INTERVIEW & BIBLIOGRAPHY
The following text is from an article produced by Reade Tilley about the artist Layla Love and
her 2018 NYC Art Show Fundraiser for her nonprofit Rise of the Butterfly.
Photographer Layla Love charts a path from darkness to redemption
with her new show Rise of the Butterfly—and you’re in it.
Both photographs and butterflies rely on transformation, but if the wings of the latter represent
a linear achievement, the former’s realization is more meridian and perhaps incomplete. At the
culmination of capture, develop, stop, fix, rinse, wash and dry (or its digital equivalent) the
metamorphosis of photography renders light as where it was, a kind of process to origin. What
happens next is to the beholder, and it is on this final stage of transformation that
photographer Layla Love is focused.
“My whole point is to shock people into action and then to have a means of action available to
them,” Love says of her work, most recently aimed at ending human trafficking. A series of new
shows and images compel viewer confrontations with stark slavery and desecration alongside
elevated visions of liberated woman-defined sexuality. Any resulting dissonance among
viewers is answered with a means to resolution as well, and it is here that Love’s work
surpasses former explorations of horror. Rise of the Butterfly, a non-profit dedicated to
combating human trafficking and to supporting its survivors, will benefit from the photography,
as will any who see it and who contribute by purchasing works or a Rise of the Butterfly book.
Founded by Love with feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Rise of the Butterfly empowers viewers
beyond simply discomforting them even as the work empowers its subjects by bringing their
suffering out of shadows. From the gallery walls, the viewer is given the honor and the means
to bring the work outside again, back into the world transformed into change, and that makes
the show satisfying as well as provocative.
“Media is a form of activism, but I’m not a protester,” says Love. “I’m more on the tip of being
a protector. I think exposing the violence and the rage is only useful when you offer solutions,
when you offer calls to action and when you offer beautiful things in contrast. Otherwise it’s
just bombarding the senses, which is sensationalism, which is the way so much of our society
is being destroyed.”
As committed to documenting everyday life as she is to illustrating exceptional themes both
horrific and beautiful, it is Love’s pointed work that is her most discussed, and that is rather the
idea: “Art loses its ego when paired with purpose,” she has said, and while there is something
for Love in creating her photographs, certainly, she is not the point of them, and that greatly
expands the images’ potential for impact.
In this show, titled Rise, and in her other work her subjects are engaged, often as fighters or
survivors (or both) across a wide spectrum of personality and experience. Measured advocates
for change such as Moby are as regarded as riotous agents such as Pussy Riot. Likewise,
whether it’s P!nk, Kanye West, Barbara Walters, Laila Ali, Marianne Williamson, Steinem,
formerly unheralded women around the world or the artist herself, those before Love’s lens are
factors of action. That viewers of the resulting photographs are invited to advance with them is
another elevation, one especially inspirited by Rise of the Butterfly’s path to participation.
The source of this engagement is a lifetime spent in consideration: of Love’s own place in the
world, of environments and the people who inhabit them, of the way those people treat each
other (and themselves) and of how that treatment travels. For the 7-year-old girl with a
point-and-shoot camera, the girl with the gypsy mother who moved her more than 30 times
before she turned 18, photography was a way to hold on—to places, to school friends and
family, and to other things. Love held onto that which was precious as if her life depended on
it-- and to a degree it did as she found freedom in creation-- found solace in creating
something out of raw emotion that she could reflect upon and transform from-- art was a mirror
into the world as she desired it to be-- art was her healing-- her movement when she was
paralyzed and the amplifier of a small girls voice in a man’s world. Diagnosed at the age of 5
with a debilitating disease that had her in a wheelchair for a time and which today, by
consequence of treatment, has threatened her sight, Love told friend and noted writer Anthony
Haden-Guest in 2011 that her youthful self “thought everything was beautiful and fleeting. So I
photographed everything. It was a way of holding onto people I loved,” she said in a piece
published on artnet. As Love grew and traveled, living in a commune in England, then in a city
ghetto, then wherever the next place was, photography appears to have become something
more: a way to gather everyone into light. Think Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, if that family
was everyone in the world, and in fact Love claims Mann as an influence.
“Sally Mann’s book [Immediate Family] was the first photo book I ever saw, when I was 12
years old,” Love says. “And Henri-Cartier Bresson’s work, that became really important to me
as a kid, ‘the decisive moment.’ Don McCullin, his India stuff... But I didn’t know these people
until later. I didn’t get a good education because I was moving all the time; different school
systems, different languages, Waldorf to private to super-ghetto Dangerous Minds type of
schools. I didn’t learn about photographers until way after.”
Twelve was also the age at which Love met a mentor who introduced her to the darkroom,
where the young photographer would spend much of her time. And by this point, she had
reconnected with her father as well.
