I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian cult and was kept separate from the world (both physically and emotionally),” is how photographer Jaina Cipriano starts her interview with the Phoblographer. Truly, this will help define a lot of things with her. “Looking through the viewfinder was a way to embrace that separation and make it work for me. Through human to lens connection, I was able to begin reintegrating myself in the world.” For Jaina, the camera became a powerful tool and instilled in her a sense of purpose.
“I am mapping the darkness of my psyche, illuminating new areas and eliminating fear.”Jaina Cipriano
How Jaina Cipriano Got Into Photography
Jaina recalls shooting photographs since she was old enough to hold a camera. As a young child, she would steal her parents’ Polaroid film. Then, when she got into her 20s, she thought she would get into documentary photography. “I believed that in order to be a real photographer, I was not allowed to interact beyond the viewfinder,” she tells us. “That changed when I felt I ran out of things to photograph – I began staging parties to document, and I fell in love with the process of creating physical worlds.” That skillset transitioned into working in film and building movie sets.
Her work takes influence from Gregory Crewdson, Justine Gurland, Ryan McGinley, Dave LaChapelle, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin. Each of them approaches photography differently, but they all strive for emotional intensity and fabricated spaces that thrill Jaina. “I am inspired when an image feels realer than reality – as if we’re looking through someone, into their own emotional landscape,” she tells us. “Creating art in this way connects people, reminds them they are never alone in the intensity of their emotions. That is something I needed when I was younger – and often still do.” She continues on about the idea of world-building in her photographs.
It is a way of changing my internal narrative. When things are not going the way I want them to in my real life, I can use photography as a little bit of psychomagic. It is a safe space for me to open up, be present and trust the process. It is practicing a life philosophy on a macro level, almost, a trial run if I feel too fragile to apply it to my real life.
When I am doing a self portrait, for example, I follow my instincts, often ending up messy and exhausted. But that is the transformation – I feel different than I did when I started. It does not end there though, the image must be shared. The audience is important – once I am witnessed, the transformation is solidified. It is a way towards change.Jaina Cipriano
To shoot her photographs these days, Jaina uses a Nikon D850 and a 24-70mm lens. While she’s got a handful of prime lenses, she tells the Phoblographer that she never uses them. Jaina even adds diffusion filters and Aputure’s LED lights. “Artificial light is my love,” she tells us. “Light tells most of the story in a photo – and I enjoy being able to control it as much as possible. I want my work to feel theatrical, powerful, almost threatening.” In plain terms, Jaina finds that tough to do with natural lighting.
When we lay our eyes on her photographs, it all seems to come together. She chooses simplicity with her camera gear and instead works to get the shot through set building and all. What’s even more amazing, Jaina originally pitched us with the idea that she doesn’t use Photoshop as part of our long-standing No Photoshop series. Indeed, Jaina doesn’t use Photoshop but does minor Lightroom editing to add drama. She sometimes even builds the walls by hand. By all means, she isn’t killing it — whatever it is drops dead in front of her.
Defining Her Creative Vision
Of course, considering her background, we’re sure that it has something to do with her work. As the editor-in-chief of this website, a story that I often share is that I built Phoblographer to escape an incredibly toxic household. That was over a decade ago — but I’m still uncovering my mother’s curse in various ways. Though it isn’t on the same level as Jaina, we can all relate to the need to escape.
In Jaina’s case, she grew up in a family with a silent mental illness that was cocooned inside of a cult. These left her feeling unreal. “And the solid parts of myself that I have easy access to are painful – obsessive thoughts, global anxiety, and phobias,” she shares with us. But by creating these images, she is put into new pockets of her mind so she can get in touch with who she is without being influenced by her past.
“I am exploring the emotional toll of religious and romantic entrapment,” says Jaina about her work. The cult kept her in what she describes as a vacuum without human interaction. Because of this, she played pretend a lot. “My worlds communicate with our neglected inner child and are informed by explosive colors, elements of elevated play and the push/pull of light and dark.” She channels this energy into filmmaking — some of which have won awards. All of them tackle the idea of healing.
I am following my instincts and listening to quiet voices inside of me.Jaina Cipriano
With a deep love for creative problem solving, this self-taught photographer sort of blends the idea of documentary and creating. “I take an immersive approach to working with models, working like a documentary photographer as her subject is let loose in a strange space designed just for them,” she shares with us. “Working with me is often described as cathartic and playful.” In this way, she blends both worlds together.
More specifically, she doesn’t step onto a shoot with a preconceived notion. Instead, she’s present — and Jaina likes to explore how these sets affect her and her models.
The photographs in this article are from a series called “Domestic Terror/Bliss. Jaina describes them as “an exploration of the lost self utilizing set design and self-portraiture.” More importantly, she describes it as a way to communicate with a part of herself that doesn’t know how to speak up. Part of that comes from her upbringing — and how she channels it is the fruit that we all delight in when we see her work, including Jaina. As Jauna evolves as a person and an artist, we’re curious to see how her work changes too.