Interview: Photographer Explores Own Depression with Surreal Self-Portraits

janelia mould conceptual portrait photography

‘Dangling' “Why can’t I try on different lives, like dresses, to see which one fits best?” – Sylvia Plath

Conceptual photographer Janelia Mould of Cheeky Ingelosi Fine Art Photography specializes in shooting surreal concept images that tell a story. Based in South Africa, Mould's work gives a window into her mind, transporting us with her into a fantasy land.

Specifically, her series Melancholy – a girl called depression is a moving account of mental illness. The conceptual portrait photography reveals the raw emotion felt by sufferers of depression. Haunting, beautiful, and revealing, each self-portrait conveys the complexity of an illness that an estimated 350 million people worldwide suffer from, according to the World Health Organization.

As artists continue to shed light on depression, using their creativity as a healing outlet and to spread awareness, they break through barriers. By artistically exploring what the mental illness means and how it feels, they are also creating a lifeline to others who may feel isolated and alone in their suffering.

Read on for our exclusive interview with Janelia Mould, where we explore her process for shooting conceptual photography and her thoughts on this poignant series of images.

janelia mould conceptual photography

‘Withering Away' “It's feeling like you’ve lost something but having no clue when or where you last had it. Then one day you realize what you lost is yourself.”

Can you tell us how you began your path into photography?

I am actually a qualified bookkeeper but have laid down the books to pick up my camera full-time, about two and a half years ago. I got my first little camera when I was about 11 years old, so photography has always been a hobby of mine and my poor friends and family had to be subjected to it.

I love creating but am really rubbish at drawing and painting, even though I so desperately wanted to express myself artistically. Then, a couple of years ago, I came across Brooke Shaden‘s work on Youtube. It took my breath away. I was so mesmerized and inspired by her and her art that I immediately bought her tutorial and obsessively researched and watched other online tutorials on how to achieve the results I had in mind, using a DSLR camera and photo manipulation software.

Well, it is still an ongoing process because I am constantly looking for ways to improve my work.

What drew you, as an artist, toward the surreal style of imagery that you capture?

Since I can remember I have always been drawn to fantasy and have an incredibly overactive and vivid, sometimes dark imagination.

janelia mould conceptual photography

‘Barren' “Some days, I feel everything at once. Other days, I feel nothing at all. I don’t know what’s worse―drowning beneath the waves, or dying from the thirst.”

Speaking specifically about Melancholy – a girl called depression, how did the idea for this project come about?

It is a very personal project for me because depression has touched my life, therefore it's subjective on how I experienced it. You can say I was inspired by my own struggle and use my photography as a therapeutic outlet.

Why do you feel it's important for art projects such as yours to bring awareness to depression and anxiety?

I did not expect that this project would receive so much attention, and am very humbled and super excited by it. I just wanted to create art by using my own life experience and share it. Although there is much more information, help, and tools these days to help assist people with mental illnesses, I still feel there is a stigma attached to it.

People suffering from it might feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help because they may appear weak. They are often misunderstood and thought of as “sad, dramatic” even “crazy.” Over and above a genetic predisposition, I also think depression is fueled by unrealistic standards imposed by media and a stressful lifestyle more than ever.

From personal experience and letters I've received from people suffering from depression since I released this project is that when you are depressed, you feel isolated, hopeless, and empty; and to see someone else experiencing life in a similar way makes one feel less alone and somehow gives you hope that there can be a way out/through it.

janelia mould conceptual portrait photography

‘Forgotten' “Somebody asked me if I knew you. A million memories flashed through my mind, I just smiled and said: ‘I used to’.”

What is your creative process? Take our readers through how you go from concept to final result.

I keep a journal of ideas, concepts, and inspiration to which I refer to from time to time. I shoot all the photographs myself whether it's just for stock purposes and to be used in later compositions or whether I'm shooting on location.

My conceptual images are mainly self-portraits, so I make use of a tripod and a remote. I love vintage and antique clothing and props, so I am constantly searching in charity shops for items to wear or use in my photos. Once I have captured the images I take them into my editing software where I will manipulate, for hours, sometimes days until I am satisfied. Post processing is my absolute favorite and I disappear into a dimension where there is no concept of time!

These are self-portraits, yet your face never appears. Was this a conscious choice?

I have purposefully left out the head and some limbs, I wanted to give a glimpse on how a person with depression might experience life, through creating a character that never feels fully complete.

They are self-portraits because I use myself as the subject in all my conceptual portraits, it's just easier that way.

janelia mould conceptual portrait photography

‘It's Complicated' “From the outside looking in, its hard to understand. From the inside looking out, its hard to explain.”

You seem to have a short text or quote that accompanies each image. Does the text come before or after the photograph?

I am constantly inspired by, and looking for, quotes that I can identify with on the internet. These quotes in particular really resonate with me, and somehow I feel they compliment the pictures I create. I would say that the majority of the time I will create my image first and then look through my collection of poems and sayings on Pinterest to see which one fits best.

What do you hope viewers—both those who suffer from the same disorders and those who do not—take away from the series?

If these photographs can help anybody get a better understanding of mental illness to help their loved ones, or individuals suffering from this debilitating illness convey their message in a manner that would be received in a more compassionate way, I would be so pleased.

As this is an ongoing series, do you have a rhythm or schedule for how often you shoot them? 

I do not have a particular amount of pictures or a specific time frame in mind in which I would like to finish. I shoot when I feel inspired and if and when life allows it.

janelia mould conceptual portrait photography

‘Uninhabited' “Maybe we feel empty because we leave pieces of ourselves in everything we used to love.” – R. M. Drake

Cheeky Ingelosi Fine Art Photography: Website | Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Janelia Mould.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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