Every so often I encounter lists of wonderful words that describe emotions for which there are no English equivalents. (Saudade remains my most favorite.) Brooke Shaden accomplishes the same feat with photography, complex and raw emotions expressed in single square narrative images.
The very first time I saw one of Brooke Shaden’s self-portraits she’d squeeze herself into a freezer for a piece entitled “Freezer Burn“. She didn’t explain her motivations behind this evocative photo, but no explanation was necessary. The image spoke volumes all by itself. I was hooked and have been following her work ever since.
With a background in film and English, but entirely self-taught as a photographer, Shaden’s process involves shooting herself (or sometimes a model) anywhere from inside her home to handmade sets in a studio to out in the woods, a meadow, a swamp, or any other outdoor location that speaks to her muse. She regularly pushes her body to the limit, often straining, stretching, contorting, submerging, binding, or freezing herself in order to capture the intensity of genuine, visceral emotion.
After the practical photography comes the post-processing, exhaustive Photoshop editing that can take Shaden anywhere from hours to months in order to achieve her visionary storytelling goals. In an interview with The Plus, Shaden addressed her ad hoc process:
“I don’t know all of the mainstream ways of creating: I don’t know how to use lights, or how to do fancy things in Photoshop. I used to get emails from people telling me that I was doing everything “wrong”, and that I needed to learn the “right” way, but in the end, experimenting and trying new things has led me to create with basic tools in unusual ways.”
In addition to the jaw-dropping visual appeal of her singular style and the surreal stories she tells with her photos, the other thing that draws me to Brooke Shaden is how openly she speaks about her personal challenges, both creatively and personally. Shaden’s oeuvre is already plenty inspiring, but over the years she has written a great deal about her struggles with crippling shyness and anxiety, the challenges of living with Fibromyalgia, and how she uses her art specifically to deal with these issues.
For her latest series, Fourth Wall, Shaden built tiny rooms and mounted a camera on a track on the ceiling overhead to capture the scenes created within:
“The ideas of disconnection, honesty, and loneliness play out in this series. A play on words, the series is photographed entirely within four walls with no windows or doors. The characters are contained with no way out, each interacting with a different element in their room. Each scene is an emotion the subject will not share. Out of fear, they internalize what they believe no one should feel. This series of pain illustrates how we hurt ourselves and, in some cases, drown.”
These days, in addition to being a successful fine art photographer, writer, and philanthropist, Shaden is also a motivational speaker, guiding and encouraging others to seek out their own passions in life.
“Passion is deeper than the medium you create with, or the job you go to. It is the reason behind doing that thing that you’ve grown so accustomed to. And with that comes the willingness to change the way you manifest that thing. It is the why, the behind-the-scenes brain-work that lifts your life off the ground. It is your imagination fed. Passion can never be lost. It might hide, but it is never gone. My passion is storytelling. It is making others see beauty in darkness. It is shedding light on those things which many people shy away from. My passion is not photography. My passion is sending messages.”