Cambodian Boxers Vs Fashion - Photographer Carly Otness

When Carly Otness was first sent by the Billy Farrell Agency to cover MADE Fashion Week, she confesses that even though she had been taking pictures all her life, she had “no idea how to use a flash." Raised outside of NYC, she refined her snapping skills at Brooks College in Santa Barbara and went on to do production for photographers Mark Seliger and the legendary Annie Leibovitz. The two sides to Carly are what make her so interesting—the nature- and travel-obsessed ranch girl and then the fashion lover. I caught up with her amongst the MADE mayhem to hear how she balances her two passions.

Milk Made: I’ve noticed you’ve covered a lot of designers backstage, which are your favorite designers and why?

Carly Otness: I love the ones you sort of start with at the beginning. I’ve been covering fashion week for like three years now, so you know you get to watch these designers grow – people like Public School and Cushnie Et Ochs.

MM: What do you wear off duty?

CO: This leather biker jacket – I wear it all the time. It’s my favorite article of clothing.

MM: Your style seems kind of like off beat rocker.

CO: Yeah you know I like eclectic stuff like this (shows golden cornucopia shaped necklace) – I bought it from a jewelry designer in Brooklyn who worked with a motorcycle engraver, to engrave the necklace.

MM: Do you ride a motorbike?

CO: Sure! I’ve ridden motorcycles I mean, I used to live on a ranch in California!

MM: I’ve noticed that you’ve shot some models, any particular models you love shooting?

CO: Karolina Kurkova was really fun; she just like brings it all. After Cushnie Et Ochs I asked her if I could take a couple of shots and she totally worked it. I’d never shot her before and she was amazing.

MM: She’s done a good job turning herself into a personality and a celebrity. Who are your photographic and cinematic heroes? Who are your visual heroes?

CO: I love Helmut Newton and Irving Penn.

MM: I noticed a kind of Wim Wenders, Stephen Shore vibe to your landscapes. Portrait wise, I could see slight Avedon influence – any other portrait photographers?

CO: I really love Mark Seliger – his early music work is some of my favorite stuff.

MM: Tell me about what took you to Cambodia?

CO: I’ve been twice. I went the first time when I was twenty and I fell in love the minute I landed. I was in Thailand just before and it didn’t suit me but Cambodia was really refreshing. And then I went back another time to Cambodia to shoot the Khun Khmer boxers.

MM: And what caught your attention about them?

CO: It’s just a part of their [Cambodian] culture that is so engrained.

MM: They have boxing in Thailand too – I remember being mind blown when I saw it a while back.

CO: It’s the same thing! They argue over who invented it. I had this little fixer guy who would take me out to these matches and would tell everyone that I was a famous journalist for the New York Times, which was totally not true! They’d let me stand right next to the ring!

MM: Why did you feel more at home in Cambodia rather than in Thailand?

CO: I cant even put my finger on it; it was just the spirit of it that I fell in love with.

MM: I noticed some beautiful orange clad monks – they look kind of Tibetan? Were they in Cambodia?

CO: Yes. There are a lot of monks there. It’s a huge part of their culture. If you can’t afford to eat then you can send your children to a monastery or a boxing camp so they can learn to become boxers.

MM: Are you yourself spiritual or religious?

CO: I’d say spiritual. I’m not necessarily involved in any organized religion.

MM: Would you say that your eyes were opened to spirituality while you were over there in Cambodia?

CO: I learned to meditate there. I’m not very good at it because I can’t really sit still!

MM: Well clearly cause you have so much energy to be taking these amazing images. What would you do if you weren’t a photographer?

CO: Well I lived on a farm in California for five years so I’d probably be back doing that.

MM: In your dream world professionally, where would you like your work to be shown?

CO: I think probably the MoMA that would be pretty cool! I’ve never really thought about that to be honest. I just love capturing interesting stories about interesting people.

MM: Is the contrast between your wanderlust and your high fashion a conflict or do you feel like it offsets your work in a way that gives it an interesting balance?

CO: I try to travel for a month out of every year – usually in January because there’s very little going on. Like last year I was in Belize for a month. But fashion is always interesting because it’s an aesthetic playground. It’s so much fun to shoot. And I love Milk!

Follow Mary Fellowes on Twitter @MaryFellowes

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