Interview – In Conversation: Bruno Zhu and Osma Harvilahti

Bruno Zhu
osma_12_12 009
Osma Harvilahti

Monday, 7.41pm

Bruno Zhu (BZ): Hey Osma, let me know when you can skype?

Osma Harvilahti (OH): Hey, been so insanely busy the last couple of days, would you like to chat now, or tomorrow?

BZ: Hey, what about tomorrow? Not feeling ready to chat now, don’t want to ask random questions like ‘Hey, how did you start taking photos’ or ‘what cameras are you using?’ Tomorrow would be better I reckon?

OH: Let’s see if we’ll find time tomorrow or Wednesday. I’m gonna check you on the chat and keep on asking if it’s a good time for you whenever it’s good for me and we’ll work this out sooner or later, yeah?

BZ: That sounds great. To be honest we could just copy paste this already and have this as our interview… cof cof screw pretentious photo blahblahs they all sound the same in the end of the day (i’m joking)

OH: True true. Let’s continue the same way and it’ll be something more interesting. Yeah, I’m sort of tired with the same questions every time, haha. Ok, it might be that I’ll visit Paris as well. I’m going in the following 2-3 weeks. It depends if I’ll have some meetings over there as well. It’s going to be a sort of a business trip, meeting some agencies etc. I’m trying to break out of Finland…

BZ: Thats great! I wish I was doing something like that! But congrats for all the success, hard work pays off

OH: Well same to you, you’re everywhere

BZ: Nah, but you’re actually working and your presence is more meaningful. I’m just in some random 16yrs old blog about fruits and cats and skulls. But seriously, I would actually just like to include all the ranting I do, I’m tired of being nice and apologetic to everything

OH: C’mon man, you’re work is seen in nice exhibitions. I’m just an internet bum in a hard to brake out e-bubble

BZ: lolz shut upss you shot for Apartamento. I once sent my portfolio to a magazine and they said my work was too abstract. They were kind to me but I was shocked; all I showed was landscape, how can that be abstract? It’s not bad at all having an editorial portfolio, editorial work is the one that inspires me the most, I’m pretty picky but I really like editorial work because people working it are on the verge of producing something mind pushing or dead on money maker and that alone excites me.

OH: It’s hard to balance between being an “actual artist” or a whore doing some artistic-ish stuff because he/she’s after some nice editorial work that doesn’t really pay off

BZ: Yeah but I’d just say, dont think about that. Whenever that comes to my mind, I just think about the magazine work Walker Evans did and I’m happier again. Do you wanna log off? It’s 11pm here so it means it’s like 2am there? Also, you’re younger than me, right?

OH: Yeah man, I know what you mean.. I’ve been thinking of starting work on another portfolio with an undercover name. I constantly bump into some people that would’ve liked to hire me but didn’t because I shoot 35mm film. I do medium format digital as well and the film stuff is 120mm god damn it, lol. No, no the timezone thing went all wrong.. it’s 12 here. Why didn’t I realise earlier, Paris isn’t 3 hours away.. Also, I’m actually 29, just got them good genes. I look pretty much exactly the same I did 10 yrs ago.

BZ: I know, people can be so blind sometimes but yeah, I guess that just means you’ve got to put another portfolio together with another format. LOLZZ omg and I was here thinking you were 19 and booming through the roof

OH: Haha, no, but I haven’t been in the game for too long anyway

BZ: Well, gotta apologise for my writing then. I get pretty laid back on chat. I can be more formal for the interview’s sake

OH: Don’t do it. I used to be a tax inspector just a couple of years ago

BZ: Lolz are you for real?

OH: Yeah I was, for 6 months I was a tax inspector, then I became an autographer

BZ: Career turns are always enriching though

OH: Well, I studied Sociology, Media and Social Policy for a few years..  then went for Art History and found myself studying visual culture & graphic design, typography etc. Yeah, you should see how I type.