“Dad was a stable guy, career-focused. Mom is like a hardcore gypsy, and she comes from
real gypsy parents. She was like this hippie: got pregnant with me on vacation, married when I was
two, divorced when I was five, and we moved a lot. Different countries, different
socioeconomic situations... I learned a lot, how to relate to different people. It shaped me to be
who I am; whether I liked it or not doesn’t really matter.”
A graduate of University of California Santa Cruz with a degree in Visual Communications and
Journalism, Love says a mentor there offered to pay her to photograph women in West Africa
who were self-mutilating to avoid being taken into the slave trade—“They would blind
themselves and their daughters, that’s the way they wouldn’t be attacked,” Love explains.
Among the first of her forays into documenting and exploring the spectrum of women’s power
in this world, it led to other assignments and “service work,” as Love puts it, rendering beauty,
pain, and strength for consideration en route to transformative action. This was as vital in
photographing a young victim of trafficking in Cameroon as it was in documenting the
Women’s March in Washington, D.C., as it was in showing women in China being persecuted,
as it was when Love photographed herself following an assault in Australia; and so it goes.
“It’s a tango,” she says. “I followed my work more than anything, and my work now follows
me... The ability to be there and be brave, I didn’t just feel the strength and a rage in me that
allowed me to go into these places and bring that truth out of the dark corners. Hopefully when
you bring something to the light, it transforms it. Art transforms raw emotion into something
more useful than itself.”
Indeed. With Steinem’s urging and support, Rise of the Butterfly took flight several years ago
(the two friends had met to discuss a project involving elephants) and now it’s bringing
together other nonprofits, survivors of human trafficking, poets, virtual reality artists, dancers
including the New York City Ballet, the viewers and the show’s subjects, all for realization and
change. At some point, Love says, she’d also like to admit the perpetrators of the trafficking
and sexual violence that are behind her work.
“I want to invite perpetrators into a safe space, too, and allow for conversations,” she explains.
“These people are over-programmed on patriarchy and on a violent masculinity that’s not
serving them either—reducing human life to capitalism! They’ve gone through so much, that
they could devalue a life to such a degree. ‘Come, discuss.’ If there is not love to embrace
them somehow, we’re never going to get through this problem; though I don’t know how to
embrace this complexity.”
There’s more work coming as well, new approaches and explorations of transformation,
literally and figuratively. One involves deconstructing a wooden chest constructed from wood
planted by slaves of one of the U.S.’s most celebrated founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson;
others with recasting male-driven costuming in an empowered, woman-held light. In all of it
there will be purpose, that is sure, even as Rise of the Butterfly begins the next stage of its
journey, with Rise opening this May in New York.
“I’ve always donated to different causes along the way, it’s just a beautiful way to make art, to
honor the ‘coming through you’ instead of ‘from you,’” says Love. “This is a higher purpose. Art
is something sacred and profound. Culture moves through artifacts—everything is buried. It’s
down to art that we decide what we were.”
A snapshot of us all as much as it is a collection of images from our time, Rise of the Butterfly
may encourage future evaluations that if we were capable of ugliness, so were we able to
transform and to become beautiful again. In that potentiality Love captures a light of both
revelation and redemption. How far that light will travel is up to those who view her work and is
yet to be seen, but Love has given it a chance, and perhaps that’s all it needs.
The Rise of the Butterfly Art Show, entitled Rise, will run May 17 through June 15 at 555 W 25th
Street in New York City. The show is curated by Anthony Haden-Guest with an introduction by
Gloria Steinem and will feature traditional fiber-based darkroom prints made by Layla Love
alongside virtual reality composites and other forms. Grounded in the straightforward truth that
“Humans should not own other humans” and dedicated to transformation and to the fight
against human trafficking, the show will feature 70 artworks across seven walls in a two-story
gallery, offering seven different perspectives to viewers. Works from the collection are available
for purchase and will include a limited selection of ultra-exclusive prints made with 24K gold
leaf on copper sheet, along with prints on various other rare platforms. Proceeds from artwork
and book sales will go toward Rise of the Butterfly.
Supporting shows include Big Art, a NYC group show by Anthony Haden-Guest; a Rise of the
Butterfly event in Houston, Texas, hosted by mayor Sylvester Turner and Curry Glassell; and an
event in Los Angeles. Follow-up shows are scheduled in major international cities.
Rise of the Butterfly is a non-profit co-founded by photographer Layla Love and conceived by
feminist icon Gloria Steinem to address the global issue of sex trafficking and slavery.
Layla Love’s work includes She of God, Activation, Her World Within and other books and
collections. Her art has been exhibited at Paris Photo Expo, Art Basel Miami, AiPAD in New
York and other showcases and in solo shows. Her work is in the permanent collections of The
Obama White House, The Alex Grey Foundation and The Women’s Museum in Dallas, and her
photographs appear in 30 Tiffany & Co. stores around the world as well as numerous galleries
and private collections. For more information on Rise of the Butterfly, Layla Love or her shows, or to learn how you can
help to end sex trafficking and slavery, visit riseofthebutterfly.com