Leanne Surfleet is a UK based photographer dealing with themes of loneliness, nostalgia, anxiety & light through analogue photography. Leanne states that her photography has helped her to “overcome anxiety and fears over life & mortality, using the creative practice of photography as a calming mechanism, and a form of escapism.”
How did you get your start in photography and what are your earliest memories of your first adventures into photography?
I started with a little digital camera that I got as a present off my Mum for my 18th birthday I think, I just started taking photos of anything and everything. I then started buying disposable cameras & playing around with film & was gifted a 35mm SLR. I explored lots of different film & processes. My earliest memories of photography adventures are when I was in my early 20s with my partner back then, we would drive around and find old abandoned & dilapidated buildings and I’d take photos. It wasn’t until a few years later during college and mainly after that I started taking self-portraits.
You work primarily with analogue photography, a mixture of film and instant cameras. What is it that attracts you to working with analogue in a world that’s becoming increasingly digital?
I started off early with analogue and it just felt natural to me. I shot a little with a DSLR in college mainly because they encouraged us to do so and it was cheaper for me to produce work then, but I soon sold that to fund my love of film photography. I haven’t even thought of going back to digital since, apart from taking snapshots on my iPhone. For me analogue is just much more honest and rewarding to shoot with. I’ve always had a soft spot for instant film too, I think if I had to choose one medium to work with from now on it would be Polaroid.
Self portraiture is such a huge part of your practice. I’m curious about what it feels like to make self portraits in a space where you are both the photographer and the subject. Are your images born out of an emotional need to express?
Yeah I think there’s definitely an emotional need for me to express myself through self-portraiture. I’ve always said that I’m not great at communicating verbally so photography is the main way I express my feelings, emotions and anxieties. I think that I shoot the same whether I’m taking photographs of myself or of other people, it obviously just takes longer to shoot a roll of film of myself and I also have no idea what I’m going to look like in the frame, which is one of the exciting things for me working with film as well.
Can you walk us through how some of your images come about? Do you meticulously plan or do images develop spontaneously and organically?
I mostly just shoot when the thought pops into my mind, or if the light attracts me to a certain part of the room. I’ll normally just grab whichever camera I feel like playing with in the moment and set up my tripod, find a space and composition and go from there. I rarely plan my photographs unless I have a specific project or idea to explore. I definitely believe in taking one photograph of a certain scene and if it’s meant to be it will be, I can’t be doing with deciding between two or five almost identical photographs. In this image (below) I was on holiday with my Mum. We went to Spain after I graduated university. It was a really lovely relaxing holiday and a great time for me to take photographs. I think my Mum was having a nap in the afternoon so I just hung around the hotel room and played with my Polaroid SX-70. I hadn’t taken a tripod with me so I used piles of books or shelves as a surface for my camera. The afternoon light was so inviting and fell softly through bright white sheet curtains, I placed the chair in the middle of the window, put the self-timer on and just slumped into the chair and it turned out to be one of my favourite photographs I’d ever taken.
In Hospital Diary you write about coming to terms with the experience of being diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at the age of 15. When did you start to document the hospital visits and what does photography bring to the experience of being in hospital? Has photography helped you to explore and understand the condition?
I think I started to document my visits around 2010, so when I was maybe 22 or 23. My hospital appointments are very long and drawn out and they used to be held in a small clinic outbuilding which was getting very tired and old. I’d be shuffled off into a room separated from my sister (who also has CF) so that we wouldn’t cross infect each other or any other patients and then sometimes left for hours in this small room, with a specialist or dietician or nurse popping in to do their rounds every now and then. You were lucky if you got a room with a window. All the time spent in there in the silence, alone, just inspired me to start taking photographs as I realised this was a huge part of my life undocumented. I don’t think it helped me explore or understand my condition any more than I already knew but it helped me cope and to process what I was going through. I’ve been in hospitals all my life but bringing a camera into one is challenging as well as very interesting, you find a lot of very intimate and moving scenes when you actually take notice of where you are. I created the project for a university brief so it was very scary to show all these very personal photographs to other students that didn’t really know me at all, which then gave me the confidence to publish my story online.
In your artist statement you mention how photography has helped you to come to terms with anxiety and fears over your own mortality. Where do those anxieties come from and what kind of legacy do you hope your photography will leave behind when you’re no longer here?
I think the majority of my anxieties stem from my health, although I am generally very well and keep healthy when I was younger and a only a few years after being diagnosed with CF I experienced a lot of anxiety. I used to think very negatively and think that if I had CF without knowing all my life what else could I have without knowing? I ended up experiencing something called SVT too which is pretty much just palpitations and the feeling of a skipped heartbeat, I just couldnt get over it for years and am still on medication for it although it is so much better controlled after realising it was a vicious circle with anxiety. So it basically started from there and snowballed into panic attacks and general anxiety, I never wanted to be far from home either incase something happened to me which is where a lot of my self-portraits at home came from. I feel safe at home and taking photographs at home was/is such a calming experience for me. I often receive comments from people saying that they relate to my photographs and it has helped them to come to terms with their own different types of anxiety or loneliness, so as long as my photographs are still around to do that for people that makes me happy. I take such comfort in the work of Francesca Woodman who died young and before she was really discovered as a photographer and knowing that her work is now seen and loved by millions.
What strikes me about your work is that you to take your viewer to another place, an internal world of curiosity that lends itself to daydreams and interiority. I get the sense that whilst you’re making the work you are working through thoughts and moments in your mind. Is there something that you hope viewers take from your work, or is the process of making images more important than the viewer’s experience?
You sensed right, I am usually working through ideas and thoughts in my mind as I’m shooting self-portraits. I find it quite difficult to explain what I’m thinking or feeling when I’m taking photographs. I’ve definitely been through stages where I’ve thought about the viewer as I’m making work but that can alter things so I stopped doing that. I do care what my audience think and feel after I’ve finished and published my work and it means a lot to me the encouragement and support that I receive, but the process of making the work has to be seperated from that. I hope that viewers take my work for what it is, honest and emotional.
What are you working on now, and what would you like to work on in the future?
At the minute I’m working on a monthly project with 11 other female instant photographers called The 12:12 Project, we all submitted themes for each month and we have to produce one instant photograph exploring the chosen theme. It’s really encouraging and motivating to have something to work towards each month and to see what everyone else produces to the same theme. As well as this I’m trying to continue a series I started on a sleep anxiety I had been experiencing, its just finding the time and motivation to do it. I’d like to work more on portraits of others in the future, I will always take self-portraits and explore that, but I really do enjoy looking through my lens and seeing whats in front of me and being able to press the shutter and get excited about being able to move around more and think quickly.