BZ: But it is really incredible having the background you have and then producing the work you have been producing. It’s natural and I think it really shows in your work

OH: But my handwriting isn’t exactly the smoothest out there

BZ: Mine is unreadable

OH: I’d like to see it

BZ: It’s just plain zig zagging up and down with casual dots to mark ‘i’s. Maybe I’m gonna take a photobooth pic of it and put it in the interview


OH: Hey, what’s going on in Paris right now? I’d like to visit fashion week and go backstage with my camera, go say hello to some of my favourite models and maybe come up with a little project. There’s something about that madness that fascinates me

BZ: ! fashion is so ‘easy’…

OH: Well, that’s the thing.. I haven’t had too much exposure in the fashion magazines and I’m sort of working on my fashion identity (in photography) but I’d like to go and come up with something a bit different. You got some nice connections?

BZ: Well, I dont really have any connections but just be careful with the fashion thing, It’s most likely to be unpaid 99% of the times. I’d rather go solo and incorporate it in my personal work, more like Viviane Sassen and then get them dollas flyinnn

OH: I think fashion is hard… It’s really hard to come up with something a bit more original and there’s so many things that affect the final picture. It’s soo easy to lose the idea the you had in the first place, or if someone has a bad day it may ruin the atmosphere and the whole shoot. That’s why I’ve had a nice break from shooting any pretty fashion girls.

BZ: Well, but that is kind of every situation when you shoot commissioned work; there’s always a third party that will play into your plans and things get chosen wrongly; he choses the pictures you hate, she does something that you dont like, nothing comes out like you want in the end… yeah, yeah for sure, of course you’ve got to do some commercial work to get the right exposure in a economic level. I wish I had more proper commissioned work.

OH: But in fashion you got that make up dude who has a big mouth, and that stylist woman who is really, really concerned whether her designer-friends’ clothing is clearly visible in the pictures, even if the picture’s supposed to be a close up portrait… and then there’s the magazine AD-guy and he chooses the pictures you hate

BZ: That’s what I’m saying; fashion work is tricky business. Maybe you are interested in that system, I’m not, just makes me super anxious and whenever someone sees the cameras I use to take photographs they laugh at me. At one photo shoot, this guy was like, ‘oh my aunt used to have one of those’, lolz

OH: I think it’s a good thing to shoot with film because the others won’t really see what you’re doing there. They can’t be pointing at the screen and talking about the small details that you’re missing that actually make the particular picture. Your aunt was right.

BZ: I’ve been working a lot in digital lately

OH: Me too, full automatic with a zoom; opposed to the manual medium format thing. Can we continue this tomorrow? I need to go now. Mega ironic since it’s like 2am on your side lolz

Wednesday 8:59pm

OH: Yo sorry, I’m late for our date, happens quite often. I left my laptop at the studio because I had bought some tasty ingredients for some burgers and I wanted to concentrate on watching Breaking Bad and eating them burgers. Avocado, mature cheddar, prime beef, chilli mayo, coleslaw.. I was in heaven, now I’m unbelievably full and still watching Breaking Bad

BZ: I’m gonna watch Breaking Bad some day

OH: Yeah man, I didn’t use to watch TV but now I share a flat with this friend who’s nicely updated about all the entertainment stuff. It’s a good excuse to leave the studio for the night..

BZ: I’m addicted to TV, I watch 3 hours everyday, download like crazy. I’m watching something right now and eating a pear. I’m watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Jennifer Lopez is going to be onnn, can’t wait for that random moment.

OH: haha, Jennifer Lopez. She still doing something? Well, what’s been the most inspiring moment in your life? Is there a point that you became aware of your interest towards art stuff / photography? I mean.. how did it evolve?

BZ: There are several moments when I was younger, I remember moments like that; they didn’t inspire me directly to pursue art but they sure stopped/shocked me and made me think. I remember seeing parts of ‘Salo’ by Pasolini when I was 8 or hearing Bolero de Ravel in an episode of Digimon Season 1; other things include watching Toxic by Britney Spears countless times..

OH: I used to watch that Britney-vid too

BZ: As well as always picturing things like when Sailor Moon was changing her outfits

OH: But also Chris Isaak’s Wicked Games

BZ: Chris Isaak!! But I think I’m more from a generation that went crazy with Avril Lavigne. A highlight from the 2000s was Jojo

OH: Right, right… I guess I grew in the late 80’s/early 90’s Turtles scene. I really liked He-Man and Transformers too but there was just something about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Jojo, what was her biggest moment?

