Illustrator, artist and visual journalist: Ollie Cameron is a triple threat storyteller
With an affinity for communicating topics initially unfamiliar to him, illustrator and visual journalist Ollie Cameron is more interested in storytelling than any fixed definition of artistry. Having already produced unique projects such as a book illustrating his experience of having a tumour and virtual reality experiences for refugees of the 1947 Partition of India, no topic is out of bounds for Ollie. And with the knowledge that the creative industries can sometimes infringe upon personal boundaries, he talks to us about finding space to breathe in the form of his metal detecting hobby, winning BBC Student Visual Journalist of Year award and applying for everything regardless of potential rejection.
Illustrator, Artist and Visual Journalist
BBC, Vice, British Council, Arab British Centre, Project Dastaan
Project Dastaan (2019 - present)
Freelance (2018 - present)
Place of Study
MA Visual Communication, Royal College of Art (2021 - present)
BA Illustration and Animation, Kingston School of Art (2016-2019)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I am an artist, illustrator and designer. I am drawn to projects where art is used as an intersection between different fields. In the past, this has been between illustration and journalism with the BBC, collaborative art and cultural exchange with the Arab British Centre, and art and technology, with Project Dastaan, where VR was used to ‘cross borders’ and reunite 1947 Partition refugees with old communities and memories.
Though eclectic – ranging from editorial illustration to sculpture – my work is unified by a love of storytelling, drawing, research and enjoying the challenge of communicating a topic that was initially alien to me.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
Last year, I had the amazing opportunity of taking part in an artist residency with the Arab British Centre, funded by the British Council. I was partnered with Dina Khatib, a Palestinian designer and curator living in Dubai. Over the course of a month, we created a collaborative project while working remotely, and became great friends in the process!
The work we produced together explored how we could visually record the 5,597 km distance between us by post.
I love this project because it completely opened up my perspective at a time during lockdown where my world had completely shrunk. I’m proud of our collaboration together as it felt like a real harmony between our individual skill sets.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I am really inspired by spaces such as the Wellcome Collection that blend art, science and health. I had my own experience with a tumour on my head a couple of years ago while I was at university. To cope with what was a difficult and uncertain time, I drew all my appointments, check-ups and MRI scans and organised a photographer to document the surgery at the Royal Marsden [Hospital in London].
“Drawing and recording became a cathartic way of reframing my experience of living with a tumour.”
The process of drawing and recording became a cathartic way of reframing the situation, and I turned the images into a publication so I could share the experience with others. The book was perforated down the middle and bound at each end, so the only way it could be read was by tearing through each page – like performing surgery.
That personal influence really sparked an interest in me to further explore the many ways illustration can be used to visualise complex stories in intimate ways, as well as nurture a love for drawing on location.
Since then, I have been working to develop an illustration practice that tries to draw attention to socially engaged stories which are pervasive, but not always seen. I have recently begun a collaboration while at the Royal College of Art with the cardiovascular department at King’s College Hospital.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk or in your workspace right now?
Like others during the lockdowns, I am guilty of spending a fair amount of newly-discovered free time picking up questionable hobbies, so my desk is currently covered in bits of metal. Over lockdown, I spent a lot of time metal detecting, and whether it is bits of junk or medieval silver coins, I love the memories held within the objects.
I have recently found some interesting things: a gold coin, a silver spoon from 1602 (which has gone to the British Museum) and some Celtic and Roman jewellery. Right now on my desk, I am looking at a 2,500 year old pendant of an axe head which would have been worn around someone’s neck and used as an offering at a shrine. The objects I find all end up on my desk at some point and have such interesting stories (and also make good paperweights!).
If you could sum up your practice in a meme, what would it be, and why?
(Below) This meme, because research is at the heart of my work – however, this process of researching can also be the most difficult. There are a lot of experiments that don’t work out and dead ends that create more questions than answers. However, the iterative process of going back to the drawing board and eventually connecting the dots is really exciting for me. Sometimes it’s good just to take a step back.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
After graduating from Kingston School of Art in 2019, I began freelancing – doing a combination of design, editorial illustration and cartooning. Initially, it was tricky to get consistent work, but the gaps between commissions decreased over time.
