Ola Wilk: on Polish Tradition, the Deep Black Hole of Eating Disorders, and Books That Make You Feel More Whole

On her career: I’m a photographer. My dad used to give my sister (Olivia) and I disposables when we were really young, and they are so precious to me: it's like looking through the eyes of us as kids. We travelled a lot when I was young, so I started documenting our trips. I started collecting cameras, including my pradziadek Stanislaw’s cameras from the 20s and 30s when he was stationed in central Poland. When I was seventeen, I started picking up gigs for architects shooting interiors and exteriors. Now I’m finishing up at FIT, freelancing, and assisting editorial photographers. I  fell in love with studio work, so I’m currently focusing on portraits of friends, artists, and generally cool people. Having a full studio set up in my living room, 10 feet from my bed, means I can work out an idea when I have one. Having the tools and creative space at hand to make your image a reality changes everything. 

On tradition: I grew up in the East Village around all these creative, rebellious women, but also had an Eastern European environment at home that my parents brought over here from Poland. I have female family members in Poland who are both ambitious in their work, and homemakers. Polish women are strong for sure, but there is that domesticated undertone passed down to women. I have family members that are very conservative in their opinions on women, and it’s really frustrating trying to explain my choices to them. I identify most with my mom because she did what she wanted to with unwavering courage. She left Poland by herself and started from scratch, working her ass off in New York. I grew up around my mom's Polish girlfriends. They owned dive bars, were total rebels, and seriously didn’t need a man.

On femininity: I see femininity as a force to be reckoned with. It is powerful, sweet, invincible.
Women have been secretly so powerful through history, muses for so many male artists, the reason men have gone to war. Femininity used to translate to being ladylike and subdued, but we are turning the tables and doing whatever the fuck we want. As liberated, privileged women we have a duty to educate women around the world about taking control of their lives. That’s how we can make a real difference.

On the perfect woman: The perfect woman doesn’t exist...but everyone has their own definition whether it’s subconscious or not. When I was younger I thought I had to be perfect, and struggled with accepting myself in body and mind. It was exhausting and now I see the beauty in our differences and imperfections. This has definitely influenced the way I choose and view my subjects in photography. There’s no right or wrong in art, it's all subjective. The term ‘the perfect woman’ really makes me mad!

On faking: Fake it till you make it babyyyy. Just don’t be a fake person, be genuine. It can be a good thing, like taking risks in your career. I’ve gotten jobs where I didn’t necessarily know how to even shoot what the client wanted but hustled and practiced until I got it. If I can, I say yes to opportunities and just learn how to do it. As for other types of faking...yeah a few times. Their pride would be totally hurt if they knew. 

On objectification: For too long, we have been viewing photographs, films, all visual art, through the male gaze. Chick flicks and even Hitchcock's Rear Window are blatant examples of the concept of "scopophilia": placing women under the microscope of fetishism and voyeurism, as spectacles to be viewed. Female directors, and placing women as protagonists and not as as secondary, stereotypical roles is what we need to see more and more. Personally, I think of guys I’ve been with that either took advantage of me, disregarded my feelings, or treated my opinions as lesser.Times I've felt most objectified I was in predominantly male company. I’ve experienced this many times over. I once got to the location of a shoot and the manager of the space assumed my male assistant was the photographer.

On female competition: I have heard a lot of stories about women hurting each other, like putting them down for their appearance or their lifestyle. I admit to hurting other women and other women have hurt me but it’s so silly and nothing comes out of it. Girls can be so brutal and cliquey. In male dominated fields we have to try so much harder to be noticed and women are sometimes bitchy to each other because they are literally the competition. I’m lucky that I’ve worked with such amazing teams where gender isn’t a (huge) factor. Only good vibes allowed~!

On advice: Kind of cliche but you can literally do anything you want to do. Don’t hesitate because life is too short. Also surround yourself with motivated people and have only a few people you can truly trust.


On books that make you feel more whole: Chelsea Girls and Patti Smith books in general personally because it makes me nostalgic for a time I wasn't around for. Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov because it's magical - one of the main figures is Satan and the female protagonist (spoiler alert) becomes a badass witch. Siddartha by Herman Hesse because it just changes you. Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy because it teaches you serious lessons on toxic familial relationships, loyalty, and his humor reminds me of a mix between Tom Robbins and David Foster Wallace. 

On personal style: I started dyeing my hair vibrant colors and that was so liberating because I had never messed with my hair. I’m constantly developing my style to how I’m feeling. I'm basically a high maintenance tomboy. Right now it’s black and baggy with a little 60s pixie/90s techno baby. If I’m going to invest in something it’ll be shades or shoes because they say a lot about someone. My roommate Toshi is an artist/living doll. She’s like a human canvas and does not give a fuck about what people think. She’s one among many people in the city that has definitely changed the way I think of expressing myself. Specifically now with the rise of Instagram and the Kardashian kult you see these teens young women looking identical and it's weird and sad because there isn’t much room for individuality in the look they are promoting. 

On the Kardashians: Maybe they’re tough and gorgeous, but they seem to be power hungry and ridiculously materialistic. They just promote an unrealistic standard of beauty that’s fake and implanted and that’s not healthy for young girls. It bugs me that they have no problem exploiting it. Also, Kylie’s promotion of diet teas is pretty ridiculous because her fans are mostly pre-teens and teens. 

On eating disorders: People turn a blind eye too often. I developed an eating disorder when I was about 16, triggered by a ton of factors. As a way of coping, I lost 35 pounds. I had a toxic relationship that enabled me, and my friends helped me out of that. It makes me happy to see this healthy body image discussion going but we have to keep it going and not be afraid to say something or help. I’ve seen too many people struggle with this shit.

On positive role models: My role models are mostly those I personally know and artists I admire. My mom, first of all, because of her loyalty and perseverance, especially after all the toxic relationships she’s encountered. My sixteen year old sister, because she is crazy wise beyond her years. She’s been through a lot and has dealt with it better than I had at her age.  She learned from me and now I’m learning from her!

On good female role models: A few women that come to mind are Michelle Obama for her intelligence, passion, and grace; Leandra Medine of ManRepeller for dressing purely for herself, and Diane Arbus and Georgia O’Keefe for being female pioneers in a male art world. I think we now confuse ‘influencer’ with role model. 

Follow Ola: 

Instagram: @ola__wilk

Website: olawilk.com