© Olivia Johnston // Matt from ’13-18′


Olivia Johnston

The Story behind the Portrait

I woke up suddenly, my phone ringing, or simply my conscience realizing what was going on. I picked up my cellphone and answered it. Someone was at school for me – did I have a shoot? My heart sank and I leapt out of bed. Yes – sorry – tell him not to go anywhere – so sorry – I’ll be there in ten minutes – oh god.

I was in the midst of shooting 13-18, a project where I photographed teenaged boys in the studio, then went to their houses to photograph their bedrooms. This work was part of an artist residency at SPAO (the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa), and what I would consider to be my entry point into creating serious contemporary photographic work. I was dealing with a lot at the time – numerous physical and mental health issues seemed to stymie me at every turn, and I was coming to terms with the paradoxical natures of vulnerability and beauty.

I’d stayed up late the night before with an ex-flame, accepting an invitation to hang out despite my better judgement. I spent most of the night fiercely snuggling his cat as a way to reconcile the fact that I never wanted to touch him again. The night ended strangely: I left his house and realized my front bike wheel had been stolen, so I guiltily let him help me half-walk, half-drag it home. It was dawn by the time I got to bed, and knowing I had a shoot in the morning, I set an alarm and fell asleep with makeup still on.

I leapt out of bed, angry with myself for my unprofessionalism and worried that a frustrated parent was waiting to berate me at the school. I arrived at SPAO in a near panic. My soon-to-be model was sitting calmly in the library by himself, reading a newspaper. “Hi! You must be Matt! So sorry I’m late!” I exclaimed. He stood up to shake my hand, and I was struck by how different he was from the person I had imagined, based on our brief and excessively formal email exchange. I had pictured a dorky young man with glasses and braces, self-conscious and small, a male version of the person I’d been at that age. Instead, he was a quiet and unimaginably lanky 17-year-old with dark eyes and a quiet but kind demeanour. Our shoot went quickly and effortlessly; for a person with no modeling experience, he was easily transformed by my lens into a beautiful image.

My encounter with this unusual person began to make sense upon my arrival at his house to photograph his room. It was pristinely tidy, but with endless collections of items, including thousands of records, glass bottles, collectible figurines, PEZ dispensers, movie paraphernalia, and on and on. He also “collected” pets – I met his tarantula, his pet snake, his family of chinchillas. He was the only one of my subjects who quietly stayed in his room while I photographed it, not to protect it from my snooping camera but instead inquisitive about my process. Despite the peacefulness of his presence, I was sufficiently distracted and forgot to adjust my camera settings, requiring a return to his house to reshoot. Upon my second visit, he gave me a snakeskin, shedded from his pet snake; it was a strange yet fitting souvenir of our meeting and unusual subsequent friendship.

A few months passed. In my process of post-production, I get up close to photographs to clean the dust away in Photoshop. I was fascinated by the images I had taken of his room, now magnified enormously before me. What I was unable to examine in person was inscribed into the photograph, a glimpse into his curious mind but by no means the whole story. Up close to every detail in his room, I came upon an electrifying realization: his mirror had reflected me standing quietly, taking the photograph. This inadvertent self-portrait led me to the realization that this project was ultimately as much about me as it was about the boys it depicts.

Matt came to visit the exhibition when it was up, and quietly looked at all the images and read through all the texts. We went for a coffee together afterwards, and I timidly asked him what he thought of the show. “It’s beautiful,” he said simply.



Upon my second visit, he gave me a snakeskin, shedded from his pet snake; it was a strange yet fitting souvenir of our meeting and unusual subsequent friendship.


Olivia Johnston is an artist based in Ottawa, Canada. She completed a BAh in Art History at Carleton University in 2015, graduating with High Distinction, and is currently the Photographic History Instructor at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa. Her practice includes both photo-based and multi-media work, within which she is preoccupied by questions of art history and the photographic image. In her photographic practice, Johnston makes use of numerous genres, including studio portraiture, self-portraiture, landscape, and still life, in order to explore themes of gender, sexuality, individuality, vulnerability, and identity.

Johnston’s work has been displayed nationally, including in Ottawa’s Nuit Blanche, as a part of the City of Ottawa’s collection, and in the largest photography event in the world, the CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto. She has also shown her work internationally, in New York, NY; Portland, OR; Saint-Louis, Senegal; and London, England. In 2017, Johnston was a finalist for the RBC Emerging Artist Award. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Manifest Gallery’s International Photography Annual 5 (Cincinnati), NU Magazine (Montreal), Herd Magazine (Ottawa), the Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa), and Applied Arts Magazine (Toronto).

Website & Social

Facebook and Instagram