Interview: Celebrated Literary Tales Reinterpreted as Surreal Photography by Susannah Benjamin

When Susannah Benjamin was just 11 years old, she fell in love with photography and put all of her energy into learning how to tell stories with her point-and-shoot Kodak camera. During her time in college at Yale, Susannah focused her education on French and English Literature to understand how the masters developed characters among the pages of text from which she would draw inspiration.

Susannah has since developed a mysterious and often minimalist style with concept-focused images that feature the dark and mysterious New England landscape she calls home. We were grateful for the opportunity to catch up with Susannah for a Behind The Lens look into her mysterious photography!

You started photography at the young age of 11, can you tell us a bit about your journey into photography? Has your style changed throughout the years?

I started photography when my mom gave me a Kodak point-and-shoot camera for Christmas. At the time, I remember thinking that I had no interest in photography whatsoever, but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I went around snapping pictures to convince her that I loved the gift. Turns out she knew me better than I knew myself at the time, because I fell head over heels in love with photography and haven’t stopped since.

In terms of style, I’ve always been very focused on narrative and concept. The moment I could hold a crayon, I was drawing comic strips and haunted houses (my preferred hero was an armless stickman named Freddie, who lived beneath a volcano in prehistoric times…I was a strange seven year old). As soon as I learned to write, I was writing poems and fantasy stories. As a result, I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller, one whose preferred medium is photography. All my shoots are story-boarded in advance; I view my models as characters acting in a larger narrative, one that extends beyond the final pictures that are taken. I think this aspect of my work has remained relatively constant, however, in recent years I have tried working on making my images simpler and less contrived, while still maintaining a narrative element. There is nothing more challenging than creating an arresting yet minimalist concept.

What are some of your interests? 

Besides photography, I love reading, speaking French, traveling, baking, psychology, and mythology. I’m also a huge extrovert, so nothing leaves me happier or more energized than meeting up with friends.

Where do you call home?

Suburban Connecticut. I grew up in Connecticut and attended college just an hour from my hometown. What’s great about living here is that it provides access to an array of photo locations—forests, beaches, and (after a brief train ride) the city.

Ireland is my second home, and the place where I feel most awake and inspired. My mom was born and raised there, so I’ve been going there once or twice a year since I was a baby. From its stunning scenery to its warm people to its rich history of literature and mythology, Ireland has captivated me since day one.

You studied English and French Literature at Yale University, has your focus shifted the stories you create?

I entered Yale with a clear picture of what I wanted to study and why. Because my work is so narrative driven, it made total sense to focus on exposing myself to the canons of English and French literature. By studying what made certain works so iconic, I was able to learn what elements are essential to building meaningful characters, themes, and stories. The intimate relationship between literature and photography is a key element in how I approach my artwork.

You incorporate such dramatic scenes and powerful emotion into your photos, what keeps you inspired?

Reading is essential in my creative process. I am particularly fascinated by mythology, which has been the foundation of numerous shoots. When I’m lost for inspiration, I always return to my encyclopedia of myth for ideas, or crack open a good novel.

How much planning goes into a shoot?

Quite a lot. I used to produce more work when I was younger, but these days I’ve noticed that my process takes longer. Often times I need to do a lot more research and thinking to arrive at an idea I’m happy with, so it’s really the storyboard that takes the most amount of time. I usually go weeks and weeks drawing a blank, until it all hits me at once, fully formed. After that, the amount of prep time varies based on the difficulty of securing clothes, location, etc.

How do you choose your models for each photograph?

I know instinctively when I want to photograph someone. Faces fascinate me; I frequently approach people I don’t know and ask them if they’d be interested in posing for me. Many of my best subjects are also my closest friends, who I much prefer shooting to professional models.

Once I have my story in mind, I visualize the protagonist and choose a friend or acquaintance who I feel matches with the character I have envisioned. Then, with styling and makeup, I can transform them even further into the person I have created.

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

For the most part, I shoot using natural light. Because I am self-taught, natural light was the easiest and most accessible resource at my disposal. I was always more interested in the creative, rather than technical elements of photography, but in the past year I have become more and more interested in the effects I can create using artificial light. Having that knowledge provides so much more artistic freedom. I am hoping to introduce more artificial lighting into my work.

When is your favorite time to shoot?

Any time when the light is diffused and even. I particularly love shooting when it’s misty.

How would you define your style? 

Fantastical, narrative, dark.

What message do you want your photographs to convey?

There is no one message I am trying to convey; it really depends on the image. However, there are a few themes that reoccur organically in much of my work, such as bullying, isolation, and metamorphosis.

What challenges have you faced while creating?

My main challenges are anxiety and a lack of faith in myself. 99% of the time I think my work is worthless and that I have no talent, which puts a damper on my creativity. I spend more time worrying about my lack of talent, bleak prospects, and general mediocrity, than anything else I do.

What is a must-have in your gear bag?

I’m not big into equipment—as of now, I only have one 24-70 mm lens for my camera. For me, my “must have” is a copy of the storyboard, so that I can refer to it during the shoot.

How much post-processing goes into a completed photo?

Not much. I really like to accomplish the image in camera, so 99% of the time, retouching is just color adjustments, blemish erasing, etc. For me, the fun is creating a seemingly impossible image using simple materials; there is nothing more fun than having a friend puzzle over an image as they try to figure out how it was taken.

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

I’m not sure! I just finished college this past December, so I am giving myself one year to focus on photography full time. After that…I’ll let you know once I figure it out!

In regard to projects, I’m currently working on a story that I am very excited about. I’m hoping it will be shot within the next few months, but I want to keep the subject a surprise!

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

I’m still an aspiring photographer, so I don’t know if I’m in a position to give advice. But one thing I would say is: seek inspiration from other mediums, not just photography. So many photo concepts have been recycled to exhaustion, largely because photographers are emulating other photographers. There’s nothing wrong with this as a starting point, but it’s important to connect photography to other disciplines, be it literature, psychology, current events, etc. Read. Read all the time.

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

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

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