Interview: Liz Osban's Hauntingly Beautiful Photos of Iceland Aid in Coping with Depression

Ever since Liz Osban and her boyfriend discovered their mutual love for Sigur Rs, Iceland was the dream destination for adventure she had always hoped to experience. So, when the Wyoming-based photographer had the opportunity and desperately needed a change, she surprised her beau with a magical winter trip to the island–a journey they were eagerly waiting 8 years to take.

With a a cold blue color scheme inspired by films and her own dark experiences, Liz was able to capture the unforgiving weather of the arctic nation and simultaneously lend her own unique sense of perspective to the hauntingly beautiful photographs. By embracing her depression, she's been able to keep an amicable relationship with the darkness that lends to her style, while coping with overwhelming feelings that have often plagued her.

We admire Liz's ability to find beauty in the darkness and are grateful to catch up with her with a Behind The Lens look into her trip to Iceland.

Can you tell us a bit about your journey into photography?

I began making films when I was 5 years old, after my dad lost interest in his brand new VHS camcorder that was too bulky to rest on my shoulders, so the concept of cameras and capturing moments has always been a part of my life and I can't remember life without a camera. When I toyed around at 15 years old with a cheap plastic digital camera I got for my 13th birthday, I realized that it took great pictures if you played with the focal length feature it surprisingly had. The quality was quite grainy but captured color better than most digital cameras so I tried to use that to my advantage when I started taking self-portraits of myself in my backyard, on my roof and eventually of my friends. It snowballed into creating a series, and then one day a full time job for just about anything.

What are some of your interests?

I've always loved writing, reading, films, and traveling but I also have a newfound love for horror and comedy. I didn't expect horror or comedy to become a part of my life but I feel like I use my Tumblr to only follow horror blogs for photography and my Twitter to follow comedians and see their shows. I also love making films, although I seldom make them compared to photos.

What piqued your curiosity to visit Iceland?

When I met my boyfriend nearly 8 years ago, we had bonded over our love for the Icelandic band Sigur Rs. We watched their documentary “Heima” and I didn't realize Iceland was that stunning. How has a place this magical just now become popular? We always thought it was this unfathomable dream to go that we just tucked it away in the “some day” rug.

Can you tell us about your trip?

It was a very spontaneous trip. I had just gotten over the darkest time in my life and felt I needed something else to look forward to. I sought to feel something new the year before and spent a month in Italy to see if that would quench this urge but I just came back feeling emptier. I don't blame Italy – it just wasn't the spark I was looking for and I felt an urge to go to Iceland. I had just gotten paid from 2 weddings and was feeling frivolous so I surprised my boyfriend with a Photoshopped Icelandair ticket with our names on it (because of his work schedule, I couldn't book yet) and said we're going in a month. We didn't believe it was happening until we arrived there at cold dawn with the skies still frozen blue.

Being greeted by such deep blue colors in the Iceland sky probably foreshadowed my photos and how I felt during the trip. We explored the lava fields as the sky was brightened a bit more by day approaching. Before our road trip, we explored Reykjavk and the waterfall Gullfoss, which is a mammoth beauty. We road tripped in our rental car all around the island for 7 days starting in Reykjavk, making our way North and back around full circle. We stayed in cabins watching the northern lights, then drank whiskey on a hill and watched even stronger northern lights dance the next night, which is a perk to going to Iceland in the winter time.

Going in March was not a hindrance in the sense that it was not nearly as busy and that we found ourselves close to alone most times. And we weren't drenched since it was snowing instead of raining. The only major downside to winter is the terrifying roads during storms, which says something coming from a Wyoming girl. And the fact that certain hot springs or canyons are inaccessible because of snow drifts. But one night we slept in the car next to the glaciers at Jkulsrln and explored ice caves the next day. There were still plenty of places with calm weather even though Iceland is cold year round, so we knew we weren't getting the short end of a straw. While it was a very windy and trying trip, everything was still perfect. I kept thinking to myself how I had never been happier and I had never felt more like myself and that I knew who I was and what I was to do when I got home. When you're in your dream place (literally, so many spots I felt like I had been before in a dream) you get cozy feelings like that.

You incorporate such powerful emotion and moody weather into your photos. What inspired you?

I wish I could say I'm a dark, brooding person with an enigmatic past but I honestly don't think I'm cool enough to get away with that. I've just been inspired by my dreams. When I was a kid, I had dreams with a moody feel that would stick with me. I'm guessing the films I watched growing up inspired it all. The darker lighting in my personal work is definitely attributed to the places in films I wish I could delve in and the places I'm not regularly allowed to visit in my everyday work. Before I left for Iceland, I looked at literally thousands of Iceland photos and also noticed that white was the major color and since there would be plenty of snow, I wanted to change that color scheme and show how I felt.

How much planning went into a shoot?

