Profile | Leanne Surfleet: ‘I’ve always been terrified of death, but there were a few years when it just got too much for my mind to handle’

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untitled, 2015 © Leanne Surfleet

In what ways can the act of creating a self-portrait ease anxiety relating to one’s mortality? We meet UK-based photographer Leanne Surfleet to find out

Leanne Surfleet is a photographer predominantly shooting self-portraits on analog and instant cameras. Now based in Norwich, UK, she grew up in a small town on the east coast of England, which offered few opportunities for creative people, but is where the majority of her much-loved self-portraiture was created. The natural light and amount of empty space in her family home formed an ideal canvas for her photographs and experiments, ‘I always had a spare room in my home which had stripped floorboards and nothing in it. It got the best light throughout the day, especially in the winter, and I used it for my self-portraits up until around early 2016,’ she explains.

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untitled, 2016 © Leanne Surfleet

Though Norwich has offered Leanne creative freedom, the place which she currently calls home is creating a barrier for new work, ‘I do really miss living so close to water and the beach, and I miss my home with its space and wooden floors, which I used for my studio and took almost all of my self-portraits,’ she comments, ‘I’m currently in the process of finding a place that I feel more comfortable taking self-portraits in, which is quite frustrating for me at the minute.’

Central to Leanne’s work are themes of loneliness, nostalgia, anxiety and light: the latter being something which first sparked her interest in photography, ‘When I started taking photographs I was attracted to natural light and playing with it. It helps me express myself and show myself or hide myself, depending on how I’m feeling and what I’m wanting to portray,’ she comments. As for the other themes, Leanne highlights that they all link together, as she is ‘nostalgic for the past and for being young, which leads to anxiety about mortality, which in turn makes me photograph more, as a reminder that I am here right now and that these documents of my life will be around (hopefully) much longer than I will be, physically.’ Being alone offers Leanne strength of focus, with a wildly different mindset to if someone else was to be in the room.

‘it was so odd to look at myself in all of these different poses or situations and remember how I was feeling when I’d shot them’

‘My self-portrait work began simply by taking shots of myself at a certain point in my life when I seemed to be constantly alone and wanting to take photographs,’ she shares. ‘This snowballed into a daily routine, and if a day went by when I didn’t take a photograph, I’d feel really bad about it. Once I’d gotten a substantial collection of self-portraits, it was so odd to look at myself in all of these different poses or situations and remember how I was feeling when I’d shot them.’

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untitled, 2015 © Leanne Surfleet

In a personal and open account, Leanne continues, ‘I’ve always been terrified of death, but there were a few years when it just got too much for my mind to handle, and I would think about dying every day; I thought I was dying and I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could talk to about it, as when the words came out of my mouth they sounded ridiculous, so I just decided to carry on taking photographs to document myself, and to see myself here and now. The actual process of taking photographs was and still is very calming for me. Using film and manual cameras makes me think more about what I’m actually doing, and helps take my mind off other things I might be thinking about. And then there is always the excitement of having no idea what your photos are going to come out like, and when you do process your films and see that one photo that makes your heart drop and gives you butterflies in your stomach, it’s just all worth it. It’s an incredible feeling.’

Leanne’s go-to cameras are a Polaroid SX-70, Zenit E, and a Pentacon Six, and she uses any film she can afford at the time, along with film which has been gifted to her and some beautiful expired film which she saves for special projects. As a photographer, she is inspired by artist heroes including Nan Goldin (1953-), Francesca Woodman (1958–1981) and William Eggleston (1939-), whose works have individually informed her practice along the way. She shares, ‘I was first inspired by Goldin’s honesty and use of light – then I discovered Woodman and was just blown away and in complete awe of her work; it made me feel okay about being alone a lot and only shooting photographs of myself for a while. And I just love Eggleston’s work for his use of light and colour and shooting the seemingly mundane, which is usually just beautiful.’

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untitled, 2016 © Leanne Surfleet

In 2018 and beyond, Leanne will be looking outwards at other people and their own fears and lives. We’ll be sure to check in with her and report back, as alongside this, new self-portraiture is sure to surface…

Follow Leanne on Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, and explore her website for more fascinating self-portraiture

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