BZ: I still got the TMNT vibes, alwayz felt weird watching it because they are ninja turtles…lol what I just said doesnt make any sense! Well her ‘Leave Get out’ or ‘Get out, Leave’ single whatever that’s called was my ‘bitch please, I need a life’ call

OH: I was recently in Kenya and I went to this bar that played only early 2000’s hits that you used to watch on MTV but totally forgot they existed… they probably played Jojo as well, in between the dancehall & reggae hits

BZ: !! Oh yeah? Kenya, I should go to… but seriously, just turn to MTV Base; not sure if you have that, but that’s THE World right there

OH: haha

BZ: Also remember buying Usher’s Confessions album and listening to Burn like it was a music miracle

OH: Nope, don’t really even have MTV. I think it was around 7-8 yrs ago last time I was watching MTV and they don’t really even play music videos anymore, right? Well, what was your first album?

BZ: But I’m more of a 2000s person, I was born in the 90s but hardly remember anything. My first album! I think it was from a Spanish group, one Summer hit wonder thing, called Las Ketchup. They had this song called ‘Asereje’

OH: I think I was already going to bars when that came out and that used to be the DJ favourite of the time

BZ: I know!! That Asereje was literally a movement for an entire summer. Love that, the fact that every summer has a lame hymn. Bar music is the best too, I got hooked up in ‘Scream and Shout’ with will.I.Am ft Britneyzzz. She looks terrible in the video, loving that fat coming out of cocktail dress. But seriously, I have no music taste, I currently just listen to radio… 2000’s radio stations, playing Red Hot Chili Peppers, at least it’s not embarrassing to reference

OH: Well, at 6yrs old I had to choose between the New Kids On The Block and Guns N´Roses’s Use Your Illusion vol. 2. My brother was quite sure that it’s better to put the money on GNR so I listened to that stuff as well as Slayer for few years and then, maybe in 1994-95 I found hip hop… Mobb Deep, Nas and other Queens Bridge folks. Strictly East Coast (lol)

BZ: Well, whoever reads this, your side is way more educational

OH: But that didn’t really affect my work later on

BZ: I didn’t do better, after Las Ketchup I bought Shakira’s album and my mum was like, is this western music? lolzzzzz glad I have no music library. I think on a first sight, this clearly doesn’t affect my work but on a personal level the more I grow, the more I admit all these things to myself

OH: That’s what’s so fascinating about trends, fashion and roles.. When you look at young people you learn so much about life; they’re just so genuine and unpretentious when it comes to following older sisters & other cool kids. It’s like the art world on a small scale..

BZ: So to understand my upbringings, my past and where my taste comes from, reinforcing what I produce…

…ahah lol my sister is going on the Hannah Montana track via Disney games for Wii. I think she’s gonna be an experimental VJ showing at Tate Modern in 15 years. Seriously, because of her I just recently got hooked on the Lilo and Stitch soundtrack..

But I hate when things get labelled or organised like that; I always wished I had someone with better taste and more knowledge to guide me through my choices, but I don’t see any limits in the end. The only limit is yourself. You can be given a Taschen book about Picasso when you’re 5 or the Pokemon game instead… neither of them will make you ‘better’ or ‘worse’, it is what it is

OH: Haha, yeah! I think I should start listening to Las Ketchup and Britney if it would be a shortcut to a solo show in London! But seriously, I think there should be no limits.. what ever works for you. What ever makes you work.

BZ: LOL well, those are my tip guys! Go through a Euro-pop catalogue and a solo show is guaranteed! But seriously, I believe that each persons’ experience through life bring something unique to whatever they produce, being that a civil engineer, a shoemaker, designer, accountant; It’s your personality that is being moulded. The sense of fun or of culture, of being talkative or playing it ‘cool’ and I think that shows in your work

OH: I can’t really talk about my taste in music or art because that would make an endless essay of people both established and new comer amateurs. I must admit I really like my Big Mac every now and then, it’s just easy and it’s easier to process and even that is a value. Same goes with art and music, some of it makes you think and some of it leaves you empty and that’s both very cool.

