Olivia Gay


For over 20 years, Olivia Gay (b. 1973) has been photographing women who work as waitresses, cashiers, prostitutes, nuns, factory workers, domestic workers; women living in refugee camps; women in prison. She takes her time, often seven years or more—allowing mutual respect, trust, and understanding to deepen.

Olivia Gay received the prestigious Prix HSBC for photography (Prix Joy Henderiks) in 2018. Her work has appeared in solo exhibits throughout Europe and in Brazil, in venues including Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, 2018 and Fondation Mast, Bologna, 2015. Gay lives and works in Normandy, France, and teaches photography (history and technique) at the University Panthéon - La Sorbonne, Paris. She studied Art History at the University of Bordeaux, and Photography at the New England School of Photography, Boston. In 2016, she graduated from Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP), Arles, France.



A Woman's Palace

Le Palais de la femme is a social housing residence located in the heart of Paris, rue de Charonne. It has about 280 individual studios designed to accommodate women who are beneficiaries of minimum social benefits, unemployed or part-time. In addition to this system, there is also a shelter and stabilisation centre (CHS) which accommodates about fifty women of all nationalities, single or unmarried mothers, sometimes formerly homeless, victims of violence or suffering from mental disorders. Residents are housed in single rooms, one side of the wall of which is covered with brightly coloured paint: blue, orange, red, yellow. These rooms are equipped with a bed, a toilet and a shower, a table with two chairs and a storage cupboard. The artist started making documentary portraits of women living in their single rooms at the CHS of the Women's Palace in 2013. Then, a few years later, she returned with the intention of gathering them around for a photographic workshop.


A Woman's Prison

The work Incarcerated women: interior views presents portraits of women accused or convicted, with unseen faces obscured by a gesture, an attitude or an object. This work was built in response to the prohibition of showing the faces of inmates, imposed by the prison administration in respect of the "right to be forgotten".

These women posed, dressed in nightwear, with their faces hidden by a cloth - effects distributed upon their arrival by the prison administration; in an opera costume, their faces made up and hidden behind a fan or a mask; or in their ordinary clothes, face hidden by gesture symbolizing a unique expression.

These photographs are the expression of an attempt to transgress the prohibition and escape the permanent control of the prison system, a place of dispossession of oneself and one's image. The black background highlights the human figure as well as colours as forms of resistance.

In this project there is also a representation of the artistic work made by the participants themselves; realistic paintings which reveal their faces who have received permission to be shown, unlike the photographic; intimate notebooks, drawings, photographs taken in cells or in the courtyard. The women volunteers were involved for several weeks in the project, from production to exhibition, organised for an external audience which was accessible by invitation only. All these practices are part of the rehabilitation supported by the French Ministry of Culture, Justice and Normandy Region.