Elena Helfrecht’s Expressive Surreal Portraiture Speaks Volumes (NSFW)

All images by Elena Helfrecht. Used with permission.

“I think photography works so good as an outlet for me now that it has a big part in my victory against self harm and self destructional behavior.” says Elena Helfrecht, who describes herself as a 24 year old fine art photographer based in Berlin, Germany. “I have not hurt myself since many years now.” Her work was shown this year at the Berlin Unframed Festival, Turin The Others Art Fair, and Bruxelles Off Course Art Fair.

“With my photography I uncover the human psyche through the body.” she describes about her work. “I like to consider skin and bones to be books we can read in. Often I work with concepts to illustrate certain emotions and states of minds, my camera is therefore my instrument to tell stories that words cannot grasp.” In fact, Elena got started with self portraiture, and then went on to capture what she believes to be the human essence.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Elena: I first started drawing at a very young age. Later I slowly discovered photography as my main medium when my dad gave his old digital camera to me. The camera works for me like an enhanced hand. With no other medium I can bring the images in my head to life in such a direct and personal way.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into conceptual and expressive portraiture?

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Elena: Somehow it developed organically all by itself. My first shots were always nature, mostly little details and things that I found while strolling around outside. I always had the urge to express myself, to get rid of certain thoughts and emotions. Back then I released it all through drawing, but as I got more intrigued with photography I eventually started with self portraiture and slowly switched the medium for my purposes.

Phoblographer: A lot of your work is very expressive and there isn’t a lot of emotion being shown in faces. Instead, it’s through body language. Why do you choose to do this vs showing a person’s face?

Elena: This is a really interesting question and also a process I went through. When I begun with photography I often featured eyes in my work, as they in my opinion were the direct connection to the soul. At some point I discovered bodies as an issue, maybe through self portraits. In the past I often documented my own struggle with depression and psychological issues, always in search of who I was and what defined me as a human. Through photographing my scars from back when I hurt myself I learned to find beauty and peace in them. Before I often considered them as ugly and was ashamed. I think photography works so good as an outlet for me now that it has a big part in my victory against self harm and self destructional behaviour. I do not hurt myself since many years now. I still like the photographs of back then, because they remind me of what I went through. I accept it as a part of myself and of who I am today.

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Bodies and their movements, their language, are telling so much about the souls living inside of them. Humans are fascinating and I love telling their stories. True beauty for me lies only in experiences, in truth, and in emotion. We are fantastic creatures and I find it sad that society hides our true beauty behind blank and smooth surfaces that do not really exist. It leads to a wrong impression of who we are.

Phoblographer: How do you feel lighting plays a big part in your photography?

Elena: Lighting is incredibly important for my photography. I rarely use anything apart from natural light. In my opinion artificial light cannot imitate the atmosphere daylight and certain structures and shadows create. Lately I also started to use candles for some of my shots. They allow an amazing play with shadows and create a melancholic, yet cozy surrounding which is essential for some of my concepts.

Phoblographer: Where do you typically draw your inspiration from? A lot of it looks like dark fairy tales.

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Elena: I am inspired a lot by Bavaria and it’s dark forests, where I grew up. I always loved to read myths and legends from my country and I had a very colourful imagination. From a psychological and anthropological point of view, myths and fairytales reveal a lot about humanity, about our fears and dreams. They are very metaphorical.

At this time I am also studying for my master’s degree in art history, so I consume a lot of art which probably inspires me also unconsciously.

My main inspiration though is my daily life, the things that happen to me and my own emotions, which sometimes can be too strong to not let them out.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use. How do you feel that it helps you get your creative vision across?

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Elena: For a lot of time I use a Canon EOS 600D and mostly a Tamron f2.8 17 – 50 mm. I never really worried about my gear and I always had the opinion that the photographer makes the pictures, not the camera. But just now I am at a point where I see it is really half and half. Since I am working in really bad light situations and cannot use artificial lights in order to not destroy the atmosphere my pictures breathe, my camera system has some difficulties. Just now I am saving up for a new camera – I just didn’t make my final decision yet, though I am playing with the thought to switch to Sony since they released some pretty amazing stuff this year, just not 100% sure yet.

Phoblographer: So why did you start out with self portraiture? Was it to show people the type of work that you wanted to do?

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Elena: It is a psychological reason I guess. As mentioned before, I started with it in order to get different perspectives of myself. Photography allowed me a completely different view on me and helped me exploring who I was and what I can be. Still I have to say there is a development going on. Now I often use my body as an instrument for certain concepts. I do not see myself in the pictures anymore, rather an anonymous being completely incorporating the emotions and ideas of the concept. It is very practical to work with myself now, because I am always available and I know exactly how far I can go with myself. Another plus is that I have an easier communication with myself regarding the images in my head and acting them out.

Phoblographer: What are your conversations usually like with people when you want to create images like this? Do you use storyboards or drawings and sketches to show them what you want to create?

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Elena: Sometimes I do use sketches or some written words, often things develop also very spontaneously. I only work with people I share a connection with, whom I trust and whom I know. Therefore conversations before are often very personal, sometimes we also laugh a lot. During the process of photographing I am very vulnerable. I have to open myself in order to notice the emotions going on in this very moment, so I can capture them. In the last time I am also learning to work with models and people I don’t know well yet.

Phoblographer: How do you feel your work is evolving, and where do you want it to be one year from now?

Elena: I think I already shared some of the processes I was going through. One year from now is a pretty accurate time – I guess for the future in general I can say that at some point in my life I would really love to photograph strangers and to be able to talk to them straight forward without any fear. I see so many interesting people on the streets, but we are all in a hurry and I am too shy and too afraid. But maybe one day, without setting myself under too much pressure, I will be able to do it.

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