All I Know Is I Loved Being With You

All I Know Is I Loved Being With You

Sylvia Mann was just 11 years old when photographer Angela Hill first met her. She photographed Sylvia up until the age of 18. A mixture of fashion shoots and personal photographs, only now seen all together in a book. It is a photobook that unfurls like blooming stills from a 1990s coming-of-age film. Tender and nostalgic, the book documents Sylvia’s adolescence in the late 90s, giving us an insider’s view of her journey from a young girl to a grown woman through Hill’s lens. Anna Clausen was the stylist on those fashion shoots way back when. In Violet issue 19, Anna talks with Angela and Sylvia about the artist-muse relationship, their shared memories, the influence of fashion on Sylvia’s life, and her transition from a model to an editor of the world’s longest-running anarchist newspaper.
Violet Issue: Violet Book Issue 19
Published: 2023/09/07
Updated: 2023/09/24
Angela Hill
Anna Clausen

Anna Clausen: Amazing. We met again in Paris a month ago, for the book launch of 'Sylvia'. Congratulations, Angela.

Angela Hill: Thank you.

Anna: And Sylvia, it’s so good to see you. I was just thinking it's been too long. I'm wondering, when was the last time we were all together?

Sylvia Mann: Probably in Paris, actually. I think there was a shoot.

Angela: Yeah.

Sylvia: It was a big old house in Paris, but I don't remember.

Angela: It was for a Japanese company. Then I did a shoot afterwards with my friend James and Sylvia, and we did it in Highgate Wood. That was the last shoot I did with you.

Sylvia: I remember that.

Angela: You were wearing Barbour jackets. It was probably winter. That's all I remember about it. [laughs] Long ago.

Sylvia: Yeah.

Anna: The first time we met was in 2001. That's when we did the Exit magazine shoot. I think that was the first editorial we did with Sylvia.

Sylvia, what was your first thought when you heard that Angela was making a book about you? What was your reaction?

Sylvia: I just found out recently through my sister. I think she still knows Sarah who was my booker at Select. Or maybe she found out by being on Instagram, which I don’t really use. She told me, and I was like, ‘oh.’ [laughs] I was a bit surprised, to be honest. Then she was saying, ‘maybe we should go to Paris’ for the launch, but we didn't end up going.

Anna: Obviously this was some time ago, but how do you feel looking at the pictures today? What kind of memories do you have from that time? You were quite young when Angela started [photographing you].

Sylvia: I was 11. It was in the house I grew up in. My parents moved over 10 years ago now, but that was my childhood home. Many of the pictures are in the garden or in the bathroom, which is nice. Those green tiles. When I was that age, it was just my house and I was used to it, but looking back, it was actually a really nice home.

My dad died in 2016, so it [brings back] memories of my dad, too. I think my childhood memories and that house are very much [intertwined], and my dad is very prominent in them. It was a good time.

Oh, you loved the parrot. We've still got parrots.

Anna: It's interesting you mention your dad, because I remember when we were doing the shoot at your house. My dad passed away the day we were supposed to do the shoot, or the day before.

Sylvia: My God.

Anna: It was quite an emotional time, I guess. Um, yeah. But I had to go back to Copenhagen. I remember we had done all this preparation, Angela was super excited, and we had set up the time and everything, so we did the shoot. I was like 21 at the time, so I was quite young as well. Those pictures also have a deeper meaning for me too.

Sylvia: Yeah. Interesting.


Anna: I'm wondering, after we did the Exit shoot, Angela started working more with you, and we did quite a few fashion editorials together – we did Purple Magazine, a civil disobedience story. I think was that in Devil´s Punch Bowl.

And then we did the surf story, where was this? It was on the beach. West Wittering.

Sylvia: Yeah, in February.

Anna: And it was super cold, and we were like, ‘oh, we are shooting summer.’ And it was you in these dresses and it was freezing. So cold.

Sylvia: [laughs] Yeah, I remember.

Anna: You were changing clothing in the car. God, it was quite chaotic.

Sylvia: I was really cold. I was cold a lot like this. This is the thing—you shoot the clothes six months before the season they’re meant for. So, unless you can fly somewhere that's hot at that time of year, as a model, you’re always either too hot or too cold. I hated it. I hate the cold.

