The Art of Environmental Self Portraiture by Sarah Burns

All images by Sarah Burns. Used with permission.

When you don’t have models or other people to work with, sometimes you turn into your own best portrait subject. That’s part of the idea behind the selfie generation, but that’s also the idea behind the work of photographer Sarah Burns. Getting into the art form when getting a Fisher Price camera, Sarah went on to study photography later on.

Obviously, her story is much different from others who take self portraits.

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

Sarah: I got into the photography initially when I was 4, I was given a Fisher Price camera for my birthday. I think it was one of my Mum’s biggest regrets, I would fill up film after film. When I was 11 I got my first digital camera, and that just continued my love of photographing things – the photos weren’t good, but I enjoyed it. Being someone who has never been able to draw, photography has been my creative outlet.

I went on to study Photography at GCSE, A-Level and I did a combined degree in Photography and Media Business – so getting that camera at the age of 4 really swayed the direction I went as I was growing up.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into self-portraiture?

Sarah: Self portraits actually started by accident. I needed a photo the next day for a task during my A-Level. I had been inspired by Catherine Balet’s photo “Ines connected with Amina” – which had been shortlisted in the 2008 Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. Not having a model to work with, I took some long exposure portraits of myself. That was the start, by doing self portraits it has grown my confidence as a photographer and given me the opportunity to express myself.

Phoblographer: Your images are proper self-portraits, they’re not “selfies.” Why do you often end up photographing yourself in these places?

Sarah: I love locations. Before I shot self-portraits, I was obsessed with landscape photography – but I always wanted to create something original and never felt I could. By putting myself into the images I was able to change the feel – the photos became something more to me.

Although, I do also shoot in more minimalistic locations too, it does depend on my mood and what’s going through my mind. Or simply if I haven’t seen anywhere that inspires me into creating an image – but I like to try and produce photography weekly, especially whilst working a full time job, as it’s my escape.

Phoblographer: In your images, you seem to be genuinely, seriously into your environments. So do you often feel that you’re inspired by the places you to to, or your images are more character driven?

Sarah: That’s a difficult one. Sometimes I will just come across a location and I will just want to shoot it, but others I will be inspired by a character. I actually have a list of photo ideas that I add to and remove things from – so it really does depend.

Phoblographer: When you look at these scenes and photograph yourself in them, do you find yourself story boarding or going in and just shooting whatever in hopes that it works? What parameters and ideas do you typically keep in mind when you’re in front of the lens and in a scene?

Sarah: When in front of the camera I often work go through what I would say to a model in my head – and I will run backwards and forwards to make sure in-between shots the focus is correct, the composition is working, and that I like how it looks.

I am probably less likely to do story board, as I find it frustrating when I can’t create what I want – so I often go in with an idea in my head but I will try all different things, as sometimes what you want just won’t work but something else just clicks!

Phoblographer: You’ve been using Flickr for a while and have 2k followers. How have you grown your account?

Sarah: Talking! Engaging with the community and commenting on other people’s work. Flickr is a great place to speak to people of all different levels – but everyone has a passion. I always try and keep an eye on my account and when I have time I will go out and look for more artists – as I am always inspired by what other people are doing and thinking do I like it, and how can I make my own twist on it.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about your gear. You’ve got a Nikon D750 and you digg film, right?

Sarah: Yes, I love my D750! I have it with the 24 – 120mm 1.4 and the 50mm f1.8 – I also have an old 50mm M42 mount lens and adapter which I will sometimes shoot with, I love the quality it gives!
Another important part of my kit is my tripod! I use a Manfrotto MKC3-H01, it’s super light weigh and compact, so I can take it wherever I go!

I also have a long distance remote – just a cheap Polaroid one, which is great! You can set up interval shooting on it and it really does work at a distance! I used to use the Nikon infrared remote, but found that could be unreliable, especially at a distance!

I do have some speed lights too and I want to invest in a ring light at some point! But I am a bigger fan of natural light!

I love film. When I first started working full time I was commuting into London and found my photography slipping. So I set up my Life on Film project. This goes back to my initial love of landscape photography, but as I am also an avid collector of vintage cameras, I mix it up all the time which camera I use, and I love the qualities it adds. Especially when there’s obvious dust and scratches on the lenses! It just shows these camera have had years of love!

Phoblographer: Lots of your images seem to be taken in England. But have you ever thought about how you’d apply this series in case you ended up traveling?

Sarah: I have travelled it. I recently went to Malta (though the heat did cause some issues!) and I go to Ireland regularly. My tripod folds up small enough to fit in a hand luggage suitcase and my camera back can go on my back. I enjoy finding new locations, and I always make sure I have my camera with me!