A World of Fashion Through a Surreal Lens

It all started on Instagram. While at university, Natalie “Miss Aniela” Dybisz started posting self-portraits on the popular picture site, rapidly attracting a huge following. Today, she is one of the youngest and most promising (fashion) photographers on the scene. She has already published two books and her latest series Surreal Fashion, a delicate mix between fine art and fashion photography, has taken the world by storm, as it was exhibited by both Saatchi Gallery and Vogue Italia.

Miss Aniela, you are still young, yet your career as a photographer has skyrocketed. You ever look back and pinch yourself? 

“I think perception is illusive. I am still working toward my dreams, and I am also learning to understand what my dreams actually are. My heart is always with my current work and projects, and my past work – although I do try to remain proud of it – is something I view as a form of leverage to everything that comes later. And this tendency continues into my recent work that I think is a prelude to the best yet to come. I think this attitude is common amongst artists.”

You tasted your first success on Instagram. Are you positive about the new media that pop up around us everywhere?

“It depends on how one defines the word ‘success’. Many of us are hoodwinked into equating popularity with success, but if you don’t manage to monetize your online hits, you will ask yourself what it’s really worth.  Having said that, we live in a very interesting time where we can skip traditional routes such as agencies, galleries, publishers and other conventional ‘gatekeepers’, and use the internet to get our work out there to the world autonomously.

However, this does not eradicate the need for hard work and perseverance, nor are the original gatekeepers completely yet devalued. It is just important to make sure that you still work hard to differentiate your work and to not expect overnight success, for even big Internet sensations have dedicated to something for a long time in order to reap their rewards. A huge load of followers is not enough, especially when the top social media site won’t be the same site tomorrow. Internet attention, like anything, is really only a tool to be used within the bigger picture of marketing. There are many successful photographers with only a small social media presence, as well as photographers with a huge presence. Even the most popular characters online can be alienated from the world in other ways.”

In Surreal Fashion you blend fashion and fine art, quite literally, as you use such elements as animals and landscapes from classic – and currently not very fashionable – 17th and 18th century paintings. How did this come about? And was it (partly) born out of criticism on the general state of fashion photography? 

“I have found that with my work, a new series begins organically, almost accidentally. This has happened at least twice now, and may be starting to happen for a third time. This way, I know a series is born from the heart rather than the brain.

With Surreal Fashion, there are several reasons it came about, and you could say some of those reasons are subconscious or at least instinctive. You could also say I’d developed a habit with my early self-portraiture of wanting to ‘wow’ my online audience with surrealistic trickery within one single frame. But it is also a crucial genre difference: I create fine-art, not fashion, so the resultant one frame, the one image, becomes the commodity – rather than a sequence of images in the fashion story layout. I wanted to differentiate my fashion imagery from the norm, essentially to make it into fine art, one piece to hang from a wall.

Also, in fashion you have this team doing everything to dress up the model for the image and I wanted to incorporate something else (my ‘style’ if you like) into the final thing. However, I’ve never believed in trying to force something to be what your logical mind might want it to be. Incorporating paintings has always come from the right brain rather than the left. For that reason I’m surprised to have created so many fashion images with surrealism, it’s like making a fluke happen many times. Increasingly I want to use less Photoshop and create ‘real surreal’ with intricate sets and costume, or playing on the opulence of the location in which they’re shot. Current examples are Elegant Elegy shot in Chateau Challain, France; and The Governess shot in Belvoir Castle, England.”

Seeing your work, it seems you love nature. Doesn’t that make you sad, seeing the state of today’s world? 

“In my Ecology series I was attracted to what I called ‘dystopian’ scenes of nature, where nature looks decayed or dying, and to shoot the naked form against that landscape was a kind of sad juxtaposition highlighting the state of our world. I created many images that had visual references to pollution, deforestation, and even geo-engineering, which most people don’t understand is happening. However, working on Surreal Fashion took over and I have not continued further with the Ecology series.

Rather, I have been more attracted to shooting the opposite: overly intricate styled models in opulent indoor locations, mostly! So maybe it is my way of cheering myself up with my own art! But then I shot the image Elegant Elegy last year, with the model standing next to sad taxidermy … It was as though the glamour of Surreal Fashion met the dystopia of Ecology. It remains a favorite piece because that is what I love to create the most: provoking images that are neither naively happy nor morbidly ugly; balancing both beauty and tension.

In the gorgeous Kai Face you blend portrait photography with what seems classic Japanese painting. How did this come about and is it the start of a new series? 

“Kai Face was commissioned by a restaurant that wanted a huge artwork, featuring a face and surreal elements. This brief, though loose, gave me the framework I needed to then run free with my own inspiration. After the initial face was shot, I wanted to fuse work onto the face, and paintings worked so much better than anything else. I got carried away with the work, longer than I ever thought I’d work on it, for months … like working on 30 or so of my standard images at once. I have contemplated making a series, and I still do think about it, but the work was so intense, that it would take some time to make a series.”

You became a mother some three months ago. To be honest, I’ve been struggling come up with a question that wasn’t cheesy. But I fear I failed. So, instead, could you sum up the first three magical months of motherhood in, say, 50 (random) words?  

“Motherhood can be a magical wonderland or a nightmare and it all depends on the attitude of the person. Fortunately for me it is the former, despite the normal stresses that come with the territory! Having lost my first child it makes motherhood all the more surreal and sweet. Many parents say that their world view changes when they have children, their ambitions change from self-centered to earth-centered. From ego to ‘oneness’. I totally understand this instinct because for the first time you put someone else truly before yourself. There is surely something very primal and mystical about this, something that hints at a connection beyond the everyday world that we know. Ok, so that was more than 50 words, and I barely even got going!”

What’s the last art or photography exhibition that really touched you? 

“I attended the opening of Saatchi Art’s first exhibition, Continental Shift, at the Saatchi Gallery last year. I was fortunate to have two Surreal Fashion pieces hanging amongst the other artists whose work had been selected by Rebecca Wilson. In light of what I mentioned before about the new age of social media, it was fascinating to see how these artists had their work noticed through the Internet, and then the virtual had been translated back into the physical gallery space – as a commodity available for art buyers – thus blending the modern and traditional.”

If you weren’t a photographer today, what would you like to be? 

“I had the plan of being a journalist. In fact, I worked as one in my gap year. I probably would have continued to follow that path to work for a bigger newspaper. But I likely would have got fed up with reporting lies and writing in the sensationalist divisive tone that characterizes our mainstream media, and I would have pursued either independent media or even my own outlet of writing. Or I would seek another visually creative outlet like perhaps designing dresses!”

And, finally, what would you advise a young boy or girl with the ambition to become a photographer? 

“To really think about why you want to be a photographer: is it because you want to be one, or you want to be *like* one you emulate? The reasons must be genuine because photography is hard work and involves a lot more than glamour and social status. However, never spend too long thinking about it, because you only find out the answer to that question once you start doing it for yourself. The more hands-on you get the sooner, the better – because photography is very practical and involves a lot of other things beside taking pictures, such as communication skills, administration, and just putting ideas into logistical motion. There are many dreamers out there in the creative world, and comparatively few ‘doers’, so if you become the latter, you will stand out a mile.”

This article was first published in Plastik Magazine

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Peter Speetjens (1967) woont sinds 1996 in Beiroet. Hij was correspondent voor Trouw en De Standaard, en publiceerde verhalen in onder andere De Groene Amsterdammer, NRC en Vrij Nederland. In 2004Πco-regiseerde hij de film 2000 Terrorists. Peter schrijft vooral over Libanon, de regio en de manier waarop zij gestalte krijgt in de media.