Get Lost in Sarah Kjelleren's Mixed Media Portraits
The phrase ‘living the dream’ gets thrown around liberally, but for photographer Sarah Kjelleren, that phrase has come to embody her blossoming career. Starting from humble beginnings in a small town in Vermont, she packed her bags and headed out to make her way in the cutthroat world of freelance photography in New York City. It was a big gamble but one that paid off; she has gone on to photograph subjects like Beyonce, Andreja Pejic, and Lindsey Wixson, as well as expand her talents into mixed media and collage, transforming her already captivating portraits into full-blown artisanal canvases.
Yet these impressive accomplishments have by no means gotten to Kjelleren’s head, who embodies the nature of humility in person. We spoke at length on her love for her art form, as well as the magic of New York City, her unorthodox mixed media materials, and what it’s like to know that Rihanna liked one of her photos on Instagram.
When did you first pick up the camera?
I started with a little film camera my parents got me at a garage sale. Though when I first used it I didn’t realize that you couldn’t open the back on it in the middle of a roll. I was so excited when I got it that I would open the back to show everyone that it was film inside after I took the picture. And of course when I got the pictures back they were all ruined. I had better luck when I got my first digital camera and started shooting with that.
What drew you to want to take pictures in the first place?
I don’t really know to be honest. I was always into art but I never understood photography. I always appreciated it, but I never got it. As soon as I picked it up for myself and started taking pictures it just felt right. It was very organic.
Was it your love of art that informed some of your mixed media photographs?
I love doing mixed media. I’ve love throwing all kinds of stuff on the pictures, paint, dirt, rocks. And with the project for T2 it only seemed right to throw tea leaves on there, right onto the portrait.
How do you decide what photographs need that little something more?
It’s just a feeling. It’s not that the initial picture is bland or needs more to it, it comes about in a more playful manner. It just happens, it’s an artistic itch. And sometimes that feeling results in even more diverse materials: string, blowing smoke onto the pictures. It adds a real layer of grit to it. And being from Vermont I usually get inspired by objects from nature, I may feel the need to throw a stick on there.
Tell me about some of the subjects you’ve worked with. What have been some of your favorites?
Firstly I’d have to say Shaun Ross. I’ve been working with him for the last few years. His albinism has always been so beautiful to photograph, his skin tone shows up amazingly well in photos, and he’s just an incredible person. I did a mixed media piece with him and I painted teardrops on him with some acrylic paint, and colored in his lips. I texted him a picture of it and he said ‘What the hell is this? This is so weird!’ And five minutes later he posted it on his Instagram where thousands of people were liking and commenting on it. And suddenly he sent me a screenshot of Rihanna liking his picture. It was something very different, but all the people I photograph are very different.
Do you find a difference between photographing people you know and people you don’t? Is one easier than the other?
It’s not really easier, but sometimes it’s more comfortable to shoot with someone you know. You get crazy ideas that way, and feel more comfortable about trying out those crazy ideas. Like instead of just a studio session you can be with a friend and think ‘Oh, we should shoot this on the roof,’ or ‘Oh, let’s do this in a tub of water.’ So I would say it’s more comfortable, but both are just as easy.
What is a part of your job that you find comes most naturally for you?
One of the easiest things, and one of the greatest things about it, is being able to connect with other people. People who can be a complete stranger in one moment can feel like your best friend in the next hour. You’re bringing out a side of someone that’s more vulnerable, and that can be nerve-wracking, but shortly after it can feel like you’ve known them for years.
How do you feel about the fact that everyone is a photographer now thanks to our iPhones?
I think it’s beautiful, because you can see someone who might not be talented really progress over a couple years. You can look over their feed and really see their progression and their growth as a photographer. And of course you can see that happening with people all over the world. I like to look at all of the photographers who are following me and view their work too. It’s really special to see someone’s early work and realize that that was the exact place I was in when I was starting out. I used to think it was competitive, how someone might be copying me but now I see that as part of the beauty; how someone can put their own spin and continue their growth.
When you take a portrait, is there something in particular that you’re looking for?
It’s hard to describe what I’m looking for. I find a lot of power in a subject’s eyes, and I take a lot of pictures where people have their eyes closed. I’m trying to capture a moment from within, where someone is completely calm and showing who they really are. And that’s really, really hard to get. Sometimes you can get that beautiful moment of truth, but with others it could take a long time, years even.
What’s your favorite part about living in New York?
The opportunity. You can have no money in the bank, extremely talented, work your ass off, and your big break could come from stumbling into a café and sitting next to the right person. And your life can be completely changed. There’s so many possibilities. My very first shoot in New York I was stuck waiting for my subjects who were over an hour late. And I was sitting on the corner getting so frustrated, and suddenly Annie Liebovitz walks by me. We just had this moment where she walked straight in front of me, stopped and made eye contact with me, and then moved on. And that could only happen in New York, you never know who you’re going to see or what’s going to happen.
Visit Sarah’s website here