After an apprenticeship as a photographer in the German Ruhr area, Helen studied communication design at the well-known University Of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund where she received her diploma in 2012 as the best of her class. Amongst others, she won both, the prestigious Reinhart-Wolf-Award as well as the BFF-Sponsorship-Award, for her diploma photo series “Cockaignesque”. Helen now lives in Berlin and works as a freelance photographer, specialized in conceptual and staged photography.
Hi Helen! When did you start to photograph?
When I was a teenage girl, I rummaged in the basement of our house and stumbled across my father’s old, discarded SLR camera, his darkroom equipment and tons of old pictures he had taken of my mom, when both were still young. I was totally fascinated, collected all his stuff and started taking pictures with his camera on my own. I still have it and use it from time to time. I spent lots and lots of time in my school’s darkroom and, after my graduation, there was no question what I would want to do. After an apprenticeship as a photographer, I studied communication design at the University Of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund, and started to specialize in conceptual, staged photography.
How’s life as a photographer in Berlin?
Berlin is a great melting pot for all kind of creatives, therefore it’s really easy to find and get in touch with talented people to work with. The competitive situation is tough, though, but the city offers such a lot of possibilities and inspirations, you always can draw breath on. Moreover, what I really like about it, is that you always have the chance to escape the city very easily, when it is too overwhelming. It’s only a short ride into the calm, because Berlin lies like a big island in the middle of the countryside. And there are a lot of great motifs out there.
Let’s talk about your work “Cockaignesque”; why this title?
“Cockaignesque“ arose as my diploma thesis of my communication design studies. The name Cockaignesque is linked to the word „cockaigne” which means an utopian, mythical land of plenty. It’s a medieval legend of an imaginary place where physical comforts and pleasures are always at hand, I’m sure you might know it. Besides other influences, this legend served me as an inspiration for the series and therefore as a reference for the title.
“There’s always a story to find in my pictures”
Subjects, colors and lighting, this project has a very strong reference to baroque paintings; What’s the comment behind it?
Transfered to our present, wasteful and ignorant times, the legend of Cockaigne, „a land flowing with milk and honey“, becomes relevant again. To emphasize this point, I paired it with the themes and aesthetics of baroque still life paintings, it’s symbols and allegories and most of all, the Vanitas theme that comes along with it. I love the opulence and richness of colours and shadows in these paintings. It’s just great to stage motifs after these examples, to transfer the lighting into photography and by this means, to join two visual epochs.
It looks like there’s a big production behind the project, in terms of scenography, props and costumes. How hard was it to reproduce the baroque atmosphere?
Well, it was a big chunk of work. It took lots and lots of fruits, vegetables, fabrics, flowers and taxidermies to set up every scene. Since it was my diploma thesis, it was a low budget production and completely funded, produced and build by myself. I did most jobs on my own. Besides the conceptual and the photographic parts, I did the production, all the scenography and props, most of the styling by myself. Everything had to be planned and organized meticulously beforehand to get the intended results. Fortunately, I was supported and provided by fellow students, friends and family to build up a small but feisty team. The shooting itself took almost two weeks, because we were just a hand full of people and had to build up every scene just with a few hands. Also, there was a lot of great people, who helped me out with free rentals or materials, just because they liked my concept and saw some older works of mine. The model, Judith, f.e., moved into my apartment during the production phase, we were together almost 24 hours a day. She really wanted to work on this thing with me and without her, “Cockaignesque“ wouldn’t exist.
Who is the artist that inspires you the most?
That’s a tough question because there are so many great artists from all different sections. If I have to name one in particular, depending on my own work, then it’s Tim Walker. His work is so imaginative and just fantastic.
Another work that caught our attention is “Chimera”, could you tell us something about it?
“Chimera“ arose as a cooperation with the polish designer Nika Danielska. When I first saw her beautiful, otherworldly pieces, my imagination began spinning around and I decided to get in touch with her. Only two months later, she arrived in Berlin, with a stuffed estate car full of her wiry pieces. I wanted to do a dark and dreamy, mystical inspired fashion shoot. Sometimes the pieces seem cruel and parasitic, others raise the wearer, complement or even crown him into a hybrid creature.
“I mostly get inspired by tales or myths, by dreams, movies or things and people I meet during my everyday life.”
What’s your favorite photo you’ve shot?
That’s always changing, I don’t have one favorite photo. Usually I do like best the pictures I worked on lately. At the moment I really like the portrait I took of weeping „Sophie“. One long time favorite of mine is also „Schweinebaum“, that I took some years ago in the countryside near my hometown. It depends on an old sacrificial cult, the graziers are celebrating to amortize mother nature. After the butchering, they hang pig’s heads on a special tree, to feed the birds with it.
How big of a role does “story-telling” play in your photos?
There’s always a story to find in my pictures, although some are more narrative than others. I like to keep it very open, to leave enough room for the viewer to put in his own experiences, beliefs and interpretations. I mostly get inspired by tales or myths, by dreams, movies or things and people I meet during my everyday life. I need a theme to build up my pictures on it, that’s how it always works for me. I gather ideas and themes everywhere and have a huge collection of motifs that wait patiently in the pipeline until some of them get finally realized.
Are you working an a new project right now?
Yes, I think it will be a busy year. Besides some smaller projects, that will take place at the beginning of this year, I’m planning to work on a follower to „Cockaignesque“. I can’t talk about the theme yet, because I’m still working on it, but it will run in a similar direction. Additionally, I’ll give my first workshop ever this spring, and I’m working on a scheme for this.