The first time I discovered the art of Elena Helfrecht it touched me in such a way that I was unable to think about little else for a very long time. Over a few days I found myself returning to her beautiful, quietly harrowing photography at the strangest of times. I knew that I had to learn more about Helfrecht, her lens and the thought processes behind her unforgettable art.
I started photography when my dad gave me his old digital camera. I photographed nature because it seemed so pure and honest in its silent beauty. Nature can’t judge or lie. Humans didn’t seem worthy being photographed to me back then. I had a very misanthropic world outlook, which has mostly changed by now.
Did you begin your photographic journey with a film camera or digital? What used to happen to the pictures after they were processed? Did you keep them hidden away, give them to people as gifts, stick them on you wall, collect them all together in albums?
I started photographing digitally. At first I kept my pictures just for me, but later I also showed them to family and friends.
Your work is in print on the pages of a wide array of publications, and has also been used by bands, for films and as book covers. Did you always have belief in your creative ambitions and that your work would be recognised? What would you say has been the most effective way of getting your work noticed, and has it been a difficult journey to get to where you are today?
I was and I always am skeptical about myself. The art I create helps me, it is something like a skill I develop in moments when it is difficult to stay strong. My camera extracts all those heavy emotions and images from my body like toxins. Photography gives me the power to make things visible. I want to show people they are not alone with feelings similar to mine – and that there is beauty in it.
All publications are just a means to an end. They are a helpful way to reach as many people as possible. True success for me is the feedback I get and to see that I am really able to help some people with my art.
The most effective way to be recognised is to simply show your work to people. Never sit in a corner and wait for being discovered – show people what you are doing, explain your work to them. If you want to make a difference, don’t wait until you are being asked.
My favourite subject is the human soul. Everyone has his or her own story. There are so many beautiful and unique people out there. What I love about living is the variety of emotions I am able to feel. I want to capture those stories and emotions, I want to show them to people, I want to inspire and I want to show a deeper kind of beauty, which is often ignored by people. I want to take a glimpse at what is behind the surface and I want to share my insights.
You are a master at isolating fear. Your ‘Nightmares’ series is terrifying and simultaneously beautiful. Where did the primary inspiration for this series emerge from, and what is your favourite piece from this particular collection?
My main inspiration is my childhood. I was always fascinated by everything dark and frightful. I read a lot and I loved watching all kinds of horror movies which surely were inappropriate for my age. On the other side I really developed fear of such things – it was something like a love-hate relationship. I loved being creeped out, but when I went to bed and the lights went out, everything was very real for me. I had a huge imagination, so with these series I visualize all these nightmares and take away their power. Through photography they are tangible for me and I don’t fear them anymore. The monsters are just inside your head – but it’s important to let them out and give them some space from time to time, so they won’t destroy everything up there.
I know what I am capable of. It is easier to take responsibility for myself than for others. Also it is easier for me to stage the images in my head. I know exactly what I imagine, so it is easier for me to transfer the picture into reality with my own body. When working with models, I expose myself as extremely vulnerable, so it is always risky to work with someone who is not me. I sense everything, every little injury, insecurity, every little feeling – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to capture it. This is also the reason why I normally don’t work with people I don’t know. All of my models are close friends and people I trust.
You mentioned that nudity is valuable within your work because it is an important part of you accepting yourself, you also said that photography is an efficient form of therapy. Was the process to accepting yourself and your body a long one, and what part of the photography experience is the most effective therapy?
I always had a very difficult relationship with my body. I hated myself, because I experienced so much hate around me. When everyone tells you how ugly you are, you will believe it one day – even if it is not true. I have a very fluctuating perception on myself, depending on my mood. Mirrors never tell me the truth; photography gave me a possibility to really see myself. I was able to look at myself from the most different angles. I learned to value the beauty in little imperfections. Bodies are like books and every little scar has a very own story which is worth to be told.
I am sick of the beauty ideal publicised by the media. Nobody looks like this. All those smooth and flawless faces seem empty and boring to me. It is false and dangerous to adopt those beauty standards.
I wish someone had told me it was okay to be myself much earlier. I want to show true beauty, the essence of a soul. Basically this is very abstract and I try to visualize what can only be seen by the heart.
