Art

Not (Just) Another Selfie

With no formal training, twenty-year-old photographer Rachel Baran has set the interwebs abuzz with her series of stunning and surreal self-portraits. We needed to get inside her wonderfully creative mind.

Interview by Lora Wiley - lora@citizenbrooklyn.com Photos by Rachel Baran
Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

Citizen Brooklyn: You’re only twenty. Describe the first time you picked up a camera.
I don’t remember the exact first time I ever picked up a camera, but I do remember how much I loved disposables as a kid. Looking through all the photo albums my parents kept always made me want to document everything too, to make memories into tangible things I could hold and put in a box. The first time I shot with my own digital camera when I was about sixteen was magic; being able to actually see the pictures directly after I took them was amazing to me after years of waiting weeks for film to be developed.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: I read you’ve never taken a photography class and are completely self-taught. Do you feel there is anything you missed out on not having “formal” training?
I definitely feel like I’ve missed out on many, many things I could’ve learned in a class. I had to teach myself all about the manual settings and how to work them, and I’m sure there’re still plenty of controls I don’t even know about, so I feel that I have a very limited understanding of the technical aspects of photography. The same goes for Photoshop as well—even though I usually get the effects I want, I’m sure there are much quicker and simpler ways of getting them that I’m not aware of because I was never taught any shortcuts. But, being self-taught gives me a lot of pride and confidence in myself that I wouldn’t have come to have otherwise, and for that I’m so grateful.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: What photographers have influenced your work?
The one photo that’s never left the back of my mind since I first saw it (which I‘m certain goes for countless others as well) is Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’; I love photographs that move you. To me, photography is perfect because it allows you to communicate so much without saying a word, and that photo encapsulates that idea for me. Recently, and more style-wise, Glenda Lissette’s mixed-media photos have been a gigantic inspiration; she never seems afraid to try new things and her work is always beautifully light-hearted and well done.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: Many of your self-portraits are a combination of fashion and landscapes, where you do get your inspiration?
Most of my photos tend to be inspired by other photographers, which is I think why my style tends to be a little all over the place, if you could even call what I have a ‘style’. My love for photography is exactly like my love for music—I have such an appreciation for all different kinds that it’s so hard to pin myself down to one style. So the challenge of incorporating as many styles as I can into one photo has become one of my favorite things to do.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: I’ve read you have described your work as surreal, disturbing and erotic. Have you been surprised on how other people describe it?
It’s funny, I actually didn’t describe it as any of those things, those are the words of others. I would say that my photos are surreal though, and definitely occasionally disturbing. ‘Erotic’ really surprised and confuses me, since that’s never been my intent, to make erotic photos, but I suppose I can see it. I’m honestly not sure how I would describe my photos. I’d probably say they’re all stories, that that’s their unifying factor. I love pretty pictures, but I have a definite bias towards ones that say something and make you think.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: For your self-portraits, describe your process from conception to print.
My creative process tends to differ hugely depending on the photo. Half of the time I’ll come up with the concept first, during a conversation with a friend or while listening to music, which sometimes I’ll sketch out or write down if I’m afraid of forgetting it. Then I’ll go out and shoot a few photos for it, then edit them and upload them and so on. The rest of the time I’ll just feel this strong urge to go out and shoot something, so I’ll tromp out into the woods with my camera and tripod and just start shooting. Those I’ll go through later and decide whether or not anything can be done with them. Oftentimes those become my favorites though, since they force me to be more creative.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: Do you have another favorite subject to photograph, other than you?
I really love to photograph landscapes, whenever I get the chance to be in places that could be described as ‘landscapes’, but that’s unfortunately not that often. And I’ve loved candids ever since I was a kid; those candid disposable shots completely made family trips for me.

CBK: How different is it to photograph people other than yourself?
Photographing other people is actually one of the most nerve-wracking things for me. I know it’s completely one-sided, but my hatred of inconveniencing others makes me feel like I need to get the shots as quickly and efficiently as possible when I’m with another person. So I get flustered and end up not getting the shots I wanted most of the time; it’s sort of a big self-fulfilling prophecy type deal. Even after working at a senior portrait studio for a few years I still have yet to get over that anxiety, but I know the more experience I get the more confident I’ll become and the more that will dissipate.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: The emotions in your photographs run the gamut from dark to pure joy. Which are your favorites to do?
I have to say that doing darker photos is definitely more fun for me, or at least much more cathartic. Those usually come about after I’ve had a bad day, when I have that strong urge to take the passive aggressive road and complain about it on social media. Instead of annoying everyone like that though I force myself to drag my butt and camera out to funnel that energy into something more productive and meaningful.

CBK: You are training for degrees in psychology and art therapy. If you were to analyze your work from an art therapist’s view, how would you describe it.
Oh wow, I’ve honestly never thought about how an art therapist would see my work. I’m obviously biased in saying so, but they’d probably see that I had a bit of a rough time in my teens that I’m attempting to overcome, or that I have overcome (hopefully). A bit of a clichéd story, but mine nonetheless.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: Your love for horror movies shows up in your photos, but so does a sense of humor (hand in microwave picture). How intentional is that balance?
The balance between gory and humorous is definitely very intentional. While I know that there are people like me that love blood and horror, I also know that there are far more people that do not, so I always try to incorporate little bits of humor into darker shots so hopefully nobody will be put-off or frightened. I think it’s also been my way to communicate that my photos don’t come from a personal dark place so much as from a place of curiosity and fascination about the dark places in others.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: You work in a crisis center with children. How hard is this and how does it affect your work?
Working at a Children’s Services crisis center has definitely been one of the most humbling things I’ve gotten to do. When you first meet the kids they’re so bright-eyed, which almost makes you forget the reason they’re there, but then some of the kids will show me bruises and tell me stories about home and it makes me furious; those are the days that make me feel like crying or knocking heads. But they’re some of the most optimistic human beings I’ve had the privilege of meeting, and their resilience and strength never cease to inspire me to keep fighting my own (relatively trivial) battles, and to continue trying to be a voice for those that may not get to have one.

Photo © Rachel Baran

Photo © Rachel Baran

CBK: Do you dabble in other art mediums?
In the past I’ve ‘dabbled’ in a few other mediums, albeit very very shallowly. From when I was quite little to the time I found photography drawing and writing were my outlets. I had a second grade teacher who would let me stay inside during recess and type up my stories on the classroom computer and draw pictures to go along with it. I don’t think I’ve ever been more appreciative of something in my life—I’ve never been a particularly talented writer or drawer, but having that creative support meant the world to me.

CBK: Your next big photography idea?
At the moment I don’t have any big, concrete plans yet, although I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing a book of sorts. We’ll see where that goes—at the moment, if I make it through this school semester I’ll be a happy camper!

See more of Rachel Baran’s work on Flickr.

3 Responses to “Not (Just) Another Selfie”

  1. Gaya says:

    This young woman is on her way to become a great artist.

  2. […] With no formal training, twenty-year-old photographer Rachel Baran has set the interwebs abuzz with her series of stunning and surreal self-portraits. We needed to get inside her wonderfully creative mind. To honor her as one of the best young talents we collaborated with, we used one of her images as our holidays cover. To see and read our story about Rachel please go here: http://www.citizenbrooklyn.com/?p=30263 […]