Some of us see our surroundings purely with our eyes. Others can see beneath that layer, into a world that breathes with an ethereal existence. For renowned female landscape photographer, Serena Dzenis, delving into the imagination isn’t an escape from reality, but rather, the discovery of another storyline hidden within the landscape.
Her journey is one that transforms nature into art – a visionary tango between learning and quiet understanding of the many forms that beauty can take. Based in Iceland, she spends her days turning stones to document the sphere of life and energy that occurs right beneath our feet. An accomplished photographer, educator and author, her abstract and poetic works in landscape photography have been published worldwide, aimed at an audience that longs to uncover the story beyond the scene.
This month, we sat down with Serena to talk about finding one’s own narration in nature and what it means to capture that in a series of photos.
Hello Serena! Thank you for chatting with us today. Tell us a bit about yourself and what it is that drives your passion for photographing the landscape.
Hello! First of all, although I have been involved in photography since I was very young, it wasn’t my first nor only path in life. I’ve been walking on a pretty colourful path up until now, having had experience working in a range of different roles.
My passion for photographing the landscape began while I was living in Australia, at a time when I had a well-established background in freelance music and documentary photography. I was juggling this full-time with a career as a mental health professional on a crisis assessment and treatment team, so getting out into the tranquility of the countryside was a much-needed place of solace.
With each jaunt out into the landscape, I began to explore what it meant to me and how I could capture it to tell my own story or that of the people and the world around me. The ability to reveal the underlying narrative of our existence is what drives my passion for landscape photography.
Lofoten Islands. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
When are you at your most creative?
I am at my most creative when I am on a venture to explore a new place or when I have been inspired by some form of writing or words that resonate with my own thoughts and views on nature. I find it very difficult to be creative when my thoughts are cluttered or interrupted. Creativity blocks often hit me when I’m stressed.
Godafoss Sunset. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
What draws you to landscapes rather than other types of photography or subjects?
I enjoy turning what is there in the landscape into ethereal or otherworldly stories. Doing this enables me to transform what is otherwise mundane and ‘normal’ to us into something that we see differently, so that we can learn from it and understand it in a new light.
I think that you can do this with other types of photography and subjects also, particularly with a human essence elevated into a dystopian environment. I particularly enjoy rifling through the work of other artists that centres around unusually dream-like interactions between people and the world around them. Karen Khachaturov’s work comes to mind… it’s a kind of pastel surrealism that invokes a very visceral sense of curiosity.
Northern Lights in Lofoten. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
Do you spend any time pre-visualising images? If so, can you talk about that process and why it's important to your photography?
I very rarely pre-visualise images because I like to tell the story of the landscape as it unfolds before me, rather than looking at it in a preconceived way. This doesn’t mean that I don’t return when the light is different; I just don’t have a pre-visualised story or set-up for a photograph before I take it.
For some people, pre-visualisation can be useful as a way of creating a certain mood or picture that they like. It’s not so important to me or the way that I photograph.
Reflections. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
What do you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
What I want to say with my photographs differs by each collection or series. At the moment, I am working on a project about the geothermal side of Iceland, with which I would like to convey the message that Earth is a living thing that we should work to conserve and protect. All the photos in this series depict some form of geothermal activity which aims to draw attention from viewers who may not have otherwise been exposed to these kinds of environments before. The more unusual the scene is that you capture, the more that you are likely to invoke curiosity and to continue a conversation about something that matters to you.
Bavarian Fairytale. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
What are your thoughts on working with single images versus a series or projects?
I find it very difficult to convey very much about the landscape within a single image. I think that’s much easier with documentary photography, as there is a level of emotion that you can capture that can tell the whole story with one photo. For landscape, I think it makes much more sense to present work as an evolving series or project.
What’s the most important thing people should understand about learning landscape photography?
The landscape is what you make of it. Emulating the work of others and going where they have already gone is only going to teach you so much about the technical side of things. Landscape photography is a journey within itself and what you’ll find by doing it is something completely unique to you.
Winter in Finnish Lapland. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
Where do you find inspiration besides nature?
I find inspiration in science, the pursuit of happiness and the people who matter the most to me.
If you could take your art in any direction without fear of failure or rejection, where would it lead? What new thing would you try?
I would like to explore a more surrealist direction – exchanging colours within the environment to further the sense of being in another place in the Universe.
Winter in Riisitunturi. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
What are some projects or ideas that you have in the works?
Taking the lived experience directly to others. I’d like them to experience my work and to know that there is something more to life than merely existing, and to be inspired to break free from the confines of their own four walls to discover what it is that’s actually out there for them.
I’m currently working on a moving exhibition that visits different places, to begin a conversation that will help people develop upon their ideas and to bring them into fruition. Whether that will make a change in the world is yet to be seen.
My island home. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
What is the best compliment you have ever received about your photography?
From a ten year old boy – that my work inspired him to learn more about what is actually going on around him.
Some photographers say that they see the world differently, and that they have a different perspective on life. What is your perspective on the world and on life?
You only live once. Do your best in this time to make a great contribution to others. Live and love like there is no time left on Earth. Find your happiness and never let anyone take it from you. Do something that will make a difference in a good way – no matter how big or small. Don’t let anyone control you. Your life is yours.
Dragon's Head Rock. Photo by: 'Serena Dzenis'.
Is it important for you that your work is not just for an art audience, but builds bridges to a wider audience?
Yes – it’s very important to me that my work reaches a much wider audience, particularly those who are able to exact positive change and to carry the conversation into the future.
Last but not least… a very personal question: Who are you when no one is looking at you?
A pyjama-clad tea-loving blanket-cuddling cat-lady!
Join Serena on a photography adventure in Iceland! Check out our range of photography workshops.