choosing to go direct to farmers was a really hard way of doing things; none of us had experience doing anything like this before. We could have just bought our ingredients from the internet, done a little bit of homework, but we didn’t. I spent months ringing embassies and any contact I could find searching for people who could help us in Burma to find the perfect growers and trading partners. My business partner Philly was living in Bali at the time and she could find suppliers there which made things easier. Day one that was very important to us, it was a hard road, but we just absolutely had to do it. It’s been so rewarding on so many different levels.
What’s been your favorite part of doing the creative direction for Girl Undiscovered? The packaging has got you a lot of press and attention; people love it.
Honestly what I have loved about doing all the photography for Girl Undiscovered is being able to go like this (Sara flips the middle finger) to those male advertising people who never got me to do it. Even most beauty campaigns were shot by guys. I mean fuck...can you believe it. This is almost laughable now. The fact that I can just think well fuck you to all the brands that couldn’t see my vision and power then and now I just start my own thing and do everything that I’ve just been dying to do for twenty-five years. That’s pretty exciting.
I feel like I have been training for this for all those years too. Everything I have done has all come into one place which is cool...this also includes my marketing hustle I did in between uni and my photography career. Feminism, marketing, sales, art history, sociology, mentoring, advising, photography, activism…man do I feel on-trend right now!!
There’s so much going on in my head that sometimes it’s also really hard because you have to stay very focused on strategy. It’s like when you’re at high school and someone says you can write an essay on anything you want, and you think ‘ohh this or that…or eeeek….?’ that happens when it’s your own brand. Even though I have free reign it still has to be on brand, you still have to think about every aspect of the brand. It’s like building a house and if the foundations aren’t solid anything can collapse at any time. I think about it as a tight rope that you can slip off at any time and how easy it would be. I kind of kick into my ‘girl swat’ mode when I write strategy. I am also always focused on the story telling aspect of our brand. I guess this all comes out of being a photographer...taking photographs is story telling on so many levels that can run very deep. I didn’t come from the traditional creative director ad agency background but was exposed to so many brand ideas and executions that I learnt so much as I implemented them. I also think coming from a different perspective and one of a photographer’s vision brings something unique into the brand altogether. It kind of turns things on its head at times and I love this.
It’s terrible but most nights before I sleep, I find myself doing intensive creative problem solving. My mind then starts to go on visual and conceptual overload. I just can’t stop. I guess this is the good thing about being creative director of your own brand…your mind never switches off.
My business partners and I are either all in our fifties or a bit younger, but we don’t feel it. One of the things we are going to do next for campaigns is the idea of Girl Undiscovered. I have talked to women of all ages, up to 93, I chat away, and I ask, ‘if you were to think about your girl within how old is she?’ What’s amazing is that no one has to think very hard, they all come out with an answer almost immediately, so they will say ‘oh 22’.
So, what’s yours?
Mine is twenty. I ask other people why they chose the age they do and what usually happens is that they go straight back to a time when they feel free, either a time before they had children, in my case I didn’t have children at 20, I had my son at 21. For me, I tap back into that age when I didn’t have responsibilities. That freedom, that recklessness, all those feelings from before I had to be responsible. I feel that way again now that my kids have grown up, I feel that spirit within me. It’s pretty exhilarating and I actually forget that I am fifty something.
What are you excited about for next year?
Girl Undiscovered is pretty much my life right now. I can’t name names there are some exciting things in the pipeline. It’s about getting the brand really strong, really work on what is Girl Undiscovered. I want to do so much…I panic that I can’t fit it all in. I see films, zines, campaigns that no one has ever seen before, endless photography that continues to spill our story. I just want to disrupt. Somehow. Anyhow. I want to talk to as many girls in the world as I possibly can because I feel that there’s so much power to that. I guess as a photographer I have shot so many women, thousands and you have this intimate time with them, you see how vulnerable people are and what makes them feel good. For me as a photographer that was always my job, as soon as someone walked in I needed to make them look good and feel absolutely fucking amazing. I think that taking care of other people and understanding women and their vulnerabilities are such a big part of me as a human being that extends into my life as a photographer and I just pour all of this into the brand. It’s second nature. The biggest challenge we have now is just not sounding like another marketing cliché because ‘empowering’ women is so on trend right now. For us, it’s about keeping the integrity, the life force and the authenticity of our brand.
I know if I just keep tapping into my own personal experiences that this will just keep flowing effortlessly and even I don’t know what I am capable of next.
I want our brand to be global and for everyone to understand what authenticity actually looks like. I love the fact that I come from this little place called New Zealand where we were the first women in the world to get the vote. There’s just so much power and mana in that.
I just want to do the best I can possibly do and just keep getting better and better and do our suffragette predecessors proud.