“I always want people to feel beautiful and understood”: Olivia Lifungula on her honest and real photography

The Congo-born, Belgium-raised and now London-based photographer employs her camera to tell stories of beauty, intimacy and Black femininity.

Date
12 July 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read

In another life, perhaps photographer Olivia Lifungula would have been a performer – a bit like Chaka Khan or Cher. “But I honestly can’t hold a note or remember any choreography to save my life,” she tells It’s Nice That. Letting go this dream, Olivia decided to try her hand at photography. She was a natural, and her love of the medium only grew alongside her vigorous collecting of magazines, watching MTV, as well as discovering the work of Corinne Day. Despite these interests, a career in the arts, or more specifically photography, never seemed like a viable option for Olivia growing up.

At the age of eight, Olivia moved to Belgium with her family following the civil war in Congo. “It was my first time in Europe and I haven’t been back since,” she adds, resultantly moving to London at the age of 21. “I’ve seen so much of the world, but Kinshasa will always be home to me.” She started taking pictures after graduation, and soon realised how she didn’t have any photographer role models to look up to, particularly those who looked like her or came from Congo. “Moving to London and being in a more diverse environment gave me the confidence I needed to just go for it. Although I didn’t have any technical skills, I knew what type of work I wanted to create. So thanks to the internet gods and a few amazing friends, I have learned everything on the spot. In many ways I feel like I’m still doing that and wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Olivia has now fully grounded herself as a photographer, adhering to her own specific style of soft, intimate and, more importantly, real image-making. It’s the type of work that protrudes with honesty, mapping out the lives of her subjects through the art of storytelling and a passion for her craft. Although an aptly skilled photographer in her own right, much of what she does is based on collaboration; “I don’t think I could create in any other way,” she notes, preferring to have “round table conversations” and talk about everyone’s ideas in the process. A key driver of her art, though, is noticing a lack of representation – something which was especially prevalent while growing up. This has concurrently influenced the type of photographs she produces today. “Working in an industry that often only uses us as props,” she adds, “I feel called to help shift that narrative by taking up space and telling our stories in ways that are beautiful and true to us, either through film or photography. I’m super intentional about showcasing us in the most intimate and delicate way possible, because that’s how I see myself and the women around me.”

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Copyright © Olivia Lifungula, 2021

Intimacy is a word that lends itself nicely to the entirety of Olivia’s portfolio, not only in the manner of which she documents her subjects but also with how she gets to know them on a personal level. She takes the time to speak with them, in turn building a level of trust to then create a more comfortable environment to photograph in. “I always want people to feel beautiful and understood,” she adds. Like Chanel and Kimora [pictured below], two sisters who sat for Olivia in June last year, as part of a series titled We got Love. A stern glance to the lens; a coy look to the side; the image is both peachy and glitzy, just as much as it a commentary of what’s been a difficult year. “It had been a tough last few months sitting at home and witnessing so much violence and trauma towards Black men, women and children all over the world,” she says, “and the only way I felt like I could react to that was by creating work that showcases a different reality. Black people and love have always been my biggest inspiration, so I decided to work on something that celebrates just that; our love.”

Chanel and her little sister Kimora were the first to be lensed for the series, and soon it evolved into a prolific documentation of positivity. “I felt the need to make personal work about Black people in the most delicate and loving way, so that I can share a different, perhaps less upsetting perspective of our experiences as human beings.”

This series forms the crux of Olivia’s photographs and goals as a creative, and this has only expanded into projects for Porter Magazine, i-D, Dazed Vogue Italia and more, as well as commercial work for Gucci, Nike, Estée Lauder and Converse, not to mention her numerous films and ten-page cover story for Nataal's debut digital magazine. She wants to present the more joyful side of life and of her subjects, to build a visual documentation of beauty and Black femininity, all the while transcending the viewer into other places. This is exactly how she felt looking at art when she was younger – she saw it as escapist – so she’s more than dedicated to replicating these emotions with her own.

GalleryCopyright © Olivia Lifungula, 2021

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Copyright © Olivia Lifungula, 2021

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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