BZ: Well, I like to talk about art but to be honest, I don’t really get what a person is about when talking about it, if you know what I mean. Yeah we can have similar tastes by saying this or that name occasionally; we drop an unknown name just to shake things up. But I really prefer to get to know a person by what they did 10 minutes ago if they want to speak about it, or the jumper they bought the last week, or the food they just had and wish to have again! Food talk can lead me to sit down and have 5 coffees without stopping and just talk, and when I say food I don’t mean that dish made in northern Italy where only 10 people in the world have tasted, I mean more about talking about a burger! or fries, or McDonald’s vs Burger King.

Through that, I get to know a person, get to know more of the culture I live in now, and then I walk around and think, what is this all about in the end? Then I open an art magazine and see what’s trending and I ask myself again, why is this trending when this was already trending on Tumblr last year; why do things get so late in media these days, why? And then maybe I pass by a lamp post that was bent by some random guy who just ran into it when he was drunk, leaving a bent; I take a photo and I just really think about how this bend looks so interesting in contrast with the lines of the sidewalk; do people see this too? How can that play with the photograph I just took this morning of the staircase with morning light? So things get random again and I think about food; it’s always about food; being hungry or not, being full or not. In the end, feeling fulfilled and the wish to feel fulfilled

OH: Yeah, but random is good. there’s a certain flow in conversation when you don’t think about it too much and that makes things a bit more honest. Just wanted to raise this art/photography subject in one sentence. Now I’m ready to talk about the real stuff: I’m a food guy. I only work hard because I like to eat and drink well. I used to be a steak guy but currently I’m more after fish. Anything goes as long as there’s avocado involved. Only problem with fish is that it’s nicer with white wine and I’m a red wine guy, so I’ve been struggling with this one a little.

So for a photographer, I think it’s really important to come up with any motivators as possible cause you just can’t work enough if you want to make it as a photographer. So food and then again, I love what I do so that’s a good one as well

BZ: Good formula. I dont drink alcohol because I’m allergic so everything I eat I either do orange juice or water. I was never a steak guy, really like it, but not addicted; more white meat for me

OH: Yeah, it’s nice and light.. were you born in London? What type of food do you usually have?

BZ: I think that being a photographer you take such a roll of ‘ready made’ that I feel you have to have the duty to broaden yourself. I say ‘ready made’ not in the sense of a certain style of photography, but just photography in general. Personal experiences enrich a vision and produce a louder voice and even though we live in such a connected world, that connectivity itself should be the motor to drive you faster in the highway.

BZ: Nahh, I’m Portuguese! Was born in Portugal – best cuisine ever. We have the best seafood, meat dishes, desserts, cakes.. Portugal is a treasure to be found. I actually lived on a soup diet for a while, had a terrible NYE, fell really sick for ages, plus I work until late and just can’t be bothered to cook. During lunch I’m more open minded, I do salad, I do lebanese wrap, I do pasta, I do couscous. You? With so many trips from what I’ve seen in your photos, how do you feel about the cuisines you have tasted, how do they relate to you?

OH: I’ve been thinking of going to Portugal for so long but haven’t made it there just yet. Food is the first thing I think of when I’m planning to visit a new country/culture. Portugal: it has to be the next one. I love Lebanese, nice fresh baba ghanouj and crispy falafels… but really, I think food reflects the culture of a certain country and is a perfect way to plan photography and traveling in general. If there’s a rich extensive variety of food, there’s most likely an interesting culture to study through photography.

I’d say New York is by far the most impressive place when it comes to food and also the most inspirational city for a photographer who likes to approach/shoot people & study different cultures. It’s almost too much and your mind gets easily saturated by the incredibly wide ranging presence of cultural/visual representations. I feel like that’s my place, it’s just so good for the inspiration. Then again, I just traveled to Africa for the first 2 times and well, that’s a totally different place to explore both food/photography wise. People are so warm and receptive and in many ways, more genuine in comparison to western folks. Sometimes I felt like leaving the camera at home because it was disturbing the connection between me and others. I felt like I didn’t really need the camera as an excuse to approach people because it happened naturally anyway.. Had some of the best time I’ve ever had in Kenya..