The hardest thing I found was the pressure to define a visual style and label as an artist. Whether it’s sculpture, printmaking or cartooning, a lot of my work looks very different from one another. More recently I am coming to realise that perhaps a ‘style’ can be the method in which a subject matter is approached, rather than what it looks like.
I am lucky enough to be back studying and am currently doing an MA in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, which has been a great way to develop this methodology, or style of working, further. The MA has been a scary process of losing my feet again, but in a good way.
How did you go about landing your first clients and commissions?
After graduating from Kingston, I applied for the BBC Student Journalism awards and was awarded BBC Student Visual Journalist of the year. Fortunately, this opened some doors. I’ve found that the best strategy to land roles, residencies or awards is to apply to lots of things irrespective of the rejections, because you never know where it may lead.
“I’ve found that the best strategy to land roles, residencies or awards is to apply to lots of things irrespective of rejections, because you never know where it may lead.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Like many artists, I’ve struggled with different labels for my work as it doesn’t fit neatly into traditional illustrator or graphic design portfolios. I have always floated somewhere in between. It has taken some time to stop worrying about finding the right label.
I love the way illustrator Mitch Miller came up with his own unique title for his work – ‘Dialectograms’ – and I think that it sets a great example for artists who are also struggling like me. If you can’t find the right label, make up your own.
If you could pick three things you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
For me, it’s been great to have hobbies on the side which can I divert my attention to when things are getting too hectic, such as metal detecting. Admittedly it’s not very cool, but I have found in creative industries that the personal boundaries between you and your work can become blurry. Finding alternative ways of letting off steam (and nerding out a bit) has been a blessing.
Working for the Project Dastaan initiative has taught me so much about compassion, the pressing importance of preserving cultural history and the ability for collaboration to make good things happen.
“In the creative industries, personal boundaries between you and your work can become blurry – find alternative ways to let off steam and nerd out a bit.”
Over the lockdowns, we expanded the project into a 360 VR film and a series of animated shorts, with funding from the British Council and National Geographic among others. I have been lucky enough to be able to work with my friends on this initiative for the past couple of years, and with the 360 film Child of Empire being selected for Sundance [Film Festival] 2022, it has been rewarding to see the project grow so much.
Fukt Magazine is an annual publication based around exploring the far reaches of contemporary drawing. These have been a helpful friend in the studio every time I am need of some inspiration, and is now my go-to resource.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share?
For me, social media has been important, but is also a double-edged sword. I have found it really useful in some ways, as I received several commissions through the platform and I find it a good place to share my work within a more casual context.
However, it’s also easy to get sucked in, and the vapid mixture of cat videos, weird TikTok dances and bad food recipes – while also being at the mercy of an algorithm – can sometimes change your relationship to your work. I have found that using Instagram to share something that already makes me happy, rather than uploading something in order to make me happy, has kept my serotonin levels on a relatively even keel.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
That it’s okay to accept work that isn’t always in your sweet spot – everybody has to pay rent. If the work I’m doing now can help facilitate doing the work I want to create in the future, then I know I’m heading in roughly the right direction.
Now that I am back studying, the struggle to facilitate my full time MA course with part time work has been pretty brutal. I spent a long time saving prior to starting the MA course, which I found useful when moving back to London as it gave me a little time to find my feet.
Finding the right balance has taken some juggling, but I have found that it is definitely possible to financially sustain myself with part-time work while completing the MA course – it’s just about finding out where to compromise.
“It’s okay to accept work that isn’t in your sweet spot – everybody has to pay rent. If it facilitates future work, you’re heading in the right direction.”
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
I was told to trust in my abilities and say yes to things. While that doesn’t mean that you should accept every job that comes around, try not to let imposter syndrome hold you back from taking on work that you like. Some of my favourite work has come about through saying yes and then learning on the job.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Collaborating with others has been a great way for me to find new work, learn new skills and make new friends. Reaching out to friends, family and other professionals in industry and starting that initial conversation to create work together can be a great place to start. That first step of reaching out is always the hardest!
Interview by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Ollie Cameron