PHLEARN MagazineExploring the Beautiful Darkness of Self-Portraiture with Brooke Shaden

Exploring the Beautiful Darkness of Self-Portraiture with Brooke Shaden

Sometimes one of the hardest things for a photographer is to put themselves in front of the lens instead of behind the camera. However, that is exactly what Brooke Shaden does on a regular basis. Brooke’s hauntingly dark self-portraits initially originated from a place of self-consciousness. Being extremely shy, and not comfortable talking to people or asking them to model, Brooke chose to become her own model.

Teaching herself both photography and editing as she went, Brooke continued exploring self-portraiture. She found value in it, both as a means of exploration and allowing herself to become someone else, if only for a short time. We recently had the chance to sit down with Brooke to talk more about her art and other passions in life.

Did you always want to be a photographer or was there something else you thought you would be doing?


Certainly not! I never wanted to be a photographer. In fact, in high school, I took a photo class and hated it. I vowed I’d never touch a camera again. It was only after school that I tried again on my own terms and loved it. I always thought I would be a writer, or an English teacher (my second degree is in English), or a filmmaker.

How did you get started or first become interested in photography?


Right when I graduated from college I picked up my camera. I had worked really hard for three and a half years to finish two degrees and for the first time, I found myself with the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. I wasn’t particularly interested in photography itself, but I wanted to create still images of the surreal ideas I had in my head. So, I started compositing right from the get-go to create dark, surreal worlds.

When did you begin to consider yourself a photographer and/or artist?


Right away, to be honest. Not because I was great at what I was doing, but because it was mine and I was expressing myself really authentically. It didn’t take me any time at all to be comfortable with those words because I think I was already conditioned, just having finished film school, to call myself an artist.

What artists or photographers do you most admire?


Modern artists like Gregory Crewdson, Julia Fullerton-Batten, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, and Jamie Baldridge really inspire me. I look to classic paintings, like Caravaggio, for inspiration.

And how has their work influenced your own?


Not in a very direct way, but more so in realizing what is possible.

Aside from other photographers, who has been the biggest influence with regards to your photography?


Introspection. I know that is a weird answer, but the thing that inspires me the most is analyzing and picking apart what makes me who I am. If I explore what makes me work, I have infinite inspiration.

And who has been a personal influence for you?


Lindsay Adler, one of my best friends. Her dedication to her craft is unparalleled. She teaches me what is possible if you try harder than anyone else around.

Is there one quote that always fires you up or inspires you?

“Doors are for people with no imagination.”

– Derek Landy

Do you have any particular habits that are a part of how you begin your creative process?


I am all about habits and routine. I wake up every day between 5am-6am. I create a list of what I’ll be doing hour by hour the day before, so I consult that list first thing. I always finish my emails first thing. I do my business work in the morning because I’m most productive then. I know none of this speaks to the creative process directly, but if I don’t do that mental clean-up, I can’t think creatively as easily. I usually dedicate my afternoons to creating, whether that be writing, shooting, editing, or ceramics.

How much, if any, research do you when preparing for a photoshoot with someone considered “in the public eye”?


Tons! I am a planner through and through. I go into every situation having located the exit doors, so to speak! If a client asks me for three images, I’ll have nine planned just in case.

What do you do when you hit a wall during your creative process?


I usually stop trying for a bit. It is valuable to understand when you are burned out vs uninspired. If I am uninspired, I go through inspiration exercises to get myself back on track. If I am burned out, I stop creating for a little while. I read a lot and give myself a break.

What are you focusing on right now in your work and photography?


Death and grief. I’m exploring what that looks like when we break down the barriers that we like to put up to distance ourselves from those things.

If your ‘essence’ (or the essential part of you) were able to be captured/created in a photo, what would be happening in it?


I have a particular photo that comes as close to that as possible, and it is called The Falling of Autumn Darkness.

In your opinion, what makes a photograph stand out as good or great, rather than an average snapshot?


If I’ve never seen the concept before, and if it feels tangible like I could reach out and touch it, that usually makes the biggest impact on me.

How important is it to you to connect with your subject to help bring out their true self in the photos?


Not at all! I actually almost exclusively create self-portraits, and I never create biographically. I only photograph characters.

Do you have favorite photo you’ve ever captured?


Probably Catharsis. It really expresses a certain darkness that I find uncomfortable to look at, but at the same time makes me feel something instantly.

If you could take you photography in any direction, without fearing rejection or failure, what new thing would you want to try?


