Create a World Out of Your Own Imagination – An Interview with Desiree Sydow

Desiree Sydow is a self-portrait photographer based in London. She has a background in traditional art and is influenced by this alongside fashion photography. Her work has won several awards including the Prix de la Photographie Paris and the European Photography Award.

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Photo by Desiree Sydow

Desiree also teaches others about photography through her blog and her art photography podcast, and is currently setting up an online shop to sell her fine art work. 

I spoke with Desiree to find out more about her unique take on photography.

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Photo by Desiree Sydow titled “Alpha”

What got you into photography?

I remember that when I was around ten, I used to do really elaborate photo shoots with my barbies, dressing them up in all sorts of different outfits. Then around seven years ago I had a fashion blog and I just couldn’t take nice photos for it. So I took a one-year photography diploma and fell in love with photography more than the fashion blog! I really got serious about photography around a year and a half ago. I was a drawing and painting artist but got chronic tennis elbow and had to put that to one side. So I focused completely on the photography – a happy accident. 

Do you have a favourite genre of photography and why? Tell me a bit more about what you shoot.

It has to be anything related to art photography. When you photograph landscapes or nature, you’re taking a photo of what already exists, but art photography is a glimpse into someone’s mind. Art photographers create a world out of their own imagination. My main work is self-portraits, but I also do street photography for fun as you can also tell a story. My self-portrait shoots are based on different emotions – for example I recently did a shoot in Riga, Latvia where I expressed the emotion of loneliness. Other shoots have been about helplessness, sadness, melancholy and a variety of different emotions. The shoots are a way for me to process those emotions. 

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Photo by Desiree Sydow titled “Constrained”

What kind of influences do you draw inspiration from?

My main influence is definitely from paintings. I have an art background and love going to museums and looking at the special light that classical painters created. I often start with the light in my images, thinking about what the light should create and how it should look. I’m also influenced by fashion photography – I wanted to be a fashion designer when I was younger. 

Do you have any favourite photographers or creative influences that have informed your photographic style, and why?

The American photographer Brooke Shaden was the first self-portrait photographer I came across who wasn’t Cindy Sherman! She takes self-portraits but then creates composites in Photoshop to produce a magical fairy tale style. Seeing her work was an epiphany for me. 

I’ve recently come across Chantal Convertini who is a Swiss photographer working purely on film (something I’m trying to do more of). She takes self-portraits but in a very different way to my working style. She finds beautiful light and works organically from it. They’re very tender shots and she almost always shoots nude.  

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Photo by Desiree Sydow titled “Eden”

What kit do you shoot with and what’s your favourite bit of kit?

I’ve just bought the Nikon Z30 camera. I originally got it for shooting video, but I am shooting stills with it as well now as it’s really light and takes good photos. As it’s mirrorless, it’s also great for travelling. I also have the Nikon D750 and I actually think it’s slightly sharper than the Z30. I’m not kit obsessed and just use two lenses – a 50mm and a 24-105mm zoom. I prefer using less kit because then you don’t put all the responsibility for a good shot onto the gear. 

I started out with one Neewer studio light and a beauty dish. I’ve recently got a few sofboxes and two Godox lights, although I often still just shoot with one light. A tripod is also an essential piece of kit for my work; I use a Manfrotto that I actually won in a competition. I used to use a remote trigger to take my shots, but it kept breaking. So now I have an app on my phone and just connect it using Wi-Fi. I also have a few film cameras – a Leica M3 from my dad and a Nikon from the 80s/90s. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently creating a portfolio page on my website and editing the series I shot in Riga, Latvia. I’d like to explore nudity as well and showing your body in a non-sexual way. I’m also just about to go to Japan for a month on an artist’s retreat. I’ve booked lots of quirky rooms to do shoots in!

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Photo by Desiree Sydow titled “Riga II”

What would you say is your goal with your photography?

I want people to feel something when they look at my photos. Whether it’s negative or positive, I want them to be emotionally stirred. Back when I was drawing that’s what I wanted as well. People always ask me why I’m taking photos of myself but I’m just the model and don’t really see my images as showing me. 

As a female photographer, do you feel that you face any particular challenges? Do you feel that the industry is favourable towards women, or would you like to see any changes?

I found this question interesting because I’ve never really thought about it. I don’t feel any barriers because I normally shoot at home or in private. When I show my work, people sometimes think it’s a strange thing to do or a bit weird, but I haven’t come across any negative comments. People just don’t always get what I’m trying to say!

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Photo by Desiree Sydow titled “Riga III”

What advice would you give to budding photographers?

Don’t get bogged down by gear. Some people won’t take photos until they have all the right gear in their mind’s eye, but I don’t think gear is important at all. I think it’s more important to think about what’s in front of the lens. 

You can view more of Desiree’s work at her website as well as following her on Instagram and YouTube

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Photographer, Desiree Sydow
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