Representing the creative future

Lina Scheynius: The photographer that digitised the personal

A pioneer of “raw” photography who never wandered off her own path talks about the journey of sharing her work online

At the dawn of photo-sharing online platforms, anyone looking for artistic inspiration has stumbled upon a Lina Scheynius photograph on Tumblr, Flickr, or the completely forgotten space of Deviant Art. Her frank, diary-style photographs reveal moments traditionally kept secret.

Sex, childbirth, and wrinkles are exposed to their full potential appearing as graceful as a bouquet of lilies or the morning sky. All these elements make up a universe that created a devoted fan base, one that has been following Scheynius’ work for over 15 years now. Hanging her prints on their walls, having one of her photographs as their phone’s lock screen, or placing her books on their shelves, Lina Scheynius’ aesthetic has been a quiet influence for many image-makers of our generation. The sophisticated atmosphere of her work led her to several fashion commissions. Magazine editorials from Vogue to Dazed and fashion campaigns for brands like Jil Sander comprise some of the most reshared fashion visuals of the last decades. Nevertheless, Scheynius never gave in to the pressure of contributing to a world that she did not fully agree with.

As a forerunner of the polarising notion of internet sharing and a vocal photographers’ rights advocate, Lina Scheynius talks about her career and her views on Instagram’s negligence towards artists.

"Lust", Lina Scheynius
"Diary (2009)", Lina Scheynius

You were one of the first art photographers that shared their work online and connected with so many people worldwide. How did you decide to share your photographs on the internet, despite their intimate nature?

It was 2006 and I didn’t really have any idea what I was getting myself into. I stumbled upon Flickr via someone’s photos on Myspace. I uploaded a few photos and started to really enjoy the community that was forming there. I got a lot of followers quickly and responses from people connecting with my work. I remember having a conversation with a friend at the time where she explained that she didn’t want to share her work online as she was concerned that anyone could steal it – I think that was the mindset of a lot of people at first. But I liked having my work loved and reshared, so I took the chance.

“It was a really beautiful time on the internet – something was just starting to blossom. There was a sense of unknown possibility and freedom.” – Lina Scheynius

Flickr felt quite small and safe in a way. I don’t think that a lot of industry people or anyone who was not an artist themselves was looking around like we do on Instagram now. We didn’t think that it could lead to money or brand building. It was really about sharing your work with a community… There was some excitement in sharing more intimate photographs with this world. It almost felt rebellious to post my private work online, but still being able to hide behind a screen. It was a really beautiful time on the internet – something was just starting to blossom. There was a sense of unknown possibility and freedom. I am so glad that I was such a big part of that period. I know people have done intimate work before me, I was inspired by those photographers, but to share it on the internet and get a response with an audience was a new thing back then.

You have a very interesting and uncommon journey in photography. You studied science, you worked as a model, and developed a personal diary-feeling photographic style, moving into fashion photography; Can you take us through your journey? Was it as organic as it sounds?

I started to really experiment with photography and find where I wanted to go when I first moved to London from Sweden at 19. I was inspired by Nan Goldin, and more “raw” photographers I had seen in fashion magazines when I was working as a model like Corinne Day and Juergen Teller. I started to photograph my friends in a very natural way. My first nude photographs were taken when I asked friends to pose for me while having baths or making out. I didn’t think so much about what I was doing or why. I just felt like I absolutely wanted to do it and that it gave me a lot of purpose. I considered studying photography, but I never got round to it, so I just kept collecting my own photographs, pinning some on my walls or showing them to friends, until I joined Flickr 7 years later.

“I started working for fashion magazines and brands. This was a bit of a tricky time, as it involved a lot of compromises in an industry I often don’t agree with. My heart was with the personal work, and my politics were too…” – Lina Scheynius

The years before Flickr were a beautiful time too, having all that time to myself, testing and trying with so little guidance. I honestly didn’t think that anyone besides me and my friends would be interested in my work even though it meant the world to me. After becoming quite known on Flickr, a photography agent found me, so I started working for fashion magazines and brands. This was a bit of a tricky time, as it involved a lot of compromises in an industry I often don’t agree with. My heart was with the personal work, and my politics were too… So when in 2012 I was offered to do a weekly photo column with my personal work for a full year in Zeit magazin I was overjoyed. This meant my focus could return to my personal work, and from that, I started doing shows and work with galleries. Now my balance feels much better as my main focus is my own work.

"Calendar i", Lina Scheynius

“Some of my friends could not understand why I was turning down so much fashion work and where I was heading (…) Sometimes you just have to carve your own way forward and hope for the best. ” – Lina Scheynius

How different is it to take photographs for a personal project of yours, and taking photographs for a fashion project? 

It is very different. Sometimes if you are working with the right client it can feel like the work is coming from the same place of curiosity and creativity. I have come to a place where I can do very little commissioned work and I can choose the projects that make sense to me. It was hard to get to this place. Some of my friends could not understand why I was turning down so much fashion work and where I was heading. Now, when I am putting on exhibitions that I am proud of and getting more attention for my artist’s books, they get it. Sometimes you just have to carve your own way forward and hope for the best.

Is it hard, or even possible, for a photographer to survive financially through their personal projects?

I believe that in today’s society and climate it is very hard, but I wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Some countries are good at looking after their artists through grants, and if you have a relatively large and loyal following like me you can sell books and prints. I am sure there are other ways too. I do know some photographers that never take a commissioned jobs, and they survive. It’s not easy to get there though.

Did you experience your work changing after moving to London?

I was so young when I moved, so I can’t really speak much of my work before. I think my art was really born in London.