But yeah, traveling and making new friends is the biggest source of inspiration for me and usually a totally new environment is the starting point for a new project. Just feel like that’s the most natural way to start processing new ideas. New culture, new people, colors, light, patterns etc.. How about you, how do you start with something or do you have any kind of routines?

I just realised one thing.. I was doing this series about Bonzai trees in the Brooklyn botanical garden. I traveled there a few time and shot the trees with both 120mm on natural light and 35 mm with a straight flash. Then, maybe a few weeks later I saw your b&w series of Bonzai trees and never published mine because your set was so much better. Haha, really the whole thing just crossed my mind now..

It’s strange to find someone doing similar work and if he/she is better established it’s so easy to give up with your own work.. Not talking about this bonzai- thing now, but last Spring I found myself photographing close ups of headlights. Came up with a series of this stuff but for some reason I never uploaded the whole set to my website. Then, a few months later I was in London and had a look at the new Tillmans book and it was full of pictures shot of modern headlights. Wolfgang is one of my favorites and I felt really weird about the coincidence. I guess it’s just about his method and approach to photography has influenced mine so greatly that it’s actually possible to produce similar body of work at the same time. Hell, who knows..

BZ: Well first of all, glad you liked the photos, but you should publish yours of course! That set is not that amazing, don’t make too much out of it. To sum up with the food talk, I really enjoy that bit of a trip, it’s the savoury that will last in your memories and also the occasional weird flavour. But one thing I do whenever I go to a place is to try the Mc Donalds; it’s like collectable food – ‘get a stamp from ‘x’ country’! Hoping to win the mighty Happy Meal surprise I guess

OH: What’s your best McD experience so far?

BZ: I’d say McD in China because it feels like you’re going against the culture of going to KFC, which is major in China. I have to say the Big Mac in Paris tastes quite alright. Portuguese Mc Chicken is the best balanced, flavour wise. Germany is probably the only place I traded McD for local sandwiches all the time

OH: McD is like the safe harbour you can navigate to when you’re at a “stressful exotic country” and then you feel like home. Eating a bad sandwich at home but there’s something strangely familiar and cozy about it

BZ: I know, it’s comfortable and it belongs in our world, no need to deny it or to dissect it to the max

OH: I think one of the best was a McFarmer I had in Paris some time ago, it was nice and fresh. Also in Finland the burgers taste better. McD in US, don’t go there (except for angus beef burger).

BZ: Thanks for the tip! Going back to your previous question about routines, I think there can be many things said about this of course, but in the end I rarely set out myself for a ‘photography’ trip/excursion, unless if someone asks me to. In that sense, I don’t see myself being a ‘photographer’ if you know what I mean. Ideally, I’d like to say that what I’m doing is not purely portraying something and I don’t want it to be seen/read like that unless I make it explicit, but the foundation of it is an ongoing response to situations I fancy, not only from a visual point of view but also psychological.

We were just talking about McD and the sense of familiarity, but its not only that example for me. Last year I was very compelled with corporate spaces, offices, corporations in general, even though I didn’t have exclusive access to it limiting my work, I was so drawn to it that I’d always make a detour on my way home from school. During weekends I’d just go out to meet somebody and suddenly I’d see myself walking through those areas without noticing. That was last year in London and I’m referring to The City, London Bridge Area, Farringdon, etc..

OH: Were you looking for something particular to happen at those places or did you look for a certain light.. ? Did you go to the same place often?

BZ: I didn’t built a solid body of work out of it unfortunately, but was just a great experience including those sights in my daily routines. I liked them exactly as they are; the clean floors, the design of the reception area, the weekly floral arrangements and I did happen to pass by the same place; I have more than 2 or 3 photographs of the same ‘situation’ taken in different times. I was drawn to the fact that nothing actually happens in those places – they are lived but erased every day if you know what I mean and that fascinates me. It’s not about lighting or unique events, it’s about a subtle murmur like a beggar in the streets; you pass by it so many times and one day you actually look at it and then you notice its presence everyday

OH: Yeah, I know how that feels. I have built certain routes that sometime slow me down because I’ve seen some potential in a location but it hasn’t been ready for the photograph (or I haven’t had my camera on me) then I just go back to these places, I even keep a book of these potential places. I guess I find myself quite often looking for the right combination of colour, light and something extra that I’d like to include to the scene

BZ: It disturbs, it fascinates, irritates, but becomes familiar, and you form this mental dialogue with it and suddenly you wish they don’t remove it..

