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Arvida Byström’s work connects and redefines stereotypes and identities that otherwise tend to be kept separate. Those of “model” and “photographer,” for instance. Since the invention of the camera, the line has been pretty solid between the beholder and the beheld, but Arvida Byström takes both positions in her work. Like millions of young people around the world, she has her feet solidly planted in social and digital media, where selfies and status updates are king, but she brings her own perspective to it.

Working both in front of and behind the camera, and controlling how her images are distributed to hundreds of thousands of people on her Instagram account, she has built a platform that few photographers have ever been able to aspire to. She also models for brands like Monki and Adidas, and shows her work at galleries in Sweden and internationally. She sews little knickers for things that evoke the human form, like peaches and cherries, and puts on live-streamed performances and builds installation pieces.

“She sews little knickers for things that evoke the human form, like peaches and cherries.”

A recurring theme in all her work is the simultaneous adherence to and questioning of the codes and visual grammar inherent in social media. And the medium, for Byström, is very much also the message. Digital art is intermingled with classical photography, and an eye inspired by fashion photography presents body parts and objects in subtly unorthodox poses and situations.

The exhibit Inflated Fiction at Fotografiska in Stockholm revolved around femininity, identity and gender norms and made use of photography, wallpaper, carpeting, and all sorts of items resplendent in shades of pink.

– It’s sort of a commentary on the fact that my feminine aesthetic is always read as being only about sex, which isn’t true at all, she says.

– It’s about the asexuality in a lot of literal representations of sex. The feminine coding of sexual imagery is very subjective; there’s nothing natural or biological about the things we tend to associate with sex and I want to address that.

Gimmick or activism?

Cellulite. Pimples. Period blood. Body hair. They all show up in her work, sometimes taking center stage. From a purely biological standpoint they’re all very natural things, but they often tend to be disregarded as a feminist or artistic gimmick, maybe even activism solely focused on provocation. Arvida Byström wants to break down imagined barriers by being a player on the highly commercial stage that is fashion, and at the same time exploring femininity, sexualization, and visual formulae in her art. The road there has also traveled in the in-between.

– I’ve always been sort of on the outskirts of all the worlds where I’ve worked, except when I was a regular model as a teen, at an agency, which was horrible. You have to have the right body, the right face, the right weight; there are all these demands. I moved to London pretty early and I think that city is the only reason I can even do what I do. I was exposed to a lot more and punkier venues for art and fashion than I was in Sweden, she explains.

In a short period of time, she has managed to garner attention for a number of projects, like the book Pics Or It Didn’t Happen in 2017. It was made up of pictures of women’s bodies that for various reasons had wound up banned from Instagram, now immortalised on paper. That same year she was the face of a campaign for Adidas where her unshaven legs led to a barrage of threats and hatred in her inbox. The fairly low-key campaign made waves around the world and got a lot of airtime on both social and traditional media, but Byström didn’t take much notice. She has gotten used to all kinds of attention.

– The internet has changed so much since I started posting stuff, for better or worse. Obviously there was bad stuff there before, too, but the internet is such a huge part of my life and I see both negatives and positives in the relationships that so many people have created, for instance.

She’s shared pictures of herself online since the age of twelve, which might horrify some considering the harsh tone of many avenues of social media, but Arvida Byström takes a different view of her dedication to creating images and words online.

– In my Tumblr days, the internet was pretty different, and I’ve kind of seen that platform as a sort of education, something that has taught me so much and created a lot of wonderful relationships and community. Sure, the internet is very commercialised, but there’s a lot of good things there, too.