In Conversation with Lilli Waters

Female identity and our relationship with nature are two prominent themes of Melbourne photographer Lilli Waters’ latest body of work, ‘Others Dream’. The 11 images in this series are highly evocative and intriguing – all in their own unique way – so we relished the opportunity to hear all the details.

Lilli travelled to Western Australia to shoot this series – partly for the incredible location and partly because a Victorian winter doesn’t lend itself well to shooting a model in water. With a four-week turnaround time (her shortest deadline to date), she spent four days in WA shooting at dawn and dusk, on both a digital and analog camera – using expired black and white film from the 1960s – then driving, scouting and sleeping in between. Lilli admits she had no idea what to expect when she returned to Melbourne to edit and develop her images but the resulting body of work is incredibly powerful.

Read more from our chat with Lilli below and be sure to visit us to view the exhibition before June 30.

Can you tell us a little about what inspired this body of work?  

The ‘Others Dream’ series was inspired by Hutt Lagoon, a salt lake located near Kalbarri in Western Australia, which has a pink hue due to the presence of a carotenoid-producing algae. The body of work was photographed using a combination of digital and medium format analog cameras, using expired black and white film. Working with two very different mediums of photography was largely an experiment, and I was unsure as to whether the desaturated black and white film would work cohesively alongside vibrant colours.

Utero, Lilli Waters. Lilli placed her subject in strange landscapes and positions, portraying a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere.

The pieces are very emotive, and female identity and nature are both strong themes. What are you hoping to convey through your images? 

In ‘Others Dream’, the subject is placed in strange landscapes and positions, portraying a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere, almost like trying to escape from reality. I like to capture the subjects in transitional poses to create a sense of movement or suspense. Transparent fabrics and long hair (an assortment of wigs) obscure their faces and identities, adding a mystery and unease to the works, and acting as a kind of protective veil. This obscuring of the face can perhaps help the viewer to feel more connected to the subject, as the work acts more like a mirror than a portrait. The landscapes are often dark and hostile, but the subject looks almost at home in these environments, as if she was borne from them and nourished by them.

Some viewers see darkness and pain in my work, maybe a sense of being trapped, though for me there is a sense of freedom in being able to make photographs that represent all of these things. It is empowering to be able to convey a different side of the feminine than that which society has fed us for so long. A side that requires a rethinking of notions of vulnerability, female frailty and the more primal feminine relationship with nature.

My works try to honour a communion with nature and contain a sense of grieving for the unknown future of the earth, as the earth becomes more unbalanced. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had an endless curiosity in observing and interacting with nature; it brings me a sense of peace. Water is also a huge part of my work, I feel that it has a profoundly magical quality. So many of our daily rituals, our beliefs, our way of life, are connected to water. It is such a physical and spiritual power.

Obscuring of the face can help the viewer to feel more connected to the subject, as the work acts more like a mirror than a portrait.”
— Lilli Waters

You’ve often spoken about your desire to be closer to nature. In what ways do you think your upbringing on a rural counter-culture community near Canberra has influenced you and your work?

I was raised on a commune in Wytaliba, 100 kilometres out of Canberra, but left at a very young age (around two) so I don’t have any specific memories from my time there. Some of the locals who lived there at the time have commented that my photographs look as though they were taken there, and I do believe the first few years of life really affect how we see the world and how we live our lives. I feel a strong sense of ‘home’ in this type of bush environment. Often I find myself yearning to be in the bush and close to flowing water, and so these landscapes have become a common thread in a lot of my work.

How long was the process of completing this body of work, from start to finish?

The series was photographed over four days at dawn and dusk, then driving, scouting and sleeping in between. I had a deadline of about four weeks to proof, print and send it to Italy. This was the shortest amount of time I have ever had to make a new body of work, and I was lucky that I arrived home from WA with enough works to present as a full series.

The Road Before, Lilli Waters. Ever since Lilli was a little girl, she's had an endless curiosity in observing and interacting with nature.

What was your favourite park of the process and why?