OH: So for me the visual experience is usually the most important

BZ: I see; I can relate to that, but for me there’s also a more rational connection like making maths or rendering the spaces I live in, analyse, not only from a visual standpoint but from a social one too

OH: I’d like to think that while I shoot, I’m building links and references to/between my other work to come up with new ideas and stories. So at first I’m aiming to create something quite purely visual but the work continues as I start thinking about the next one. Quite often ideas and bodies of work evolve and grow randomly but I really like to work this way and not to come up with clear statements of how things are or how they should be

BZ: Not too loud to sound like a commentary, but just enough to become an analysis. I can also relate to what you say about seeing relations inside your work. I think that is a meta answer for the deepest questions we as photographers should do wherever you are, whenever you are, with whatever cameras you have. The answer should be about the relationships between what you did, what you are doing now and how will both of them influence the future product. Again, going back to what you said earlier, never feel demotivated by seeing work similar to what you produced being published earlier or out there earlier than yours; it’s not about being a copy, that is just the zeitgeist

OH: So true. But it becomes more personal when the one who has produced the similar work is someone you admire and who has had a deep influence in you. You just feel humble and small and it’s just easy to leave it there..

BZ: Oh man, you should stop with the flattering! It’s making me blush. Feel the same about you though and about a bunch of people out there working ‘like’ us but I don’t put it nicely as you do. I feel suffocated, not humble, but it’s not jealousy, it’s rather annoyance towards myself for not being able to refine and go deeper

OH: (I’m talking about Wolfgang) haha.. just kidding, it’s the same feeling. Only thing that counts is the effect of the work that made you feel something or think about something and I think your work does and Tillmans’ work does. So feel free to feel flattered.

BZ: Haha! But I know what you mean

OH: Oops, we’re actually talking about photography. Better stop before it’s too late. Let’s just go back to where we started, what was it. Britney and NKOT Bhah… Sort of enjoyed the talk we had before more. Should we just pour all of this to Patricia’s mailbox?

BZ: lolzz no way… if people go listen to Las Ketchup again then they’re gonna get a revival, I don’t wish that to Europe for this summer, no way!

OH: Haha, got it. I can edit the text to less lethal shape

BZ: Cuz next summer its time for DESTINY’S CHILD COMEBACK!!!

OH: I’ve never seen Beyoncé live

BZ: Me neither, but I dream of it. Going to a Beyoncé concert is the next ‘art’ moment I have listed, it’s gonna happen someday!

OH: My SA friend once touched her


OH: (Beyonce) South Africa

BZ: Ahh, good for her, she can sell her hand on Ebay

OH: She’s the biggest fan of anything I’ve ever seen so I’m really happy she made it

Bruno Zhu (born 1991 in Porto, Portugal) is a photographer based in London, currently studying in Central Saint Martins. He had his first solo show in March 2012 entitled Grass Warm Trifecta in Carlos/Ishikawa (London) followed by work presented at A PETITE FAIR, a four-gallery event held at Jeanine Hofland Contemporary Art (Amsterdam, NL) during the Amsterdam Art Weekend. Bruno has also been producing photobooks. He co-published The Palace Explodes The Shrimp Bail, When The Flower Want To Oxygen and Nutrition, I Will Help You Too Much (2011) with fellow photographer Mengxi Zhang, which was featured in Binding Image’s December art book exhibition at MuzyQ (Amsterdam, NL). Presently he has been working on a publishing project entitled ‘Compact’ and a book series entitled ‘Turbo’.

Osma Harvilahti’s work studies different forms of colour and composition structured by chains of ideas and narratives. Born in Helsinki, he has recently been working on various personal and commissioned projects around Europe and United States. He is also working on his first monograph which will be published in 2013 by Éditions du LIC