I am intrigued to know which artists, writers and musicians inspire you on a daily basis. Who do you find yourself turning to for creative guidance or motivation, or is your creative journey one that is travelled alone?
There are two sides within me corresponding all the time: the artist and the art historian. I visit a lot of exhibitions, museums, galleries. My shelves are full of artbooks and I follow a lot of artists. I also read a lot – authors I deeply adore are for example Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka and Gottfried Benn. Some photographers whose work I love are Joel-Peter Witkin, Gregory Crewdson, Vivian Maier and Floria Sigismondi. David Lynch and Lars von Trier are also two important names for me.
I am also influenced by a lot by paintings. I love the artists of symbolism, for example Arnold Böcklin or Johann Heinrich Füssli, Jean Delville, Gustave Moreau or Edvard Munch. There are so many more artists I really adore, but it would be a list of maybe 1000 pages if I would name all of them. I think these few names give a good insight.
In 2014 you completed a bachelors for history of art and book sciences in Germany. This sounds captivating. Can you talk a little about the course and what you gained from it? In what ways do you believe it will benefit you on a personal and professional level?
From history of art I gained a lot of theoretical knowledge about history, art, different interpretive techniques, theories and architecture. I read a lot and get to know new artists and different perceptions every day. Book sciences helped me to comprehend some basic marketing techniques and to get insights into the publishing industry. The history of written information transfer is incredibly interesting.
Especially in some of my planned shootings I overthink a lot before and incorporate a lot of narrative symbols since. I don’t think that much in a pure emotional and impulsive way anymore, but have gotten a lot more analytically, I suppose.
Art is a very personal and necessary thing for me, which is why I never want to be financially dependent on it. What I really want to make for a living is to help other artists reaching out. I want to bring the world great and moving art; art which makes you think and feel, which influences you in your daily life. I want to make people see things. Art is so important for our cultural and historical development. It forms people in their way of living and thinking – without it we wouldn’t be what we are today. I know a lot of amazing artists who are terrible at bringing their works to a broader audience – this is what I want to achieve.
I think my spontaneous works are more honest and emotional. There is less thought and more feeling in it, but they are also visually more simple. A huge benefit for me is that I am able to process my emotions through spontaneous photographs. I get it out of my head; inspiration is everywhere. Also I don’t need much of a setting or special props for it (well, mostly).
You stated that some of the most powerful work is developed during severe depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Why do you think that this is, and is there a piece which you can point out that was created during a difficult time?
To be honest I don’t know one single artist who doesn’t process something in his or her works. Pain is the strongest motivation and art is the only outlet if you don’t want to collide. It is a necessity.
I think my mini-series “Farewell” is a good example for such a piece.
Death is the one thing I am unable to comprehend, my biggest fear. Unconsciousness and to stop existing is a horrible thought I cannot cope with. When I went to work at a Vernissage, a little pigeon fell from the sky down to my feet and died there suddenly within a minute after a short last cramp. This little bird turned into a metaphor for everything I fear. It was so quick, so unexpected. Life can be over within every minute and we have to value what we have. We have to cherish what we are, because it is the only thing given to us.
There are really many great reactions. Some people wrote me they learned to love their scars and their body through my photographs. Some tell me my art helped them through a rough time and that they feel less alone when looking at my pictures. All of these wonderful words are stored in my head and motivate me to go on.
I really feared to never wake up again after the narcosis and it was a terrible feeling to be helpless and to lay my life down into the hands of people I barely know – to lose consciousness without being able to control myself anymore. It was a risk I had to take, as there was a chance for the tumour to turn malicious one day, and then it would have been to late.
I think the experience by itself made me more powerful. I am stronger since I know what I am really capable of. This was an extreme situation but I went through and I gained a lot of self-respect out of it. Every minute of my life is precious and I want to live life to its fullest, to help people and to leave my marks on this world.
Also I somehow lost some fear of the process of dying – not of what comes after, but of the simple process of leaving. I wouldn’t even have noticed it if I didn’t wake up again.
I want to realise some great projects with friends and I want to collaborate more with other artists. It is incredibly interesting to get to know other points of view and they give my works a whole new approach. I think the human soul will stay in my main focus, but I have no idea where my own development will lead me. I also don’t want to set myself under pressure by making great promises right now. I will just see where it goes.
Find & Follow