Considering Iceland has pretty unforgiving weather, not much planning went into each shot – just the location, where we were going to stand and how long it would take because of tourists, storms rolling in and short on traveling time. I premeditated each shot in my head to save on time, though. Not much planning could be done since nearly all of the photos you see of Iceland are without snow so it was like seeing the place brand new each time and adapting to that unpredictability.

Some photos in this series are self-portraits. Can you tell us a bit about how you get the perfect shot?

I'm usually very unlucky when it comes to self-portraits so the fact these ones worked so well still baffles me considering the conditions. The two shots holding hands in front of Skgafoss and the black sand beach at Vik had insanely strong wind (up to 60 mph!) and I strapped my tripod down with my coat, backpack and scarves. My boyfriend would stand in place so I could focus and I would yell “ok, here we go!” and stand in place. I couldn't have done it without him. He's a great partner in crime and knows the self-portrait game well. We would only get 1 or 2 shots. The black sand beach photo was actually a happy accident. The wind was so strong, I slipped onto him and it makes it look more dramatic as I'm holding onto him. I saw the shot and he was relieved when I told him we got it in one go. Then we were told to leave because the tide would be rising. People have been known to die being stuck in the tide.

How do you light your photos? Do you use artificial or natural light?

I'm not very savvy with artificial light though I hope to be one day! It's all natural light. I expose evenly to capture the details in RAW format, then I bring the exposure and highlights way low to make it appear as if it was darker. That was another thing I noticed in Iceland travel photos. Everything was brightly lit but I wanted to see a darker Iceland for once.

When is your favorite time to shoot?

My favorite time to shoot is dawn but since I'm Oscar the Grouch in the mornings and my eyes are extremely sensitive to light thanks to a gnarly astigmatism, I prefer evening sunset or foggy overcast. Maybe that's why I like moody, dark lighting! My eyes are too damaged for regular light! Everyone complains I sit in dark rooms too much but I'm not brooding, haha. I'm just awfully impaired in vision, which is ironic.

What message do you want your photographs to convey?

When I started, I wanted to convey my amicable relationship with depression and I still do, but possibly more so a hopeful resilience of living with depression. I use to get made fun of a lot for making my photos look sadder but I realized I shouldn't shy from it since it's helped me get to know and accept myself more and to use it more as a strength instead of a disability. It's difficult and somewhat taboo to discuss struggles with depression and my photos were a relieving source to show people how I felt and how menial tasks are difficult to even comprehend doing some days. So going into the future, I want to convey that living with a mental illness doesn't leave me hopeless or complacent with a static existence but shows that I can carry on and go forth while still spending time and getting to know my condition that so clearly has woven itself in me, welcomed or not.

What challenges have you faced while creating?

I use to cry a lot when I was a teenager creating self-portraits. I was so frustrated why I could never get my pictures to look like the artists I admired. It took a strange trip to San Diego to realize the key was to experiment, not emulate. Through experimenting with settings and playing with lighting, I found my style, and I still struggle with it, but I compare myself far, far less than I use to. I think it helped when I stopped asking why my stuff doesn't look like that but began asking, “how can I get to that level but make it even more my own?” Experimenting is a far more fun process than the dwindling feeling of comparing.

What's a must have in your gear bag?

I'm too simple: I just love my 50mm and my 5D Mark III. Most of the stuff in my bag, I hardly touch but I did use a ND filter for a few Iceland photos to add more dimension to highlights.

How much post processing goes into a completed photo?

It varies but for my personal work, I play with the curves a lot, lower the highlights and I love to add the blue hues either in temperature, shadows or draining vibrancy. It's common to create layers to make sure the subject is still lit well while darkening the background. For the waterfall picture in Iceland, A LOT of tourists had to be edited out. I also had to edit out a lot of water damage to my lens that appeared since I shot at f/22 with every speck visible. I wanted to make sure the waterfall was just as crisp as we were. It's actually hilarious to see the black sand beach photo of us because I edited out a tourist that fell to the ground from strong winds in the background. He will be “shorely” missed. Puns!

What are your plans for the future? Do you have any upcoming projects?

I'm working on a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series for Halloween right now and hopefully soon I hope to make a short horror film. I'll be in Iceland in June 2016 trying to shoot elopements and engagements there. And also growing my business since I became full time this year!

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

There was a photographer lamenting on Facebook last week about how she just wanted time to create photos that meant something to her but her husband was pressuring her about daily life duties like doing the dishes or paying the bills. I told her “the dishes can wait.” Tend to your heart first because that yearning may not be there tomorrow but the dirty dishes always will. You have to go against the grain of what's been conditioned in us as “logically sound” to understand your creative process. There's always a reason not to do something, not to buy the camera, not to buy the lens. But what will make you happier and what is more important: your creative heart or the dirty dishes?

Thank you so much Liz! If you would like to see more of this creative photographer's work, check out her website and Facebook Page!

Are you a photographer? Would you like to be interviewed for the Behind The Len series? Leave your links in the comments below!

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