I really enjoyed working intensely over a four day period, and although it was physically and creatively challenging, it allowed me to focus solely on making the work with no distractions. I chose not to work with an assistant or scout for locations, so I planned a direct route from Perth to Kalbarri where I knew the pink lake was located (although I had no idea if it was going to be pink or not) and chose locations that were along the way. My favourite part of the process is the post production, this is where I find the creativity really emerges for me, and I can play with colours, layering techniques and fine editing. I find this stage brings real clarity to the work and it’s where the photographs come alive and evolve into themselves.

The pink lake (which appears as a vibrant red in your images) and the rugged landscape of Western Australia are a big part of the identity of this series. Why did you choose to shoot in WA?

Last winter, a curator asked me if I could create a new body of work for an exhibition in three months’ time in Florence, Italy, but it was too cold in Victoria to take a model and photograph in water. I’d heard that there was a pink lake located in Western Australia, so I pitched an idea that I travel with a model to the much warmer state of WA for five days and photograph across different landscapes. Luckily, the pitch was accepted and we were on our way within a few weeks. The West Australian landscape was completely foreign to me, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Lilli shot this series over an intense four-day period, which she says was physically and creatively challenging, but also allowed her to focus solely on making the work.
Woman in the Rock, Lilli Waters. Her favourite part of the process is the post production, where she can play with colours, layering techniques and fine editing.

It’s an incredibly strong body of work. How did you select the final 11 pieces? 

Once I returned from WA, I offered the curator fifteen of the strongest works and we chose the final eleven for the exhibition together. Initially she was only after ten photographs so I was really happy that the one landscape was included in the series.

In what ways does your work challenge you or change the way you think?

At times, it feels as if the work I create is articulating themes that I am almost unaware of on a conscious level. Themes which tend to resurface in my work took me a long time to be able to articulate with words, and this is still a constant challenge. In the past I have struggled with the meaning behind my work, so in that sense it challenges me to look deeper and to acknowledge and confront some of the pain and trauma from my childhood. This has led me on a slow path of healing.

In the past I have struggled with the meaning behind my work, so in that sense it challenges me to look deeper and to acknowledge and confront some of the pain and trauma from my childhood.”
— Lilli Waters

What would you like to explore through your work in the future?

I would like to continue to explore similar themes throughout my work, but on a much larger scale, exploring epic and challenging landscapes and experimenting with much larger pieces of fabric. My aim is to continue to explore a reimagining of the feminine form and challenge perceptions, including my own.

From Where We Came, Lilli Waters. Landscapes are a common thread in Lilli's work; she often finds herself yearning to be in the bush and close to flowing water.

Quick-fire questions!

What does a typical day look like for you?

My hubby gets up before me and then my two tonkinese cats come straight into the bed and snuggle up with me before my hubby brings me a cup of tea. Bliss! I’ll usually then grab a coffee from next door and head into my studio around 9 or 10 if I’m not on a shoot. I’m lucky in that my job is a good balance of being out on location and quieter days behind the computer.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

A film director or a seal (I’m crazy about swimming & playing underwater).

What are you listening to at the moment (music and/or podcast)?

MUSIC – Aldous Harding, Weyes Blood, Kurt Vile, Sharon Van Etten, Amen Dunes, Jade Imagine, Julia Jacklin and Jazz Party, and my hubby Jacob Cole’s soon-to-be-released new solo album, which is super exciting!

PODCAST –  Under the Skin with Russell Brand, Fresh Air, WTF with Marc Maron, Making Sense with Sam Harris, The Guilty Feminist, Death, Sex & Money with Anna Sale.

You’re hosting a dinner party – what’s your signature dish?

Homemade healthy chocolate! Or, a yummy cake. I hardly ever bake, but when I do, I love it.

If you could purchase one thing for your home, and money was no object, what would it be?

Is a beautiful cottage filled with artworks and a home studio surrounded by an overgrown flower garden in the country allowed?

Where to next on your travel destination wish list?

I really want to go to Antarctica to shoot a new body of work. I’m hoping to apply for a grant to make that a reality.

If you could exhibit your work anywhere in the world, which gallery would you choose?

Moma in NYC, The Photographers Gallery in London and the Venice Biennale would be dreams come true.

The Veil, Lilli Waters. Lilli would like to continue to explore a reimagining of the feminine form and challenge perceptions, including her own.

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