For some people, being behind the lens of a camera feels better than being the centre of attention. For Eli that rings true. A self-taught photographer who has been skilled enough to capture beautifully intimate photos of people from all walks of life. A picture tells a thousand words, and with the raw emotions that hit you when looking at Eli’s photos, that statement could not be more spot on. Connecting with people, and translating emotions into the final image is why Eli got into photography, and seeing people from similar backgrounds is the motivation that keeps Eli shooting. It takes a lot of courage to be vulnerable and share your art to the world, allowing people into the innermost private parts of your mind; but I’m very glad Eli took the plunge and I know you will be too. I was lucky enough to pick the brain of this talented photographer.
What do you enjoy most about photography?
I enjoy preserving personal moments into tangible photos I can look at later and hold. To translate an emotion into an actual image, to connect with people. To me it’s all of these things combined and feeling catharsis.
Who has helped shape you as an artist?
My life experiences! I was lucky enough to start shooting before knowing anything. And I still don’t know much to be honest, I’m self taught and focus more on what I want to express. I was also inspired by photographers I would find in bookstores, like Bruce Davidson with his subway series (because of the raw expressions and deep colors) and Nan Goldin with her emotional portraits. Instagram is also where I find photographers that motivate me, because they’re also young latinx and black photographers. Adrian Miles (Nachosanto_), Tatiana.nancy, and Kiki_sankofa. To me, seeing young broke people keep shooting images that mean a lot to them is always powerful. We do what we can with what we have.
What has been your favourite shoot so far?
I shot with a young woman named Xoai in winter. We’d never met before, had just talked briefly through email and she ended up being really open, graceful and seemed comfortable in front of the lens. Also last summer with a latinx painter, Rocio (rociomarie__/ on IG) who was really sweet and patient with my scattered self. And a third shoot from years ago, with 3 art models (Melanie Gaydos, Tulle Speckhert and Andre Speckert) in upstate NY. That one stands out a lot because it was one of the very few times everything came together; great location, plenty of film, completely comfortable participants, and lots of film.
How do you capture your subjects in the way you have envisioned them?
It helps not having everything completely planned out. For portraits the person just needs to be comfortable being photographed or opening up a little. I want people to be able to relax and I think that’s what really helps me with capturing honest shots.
What motivates you to continue taking photographs?
It’s a way to express myself, even if I don’t share most images. It can be really cathartic for a lot of reasons – getting a shot right, capturing an emotion I’ve kept to myself. Sometimes it’s impulsive. And sometimes hearing from people is motivating too, people who get something meaningful from my work makes me feel like I’ve done something right.
If you could take your art in any direction, without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead?
I’d probably just shoot more. More portraits of people I relate to, more abstract nude work, and more self portraits. Really the only limiting factors for me have been time and money. It’s important to note that abandoned places aren’t always about the aesthetic, but how much time and how many different backdrops you have in them. Maybe I’d get a bit more intense, explore more sexual and sensual situations. I don’t like to shoot that content without paying people since I’ve been in that position.
What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?
I like making people feel something when they see my work. Especially hearing from people who’ve gone through any similar stuff telling me they relate is encouraging as fuck. Like yes, we have OCD, we have PTSD or severe anxiety and we can make it through in our own ways.
When you’re out shooting, how much of it instinctual versus planned?
It’s a mix. There’s usually a vague concept but a lot of it is just played out as it goes. If the shoot is a portrait shoot, then I feel like at least half of it is centred on the person’s vibe. Even for more conceptual shoots I explain what I have in mind then we just go for it.
What are some exciting upcoming projects that you’re working on?
I’m working on going back to some older work exploring conceptual expressive nude work but only featuring genderqueer and trans femmes of color. I feel like “art nudes” are very popular, but I rarely see marginalized folk featured. I want people to be able to see themselves in different mediums.
Best place to see your photography?
Interview by Erin Russell, images by Eli Sleepless.