Separated by a tiny circular table in the crowded ‘Wig and Pen’ bar, I listen intently to the fascinating stories and insights of the photographer Oliver Behn. ‘I’m always searching for the next story,’ Behn tells me excitedly, ‘always searching for the next model. At the moment I’m looking for a tall young black man. When I find him, I’ll just go up to him and ask. I’m pretty good at that.’ Behn’s eyes gleam. The prospect of the next fantasy, of the next encounter is intoxicating and it’s contagious. Behn is a photographer documenting the stories around him, many of which involve drug users and skateboarding. I get more and more engrossed in his world as he tells me stories of the different highs and lows, terror and euphoria involved with the drug culture that he inhabits. But to me the drug culture is secondary; Behn is a people addict, an intimacy addict.
‘I’m a sucker for ‘heroin chic’. I know it sounds bad but I often try to set up my models the night before the shoot to get together and have a big night. It’s the only way to get that intense blood red lips on pale porcelain skin the next morning in front of the camera. But I never stage my photos, they’re impossible to stage.’
I first discovered Behn’s work on Facebook and was curious about his attitude towards the value of the photograph as an object to be rarified and protected. He admits that he used to be concerned about the photograph’s value, about hoarding it, but that now he doesn’t care. He says, ‘The more I give the more I get from others around me.’ He even uses social media to test the waters, to see what gets more ‘likes’ or interest and from whom. For example, his work Social Ideologies (2015) depicting a contorted nude female torso received the majority of its ‘likes’ from a female audience when one would usually expect such an image to receive more male interest. ‘Today everybody’s a photographer.’ He laughs, ‘Its about getting yourself out there even if you have to shove it down people’s throats until they notice.’
Behn began developing his iconic ‘mirrored image’ half way through 2014 and sees it as a way to enhance his fantasies. Many of his images are erotic but he feels that the abstracting mirror effect takes the edge off of some of the more explicit images providing his audience with an access point into these works. Behn’s mirrored imaged is created through an app called ‘Afterlight’ which he describes as being like Photoshop but backwards. He admits that up until half way through his first year of university he despised Photoshop and all that came with the photo-editing world, but as per Behn’s mode of transcending his fears, he embraced it. Today, the bulk of Behn’s work is shot, edited and shared through his mobile phone. He enjoys the immediacy and intimacy that comes with using a simple, accessible device.
When I asked Behn what’s in store for the future, he said that he has shows at Honky Tonks Bar and The Front Café lined up later on this year, but that he has much bigger dreams for beyond university. Armed with his medium format film camera, he’s been planning to travel to North Korea to document life under the rule of Kim Jong-un for many years now. He is also concerned about the sex trade situation in Kiev, Ukraine; so he’s going to go help sort that out too. Never underestimate the power of a people addict with a camera.