visual art, interview

Néha Hirve: the visual artist behind the Winter 2016 cover photo

Néha Hirve is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. When she created this issue's cover photo, she was a year out of NYU and getting a Masters in Photojournalism in Sundsvall, a small town in the north of Sweden, at Mittuniversitetet. She’d wake up, eat knäckerbröd with Kalles Kaviar for breakfast, go to class until five, sometimes grab a beer, and then go home. There, she did some reading to get inspired, and then as the sun set, she would head to the school’s media lab to use the tablet for her graphic designs. As she was usually the only person in the building at that hour, she would play music as loud as she wanted, having an illustration party until one or two in the morning. Néha sacrificed hours of sleep for her craft. She took every ounce of energy — an energy that for most people is nonexistent at the end of the day — and poured it into creating a vision. And given the final result, the sacrifice and labor seemed well worth it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Natalia Lehaf: You have a background in film at NYU. Did your studies impact your graphic design work at all?

Néha Hirve: I think that being a cinematographer at NYU taught me to see light and colour. My graphic design work heavily involves light and colour, most of my illustrations are set in the night time where the light makes itself present in strange ways. I think I always had the scenes inside me, but NYU gave me the tools to express them. I see things more cinematically since NYU. I also think more about narrative in my work.

NL: Do you have any pieces you can pinpoint as examples of that?

NH: Well, the piece with the bear (“It's hard to reach out to you...”) is an example of that. I recently moved to the North of Sweden and I took a camping trip with some Finns in the Höga Kusten (high coast) and that's what inspired that piece. Spending the night under those trees, such tall trees, I could really feel a presence in the history of that area. My work doesn’t necessarily have a fixed narrative or "plot" in terms of a beginning, middle, or end, as a film would, per se. But they're definitely a moment in a larger personal narrative. I like to leave it to the viewer to construct that larger narrative for themselves. My titles are sort of alluding to a larger story, too; they add another layer to the scene.


NL: I wanted to ask about your tag lines for each image, actually. Where does the inspiration stem from? Is it the same place as the inspiration for the image?

NH: They're maybe snippets of a conversation I overheard once or a song or sometimes the warped memory of a song I’ve heard long ago. I always come up with the titles after the image, and usually they just fit with the overall feeling and atmosphere of a piece. For the most recent piece, it was sort of a joke — I'd been listening to a song by the Tallest Man on Earth on repeat for the entire process (which had something similar to that line in it), which took about 30 hours, and felt like a thousand years.

NL: Do all designs usually take that long?

NH: They're taking longer and longer. I am an impatient person, so my initial work I'd rush to finish; they'd take a few hours at most. Then once I started settling into my style, which is very detailed line work and hatching, I learned to get into a sort of trance state and really enjoy the labor of it. Once I discovered I could do it all in Photoshop, my canvas size became unlimited. So yeah, they're pretty tedious to do!

NL: Oh dang.

NH: Yeah, you need to be a bit obsessive to do this, I think.


NL: Are you able to work on other projects while in the middle of a design, or do you only focus on one project at a time?

NH: I'm also a photojournalism student, so there are a lot of creative projects vying for my attention, so I focus on just one illustration at a time. I have a long list of ideas and images, but once I get into a project, I can't work on another until I finish it.

NL: I know that you are getting a Masters in Photojournalism in Sweden. Where are you pursuing your degree? How long is the program?

NH:I was born in India. I grew up in India, in the USA and in Switzerland. I only moved to Sweden a few months ago. The program is two years long.

NL: And are there certain stories you wish to tell via photography rather than film or graphic design?

NH: I'm inspired by my dreams, my memories, and the things around me. Right now, the woods and the sky are heavily featured in my work. The trees here are different, the light is different. Being so close to the Arctic Circle really changes the quality of the twilights. And after five years in New York City, I'm finally seeing the stars again.


NL: That must be nice. What is your favorite medium to work in?

NH: I love working with ink and paper. I love the physical mark that it makes, and I come from a long background of scientific diagram-drawing, which I find very relaxing. There are disadvantages to that though, so I recently switched over to an all-digital workflow - a Wacom tablet and Photoshop. It's a steep learning curve, but it allows you to correct your mistakes non-destructively!

NL: Is there any story you are trying to tell with your work? Any message?

NH: Although most of the pieces are a bit surreal and unsettling, I want to evoke a feeling of a very distant memory or dream. Although the exact memory itself isn't defined or necessarily describable in any words, we all wake up from dreams whose emotions and colors are vivid and real. Even though they can be unsettling, we re-remember them over and over to get a 'hit' of those emotions and colors. I want to create this sense in the viewer. In a nutshell I would call my stuff "memories of dreams." I had all these dreams when I was a kid, of being outside, of being under the moonlight and looking in on lit up windows and longing for that comfort and warmth.


NL: I know you are in Hungary right now. Has this experience affected any of your work thus far?

NH: I actually just got back to Sweden. I was on the Hungarian-Austrian border photographing and documenting refugees. I think that this experienced definitely changed me. We met thousands and thousands of refugees being funneled through the border, paradoxically made invisible. I'm working on a photo-essay about that experience, but I think it will also inspire my illustration. There were trains that would pull up in the dead of night, and literally two thousand people would climb out in silence.

NL: Wow. That's intense. I'm excited to see what these graphic experiences inspire in your upcoming work.

Néha is a photographer and visual artist based in Northern Sweden. Her work is based on memories of dreams she may or may not have had at some point in her life. You can find more of her work on her Instagram or website.