Anna: I wanted to kind of go back and reflect on that time, because I'm interested in knowing how you felt. In the photos, you look quite…unbothered. You look very relaxed and unaware that Angela is taking photos of you. Was it something you enjoyed, the whole process of dressing up in clothing?

Sylvia: I thought it was all a bit weird. I thought the clothes were weird. I was often cold. I've never really been into fashion. I remember Angela said, ‘don't pose, act like the camera's not there.’ So, I did that. I remember thinking some of the clothes were like strange. [laughs] I was kind of not bothered.

I was reluctant to do it at first, but my mum and my sister were like, ‘you should really do this. It's a great opportunity’. But I was still very much a child. I wasn't like, ‘Oh, I want to be a model’. I wanted to be climbing trees and reading books.

Anna: Angela, can you tell us how you found Sylvia? It was through David at the dentist?

Angela: Yes.

Sylvia: I remember this well because there was this man staring at me, and I was like, ‘what's going on?’. [laughs] Then he went to speak to my mum, and he explained why he'd been staring at me. So that was okay. But yeah, I do remember that.

Anna: Angela, I remember you calling me, and you were super excited. You were like, ‘Oh my God, David found this amazing girl and she's so beautiful. She's like a young Nastassja Kinski’. There was this immediate fascination.

Could you explain to us why you decided to put Sylvia’s book out now, 21 years later? What made this feel like the right moment?

Angela: I'd been putting pictures on my Instagram, and people were messaging me asking, ‘when are you gonna publish your own book?’. I'd published a lot of other people's books.

I realised I had so many pictures of Sylvia that I could just put them together. The guys at the office encouraged me to do it, and I just did it.

Anna: The book documents Sylvia’s adolescence through fashion pictures. What was your relationship like? Was it sisterly, motherly? Or were you more like a cool friend? How did you feel you wanted to portray her?

Angela: I never saw her as a model. I saw her as a fascinating, wonderful young girl. And from the minute I met her at her house – I went round because nobody had mobile phones, so I didn't have an image of her – David had just said, “she's beautiful”, and I believed him. I called up Marisa, Sylvia's mother, and I said, ‘Can I come round and meet Sylvia?’.

I went to the house and started speaking to Sylvia. She wouldn't speak back to me – she curled up in a ball under the table. The next time I tried to speak to her, she ran out in the garden and climbed up to the top of a tree.

I was about to go home, because I thought, she doesn't want to do this. And then Marisa [Sylvia’s mother] said, “You'll be ok. She'll be ok”. So, I went back out in the garden and said, “Is it ok if I just take a picture of you in the tree?” We still didn't speak, but I felt that it was ok. So, I took a few snaps and those are also in the book. And then I never wanted to use anyone else until that very last shoot. I just, in fact, I'm feeling emotional at seeing Sylvia again because, um, I came to really love her.

It was lovely to witness the span of how someone changes from 11 to 18. Sylvia, you were definitely at college on the last shoot. I don't know which college or what you were doing, but you must have been about 18. I don't even know what year it was.

Sylvia: I don't remember the year either. I remember Highgate Woods, but I can't contextualise it. It's kind of just a random memory.

Angela: It’s the same for me too. I think a lot has happened since, as obviously it does with anybody's life from childhood to adulthood. A lot happened to Sylvia. She changed immensely, but never in a bad way. She was always very sensitive, artistic, giving, peace loving. I became very motherly and protective towards her. And I didn't wanna work with anyone else during that whole period. I just wanted to work with you, and I wanna work with you again. You still look absolutely fantastic.


Sylvia: We can do. I mean, I live in London.

Angela: If you ever wanna do a shoot…

Anna: I'll come over to London. [laughs]

Angela: I can't really express it any other way. That's how I felt. She wasn't a fashion model to me. She was just a girl.

Sylvia: I was never a fashion model, even when I was doing it. I wasn't very good at it. I could do high fashion, but some of the commercial stuff, where you had to look confident, I wasn't really good at that.

Anna: Maybe you wouldn't call yourself a model at the time, but being in magazines and wearing fashion clothing and so on, did you feel it had any impact on your life? Did it change the way that you thought about yourself and your perception of being a young woman?

Sylvia: I don't think the fashion industry is good for young women. Especially the agencies. At Select, I had to be a certain weight, and I wasn't that weight, and that was always a problem. So obviously that wasn't good for me.

