Gabrielle Motola

Mar 11th, 2020

Gabrielle Motola


Gabrielle Motola is a photographer and writer. She frequently combines solo motorcycle travel with both mediums. Her work focuses on long-term projects, often evolving into immersive journeys that take her around the globe. Her photography has been honoured by the AOP, The Observer, Olympus, TWPP, and FujiFilm, been published in international journals, and has been exhibited in England, France and Iceland. She studied psychology, film and photography at the University of Miami and the Spéos Institute in Paris, and has also worked as a professional photographic printer, an editor and colourist in cinema, and teacher of cinema and photography. She is currently based in London, En land and has been on and off since the turn of the century.

Tell us about the works that we’re featuring? 

These are a mixture of portraits I’ve made of strangers. They are collaborations in that the subject and I have had some kind of conversation or made a connection. I carry a camera with me most days whether in my daily life, on jobs, or out specifically to shoot. This type of shooting is a routine creative exercise as much as it is a long term project. Some photographs are from London, during the Extinction Rebellion occupation in April of this year, others in Scotland, the USA and still others in Europe. I don’t always seek out strangers to converse with. Sometimes I prefer to observe and not engage. It depends on how sensitive I’m feeling that day, how willing I am to be vulnerable, and what is going on in front of me. If something is happening that I don’t want to disturb but I do want to capture, I do not ask permission. I’ve given a lot of thought to this over the years, discussed it with other photographers, and changed my take on it many times, but settled on the way I do it now, which is with respect but not always with permission.

This kind of street portraiture has evolved to serve as an exposure therapy for me and perhaps also for my subjects; though I benefit most from the repetition. This practice helps me to deal with anxiety, fears of rejection, and the depression those two can result in if not processed. It was scary at first, and it still is, but I am getting better at working through the fear which serves me well in my life in general. I think a lot of us make the assumption that brave people do not feel fear. This is quite untrue. Brave people feel fear and do it anyway. The late great journalist Marie Colvin put it best. “Bravery is not being afraid to be afraid.”

How does social media affect you and your art? 

I used to have a largely negative view of social media as it used to make me quite anxious. I felt overwhelmed and stifled by it, especially when I thought of it in terms of how I fit into the larger common space. As soon as I decided to take up my own space and use it as a way to share my work and connect with other people, I began to enjoy it. Now it is like having a digital private view every day (or on the days I post). I try not to be a slave to the algorithm, or anything for that matter, though I am aware of the formulas at work that help my work get seen by more people and I work to exploit that. But largely, social media gives me an outlet I didn’t have twenty years ago, and access to other people’s thoughts and feelings. I use it to encourage my daily practice too. A sort of goal post if you will. Growing my audience is not my primary goal. Making great work and connecting with others is. Though I do need to cut down on the number of hours I spend on Instagram. I think it’s affecting my eyesight.

What are you working on right now? 

I’m just finishing a tour with American musician, singer/songwriter, and author Amanda Palmer (of The Dresden Dolls, “The Art of Asking”) and working on the remaining three articles she commissioned. I’ve been documenting the emotional-political-geographical-musical experience that is her one-woman show “There Will Be No Intermission” alongside Australian writer Jack Nicholls. Picture this: a punk cabaret singer/songwriter takes a personal confessional three hour show about abortion and death (and healing and art) on the road, and through it gives lessons in processing pain into art, making sense of tragedy and trauma, and teaches compassion. It’s been quite a ride.

Amanda hired Jack and me to create a four-part series, the first of which you can read on Medium (link below). 

This is a departure in several ways from my usual work and requires me to take my skills to another level. Using what I’ve learned in terms of observation and portraiture comes in handy, but subsuming my ego to make sure I do not disturb that of another or interfere with their audience’s experience, can be challenging. This kind of work is definitely not about me. I never want to get in the way of the primary art that is happening which is her show and her relationship with the audience and their experience of the show. But I have to be present to document it.  It’s a very intense 3-hour show, and everyone is processing during the intermission and afterwards. I was also processing a lot, and for the first ten or so shows, I was quite emotional during and after. It was especially difficult to walk up to people and engage. I thought I’d be making a lot of portraits of her fans but it didn’t turn out to be the best way forward. I had to give up my original idea and fit into a more documentary style rather than a directed authorship.

What does the future hold for your work? 

More music tours, I reckon. But I’m seeking to work towards a method which means I create images inspired by the music, using the world at large and not just the artist to communicate and express the emotions and themes the artist is relating to in their music. 

While I understand the intention of this question, it also presents an excellent opportunity to reaffirm in print that the future doesn’t exist. There is only ever now. The present determines the future, and I believe it is kinder to those who enjoy their present. I try not to get the fear and if it comes (and it does) I don’t ride it down the rabbit-hole. I remember to look up and out. I’m rooted in the present of my process, which means I work every day (and rest on some – I am bad at this) and consume a healthy diet of other peoples’ art, and practice a lot of self care. Top of my list of things to do is to edit the 24,000 images I amassed this summer on month-long motorcycle tour of Scotland. 

I drove from London through the Lake District to Inverness, the Orkney Islands, Ullapool and Skye, through the Inner and the Outer Hebrides. I then spent a month in Edinburgh before returning to London. I was supposed to be editing the photos and writing an afterword to “An Equal Difference”, but I kept shooting. I could not stop myself. And after a week of intense conflict, I concluded: “why try to?” So now I have 28,000 images of people and places to look through. Maybe it will become a book. Perhaps it will become something else, I never really know for sure until it tells me. Stade Magazine published a short collection of images and aside from that and Instagram, the work hasn’t seen the light of day yet. Whether or not the future holds this goal as a reality, is up to me. I have to make the time and that can be challenging.

What was the worst reaction you have had to your work? 

An agent I respect once told me over lunch that my book, An Equal Difference, was prosaic. I struggled to understand what he meant and how he meant it. I asked but there wasn’t much clarity. I looked up the word in front of him. I wondered aloud if he’d read it. “Parts” he said. I suppose the portraiture is straightforward, but I meant it to be. I genuinely wanted to understand, and gain from the criticism if I could. The comment hurt but it got me thinking. Especially so because a director of an art museum in Reykjavik once said to me looking through an early catalogue of the portraits, “I hate this type of portrait” pointing to my image of former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. I consider the source of criticism and take it with a grain of salt and remember: you grow more from pain than pleasure.

How do you get your practice out when it is stuck? 

I go for a walk with or without my camera. If I don’t have a camera, sometimes I have something to write with. If I do not and just go for a walk, I often scribble down scenes I would have liked to photograph. When I can’t make pictures, I write about what I see and feel. I ride a motorcycle whenever I can, or I jump on a trampoline until I’m exhausted. I exercise, usually, I run, or swim or see friends. I get something moving, and the rest usually follows.