"Calendar ii", Lina Scheynius

“I like the space that opens up when we don’t let the phones steal our attention. A lot of things can be born in that space; from boredom. ” – Lina Scheynius

Your work has a very “off the grid” feel- rural locations, personal moments on the bed or the bathroom, still life, or intense moments like the one of labour. Do you consider disconnecting from the online an essential element of your work? 

I consider it an essential part of my general well-being for sure. I like the space that opens up when we don’t let the phones steal our attention. A lot of things can be born in that space; from boredom.

I also think the fact that I am not focusing much on technology in my work gives it a timeless quality and forces the viewer to be confronted with the image and the feeling, rather than trying to place it on a timeline. I was editing my website before Christmas and was struck by how some of the photos taken 15 years ago look like they could have been taken today, or 15 years earlier…

“It has become such common practice for brands to steal artists’ work for their “moodboards”, either because they don’t know that it is illegal for copyright reasons, or because they don’t care.” – Lina Scheynius

You have been vocal about photographers’ rights and the rules of using photographs online. Young photographers are stuck in the dilemma of needing exposure, but almost never getting compensated for their images. What are your views and advice on that?

I loved people sharing my work when it was on Tumblr for their own mood boards, but when brands do it on Instagram I consider it stealing. They are using my images in order to sell products and associate my name with products without getting my consent. There is a harsh culture on Instagram these days, as the platform is in many ways a money-making tool and a place to advertise yourself or your brand. It has become such common practice for brands to steal artists’ work for their “moodboards”, either because they don’t know that it is illegal for copyright reasons, or because they don’t care. I also think that a lot of artists are not aware of their rights. I have been trying to bring awareness to this and whenever I see a brand using my work on their profile. I ask them kindly to remove it. The problem is so huge though. Instagram is not interested in protecting artists and solving these issues. It clearly states in small letters that you have to ask permission and get a license before posting anything that isn’t created by you, but I doubt many people read this or that Instagram is in any way monitoring it. Trying to report this is not a quick click, like if you want to report a nipple. It is a really long and complicated process.

My advice to young photographers: you do not have to be “grateful for the exposure” if someone tags you while they are also trying to sell something. If this doesn’t feel right to you, please tell them!

"Diary (2012)", Lina Scheynius

What do you think are the biggest issues that photographers are facing today? 

As someone who has shared my work on the internet for 15 years, I can see that the climate has changed a lot in many ways. One of the things I find very challenging is censorship. Instagram is the main platform where you can share work on and it’s not allowing the type of work I do around intimacy, nudity, and sex. There isn’t even a safe filter option that you can put in place like Flickr used to have. Instagram had hidden my account for months without informing me about it, or telling me what I could do to get it visible again – it is a thing called shadow banning (I don’t think Instagram uses this term or even communicates about it). I discovered that it was happening to a lot of artists who work around the subject matter of the body. Instagram is so powerful that it’s hard to make a living without using it, but they treat artists so poorly and there is no way to communicate with them.

“Most advice that people give along the way are about moulding the artist in order to make a viable business out of it. ” – Lina Scheynius

For the aspiring photographers that are looking up to you and the concrete career you have built, what is your advice about starting a career in the field of art and fashion photography?

I try to look at my job as two different ones. One is the creative side of it – “the artist”. And the other side is the business – there is a lot of office work and decisions to make.

It’s easy for these two sides to get out of balance. Most advice that people give along the way are about moulding the artist in order to make a viable business out of it. This isn’t healthy for the artist in the long run, even if it might lead to financial success. My advice is to always give space to the artistic part, to listen to that side, to follow your curiosity, to be aware of anything that doesn’t feel right to you. Work hard on the business side too, be on time, be polite to people, follow through on promises, be clear with what you want and what you can offer.

Do you ever experience creative blocks? If yes, how do you deal with them?

I do. I used to try to push through or beat myself up for it, but I just let them pass these days. I know it’s like waves at this point and I don’t stress about it or use force. I try to focus on being healthy in general during my down periods and listen to where my curiosity still wants to take me. I read – I draw – I cook – I connect with friends, and the desire to take photos usually comes back.

Do you ever feel competitive with other photographers? If yes, how do you cope with these emotions?

I rarely do, but I definitely have done. It’s like any kind of jealousy or envy. I don’t like feeling this way, but I also try not to judge myself if I do. I try to return the focus to my own path – which is unique, beautiful, and surprising. We can’t ever fully know what other people are going through, they might not be enjoying their successes the way we imagine.

"Flowers", Lina Scheynius
"Diary (2019)" , Lina Scheynius

“I have gotten so much bad advice too, especially from men trying to explain photography to me. I honestly think most advice is highly overrated. Be careful of who you listen to! ” – Lina Scheynius

Do you consider studying photography essential, or do you believe that someone can experiment and learn the craft on their own?

I didn’t go to university so I can’t recommend it to anyone as I don’t know how it is like on a day-to-day level – even if I can imagine, and I am very happy for never doing it. The teachers that taught me art in school often made me feel restricted and I didn’t enjoy painting in a big group, so I doubt university would have been good for me. There are more ways than one to do things.

What is the greatest advice you have ever received?

Someone once told me to switch my flash off. I have sadly forgotten who it was, it was very early on. It taught me a lot about light. Now I still use the flash from time to time, but it was good to learn to work without it. That seems a bit small to call it the greatest advice but it really made a difference.

I have gotten so much bad advice too, especially from men trying to explain photography to me. I honestly think most advice is highly overrated. Be careful of who you listen to!

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now