Angela: As much as they say they don't tell girls anymore to lose weight, they definitely do.

Sylvia: Of course. Even the girls that were so much thinner than me, I saw them telling those girls to lose weight as well. It's bad for your confidence and your body image. The culture as well, I found it quite…it's inherently superficial.

Angela: And you are there to be used and used until you have no function anymore, and then you are spat out.

Sylvia: You’re objectified, which is a strange experience when you’re too young to really have a sense of self yet. And you are already something to other people that you can’t really grasp or understand.

Anna: I'm thinking back at when we started doing shoots together. A lot of people didn't really get what we were doing, you know? A lot of people didn't think they were fashion stories. Because at the time there was a lot of glossy magazine shooting, big production, a lot of hair, a lot of makeup and the models very styled. And Angela, you portray your subjects in a more personal way. It’s not set up as an image, it’s more a mood. It could be a film still.

Sylvia, it must have been a contrast working with other photographers after working with Angela.

Sylvia: I knew it would be different – it was. Even just being in the white studios with no windows and bright lights, and the people were quite bitchy as well. I didn't really enjoy it, to be honest. But I did travel and experience a lot and I learned quite a lot.

But I think I was too young really to actually learn from it. It was just confusing. Especially as Angela's describing — I was very much a child still, you know? And I was never that great around other people unless I knew them. It was always a bit difficult socially as well.

Anna: You just get thrown into situations where you're on your own and you're still a child.

Sylvia: I didn't mind being on my own. I quite liked that. I was better back then at being on my own than I am now. [laughs] I was fearless, but I was also awkward. I'm still quite awkward!


Anna: What are you doing today? What did you go on to do after your modelling?

Sylvia: I went through quite a tumultuous period. Loads of up and downs – going to university, dropping out. I ended up being homeless for many years, living in squats. But through that I got into activism – housing activism and then general anti-capitalism. And I got into doing court support and being a part of legal networks. A few months ago, I got the job as editor of Freedom Press, which is the world's longest-running anarchist newspaper and publishing house, dating back to 1886.

Currently it’s all volunteers. I'm hoping to monetise it somehow, and then I'll be able to pay contributors. I'd like to branch out, get more contributors from around the world. That's what I'm currently doing, and I'm looking after my mum still and all the animals.

Anna: I love that. Well done. Really. It's remarkable how you pulled yourself out […] it seems like you went to a bit of an extreme.

Sylvia: I’ve gone to a lot of extremes. Yeah. [laughs]

Anna: It sounds like you're pulling some of those experiences from life into something that you can work with and put your voice to in a constructive way. So I’m wishing you all the best with that. Sylvia Mann, Editor. It's a good title.

Whenever I post photos from those days on social media, I get comments from people who still remember the photos. I'm always quite surprised. I love these photos of Sylvia, I really do. It's some of my proudest work because I feel they touch deeper than just being a fashion story. People somehow relate to the photos, because there is this sort of innocence in them, a childlike naive freedom that most of us [lose at some point] when we’re young. It's something that you miss.

A lot of fashion photography is about selling clothing and brands and it represents values that are forced on you as a consumer. You have to sell on behalf of the brands and make people aspire to look a certain way. But I feel like these photographs, they're timeless. They don't look like they're 20 years old. There isn’t a sense of, ‘you must buy this, or look this certain way.’ It feels dreamier, like it’s taken from a film where you want to know more about the character and the backstory. It evokes questions, you know, who is this person? Where is that person going? I think there’s a mysteriousness that is very magical about your photographs, Angela.

Angela: All I can hope is that I captured something of the real Sylvia at the time.

Anna: Yeah, but only Sylvia can answer whether you achieved that, I think.

Sylvia: Yeah, I think so.

Angela: The way someone else views you is not going to be how you see yourself. I can only shoot my take on you, Sylvia, and how I described you earlier is how I saw you and who I believed you to be. Sensitive and artistic, very giving, and peace-loving, and diplomatic and caring. I sensed there was something troubled there, too, which may have been right or wrong, I don't know. Maybe I recognise something of my own character in yours. All I know is I loved being with you. So that's it.

All images courtesy of Angela Hill from 'Sylvia', IDEA BOOKS.

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