I’m doing it right now with this death series I’m working on. I think we should always be in the middle of whatever that answer is.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have encountered with your photography?


I think for anyone, one of the biggest challenges is the nagging question in your mind that says, “Am I doing this right?” It can be so easy to not see the path you’re on clearly and to wish for guidance along the route. But at the same time, it is so much more rewarding to forge that path yourself and realize that no one really knows what’s going on.

Several of your images have been used a cover photos for books, how did you initially get into that particular area with your photography?


I started emailing publishing companies! Pretty much any part of my business was brought about by me emailing people and asking for work. I emailed some production companies in the beginning, started getting my images used on covers, and relationships grew from there.

With your additional background in writing, I see that you have quite detailed posts that accompany your images on social media. Why is it important to you to have those small stories, inspirations, etc. along with the visual image?


Because art is never just art. There is always a story behind it, a motivation, a WHY. For some that isn’t important to share. But for me, it’s entirely opposite. I don’t like to consider myself a photographer. I’m an artist who shares her writing, her images… everything. Part of what I love to create are words, so it makes sense that I use them when I can. If I can inspire someone to think deeper or to take action on their own craft, that means I’ve succeeded in created the type of art I want to make.

What is it about composite work that you gravitate toward vs just producing more simple images of what is physically in front of your camera?


I want to create the worlds that I wish I lived in, and sometimes that requires some Photoshop magic.

If you were mentoring someone interested in moving their art in the composite direction, what is one of the key pieces of advice you would give?


Pre-visualization helps a lot. If you can see the image you want to make in your mind’s eye, that can help you break down all of the pieces that have to go into the final shot. The more I know about what I want the image to look like, the more I get right when I’m shooting.

In 2017, you became a “Sony Artisan of Imagery.” What brought you to using Sony as your gear of choice?


First and foremost, the weight. I have Fibromyalgia so I can’t always carry a lot with me. Second, the high dynamic range. I’m able to shoot about 10 minutes longer during magic hour than I could before, and those minutes are precious when you only have 30 minutes to begin with.

Can you tell us about the Sony Alpha Female program and what it means for up and coming photographers?


It’s brilliant, isn’t it! I’m really happy to be a part of a movement like that. It brings a more level playing field to female artists while empowering everyone through the process. It means a better support system and the knowledge that support is out there.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have encountered with your composite work?


I think probably all of the normal pitfalls, like mismatched backgrounds, light not working properly, etc. Compositing is like discovering holes in your favorite jacket after you thought you got it fixed. You can’t imagine how it got there, but you have to keep learning and adapting to your situation.

With the type of creating that you do, do you see the world as if you were behind the lens (or in front of the monitor in post) or is that a mindset only for when you are shooting/creating?


Interesting! It depends for me. I don’t see the world like that at all. I see the world how I want to – elevated into a darker and more rich experience – and then I create the world I feel I live in. I’ve developed a practice of presence and I’m not someone who thinks about photography a lot. I almost never have a camera with me unless I am intentionally going out for a shoot. I might see a space I want to shoot and keep it in mind, but if I’m out and about, I am camera-less.

You have an impressive list of awards to your credit. Is there one in particular that stands out as more impactful or meaningful to you?


Thank you! Yes, one that I received last year for my charity organization, The Light Space. I run a photography school for underprivileged groups.

I started with workshops in Kolkata. I taught self-expression workshops to survivors of human trafficking. During that work we would learn storytelling techniques and then I would teach the students how to take self-portraits. This helped give them creative control over their own story so that they could express it however they wanted. So many photographers go into space like that and photograph the people there, and that has its place too, but I didn’t feel right doing that. So I gave creative control over to the people with the stories. That parlayed into The Light Space, a photography school for survivors of human trafficking those vulnerable, such as refugees. Now we alternate running the program in India, Thailand, and Greece.

What do you hope that people take away from your photography?


A willingness to create for themselves and to find accessibility in the process, but mostly, that darkness is beautiful and it is worth exploring within yourself.

With her enchanting self-portraits, Brooke continues to show us the darker beauty of her photographic worlds. To see more from Brooke, and stay up-to-date with new images, events, and projects, be sure to check out her website and blog. You can also follow her on social media on Instagram and Twitter. Also, if you would like to learn more about her charity work, visit The Light Space for more information.

Dena Withrow

Dena is a full-time graphic designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist photographer. In addition, she is a very proud mom to one son and four wonderful dogs. Her love for both writing and photography came at a very early age and has stayed with her ever since. Born and raised in Georgia, Dena still resides in her tiny hometown, along with her husband.

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