Behind the Lens With Self Portrait Photographer Anna Sirota
Inside+Out is delighted to present our next BEHIND THE LENS exclusive interview with Anna Sirota, a Beacon-based photographer with a penchant for gothic-laced imagery that gives horror and the occult a unique sensuality and high-fashion tenor. A native of St. Petersburg, Russia, Sirota grew up in Brooklyn and began her exploration of the photographic arts while in high school. Her work is predominately self-portraiture, with artful manipulations that render her image ghostly, mysterious, hypnotic and always arrestingly beautiful.
“I find self-portraiture to be challenging, grounding and cathartic,” says Sirota. “It has served me in healing my relationship with my body, my relationship to self and has been incredibly empowering. My self-portrait work is an expulsion of feeling and thought and is centered around themes of mental health, identity and magic, with a nod to the macabre.”
In the interview below, Sirota extrapolates on her life, art and her deepening romance with the Hudson Valley and her community of fellow creatives. You can see some of her latest works as a part of Ritual: Art and Witchcraft, a group show running through November 26th at Women’s Work in Poughkeepsie and at her Instagram, Facebook and website.
INSIDE+OUT: Where are you originally from and how did you wind up in the Hudson Valley?
Anna Sirota: I was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and grew up in Brooklyn, NY. I really thrived on the energy, grit and chaos of the city and, for many years, it inspired and fueled my work. In my mid-twenties, I began to crave quieter energy and a more natural landscape. What used to enliven me about the city now drained and annoyed me. My partner and I started taking day trips upstate and we fell in love with the Hudson Valley. It was a challenging transition but we’ve been here for a little over four years now.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a photographer, and how did you get your start?
I took my first photography class in high school and loved it right away. I started out shooting black and white film and working in the darkroom and I loved the quiet, solitary nature of the whole process. I was always a creative kid. I wrote, danced, acted, sang, all of it. Photography was another medium for self-expression and exploring fantasy.
You are predominantly a self-portrait photographer. You say this body of work heals your relationship with your body and yourself. What has this journey been like for you?
That journey is ongoing. When I first started taking self-portraits, it was out of convenience. Getting models isn’t always easy, especially with a non-existent budget, and using myself was the natural solution. Once I started, I realized that taking self-portraits made me feel empowered, powerful, and in control. Movement and physical experimentation are how I get the ghostly, fluid vibe in my work and this process is also a great way to connect to my body, release energy, and invite in the kind of energy I want. It’s a cathartic experience. In my work, my body is art and it’s a vessel for releasing whatever it is I want to expel and express exactly what I’m thinking or feeling. It’s a powerful way to be seen and heard. I also think seeing the photos during the editing process is grounding and helps me see myself in a more accurate and realistic light. This is what I look like, this is my body. It’s not so scary to love it. I also use self-portraiture as a therapeutic modality. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression on and off for most of my life and to be able to purge those feelings into art is a gift I am grateful to have.
Your work is quite moving and provocative with an affinity for mystery, horror, and the occult. Tell us about your style of photography and your photo journey.
I’ve always been drawn to mystery, horror and the occult. This fascination started at a very young age and I honestly can’t explain its origins. I think it’s important to embrace, celebrate and honor the darkness and pain that comes with being alive. Horror, mystery and the occult are good at doing that. My work is driven by emotion, intensity, sexuality and all things that are messy about being human. I find the mess so beautiful and fascinating. In college, I was dealing with a lot in my personal life and was in emotional and mental chaos. I wanted to express those feelings in my work and that was when my moody abstract/surreal aesthetic emerged. It was my way of sharing what was going on in my life without having to speak it out loud. A couple of years after college, I got into magic, witchcraft and spirituality, and those aspects have seeped into my work. My work is ultimately a reflection of my darker, rebellious, unapologetic, deeply flawed self.
What type of camera equipment do you use? Do you shoot videos as well?
I mostly use an old DSLR- Canon 5D Mark III, a tripod, a 50mm fixed lens, and natural light. I use Photoshop and Lightroom for editing. Pretty basic! I miss shooting on film and working with other camera formats, but I make do with what I have. You don’t need fancy gear to make great work. I’m not currently working with video but want to integrate it into future work.
Can you share your creative process?
It depends on what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t have a plan at all. I set up my camera with a white wall as my background, put on whatever clothes and music call to me in the moment and just start moving and shooting, letting my body take the lead. If I’m feeling anxious, angry, or stagnant, this process helps me shake it off. It’s a ritualistic process. When I’m working with a particular concept, I sketch it out in advance, choose the location, plan the styling and all the other details involved. Sometimes I shoot 2-3 times before I get the result I’m looking for and other times the idea evolves and becomes something entirely different while I’m working. The spontaneous and unexpected shoots are my favorite. I try to get as much of the effect I’m going for in a camera, but I also consider what I’ll need to do in post-production. I love the editing process and tend to fall into a trance as I edit, especially if it’s going well.
What is one question you’re constantly asked or what’s the biggest misconception about your work?
People who don’t know me assume that I am a dark and miserable person and that’s not true! Although I do struggle with mild depression, I’m also silly, I laugh a lot, and have a lot of joy in my life. I’ve also heard that people think I’m intimidating and I don’t always hate that. Protection. Sometimes I have a “don’t fuck with me” vibe, but, for the most part, I’m a big sensitive mush. I think people tend to forget that we’re multifaceted beings and can be more than one thing.
You provide creative coaching services to artists. Tell us about that and what are you most proud of doing this work.
I am passionate about self-expression and uninhibited creation. It is so freeing to make what you want to make and to love your work, no matter the trajectory of your career or how the work is received. I like to help artists get as much pleasure and fulfillment out of their work as possible. A lot of artists experience blocks, struggle with discipline and time management or fear sharing their work with others. Some artists don’t feel confident in their aesthetic or haven’t figured out what they want to say with their work. My work is about helping them uncover the answers they’re searching for.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’m working on a project having to do with archetypes, identity, and inner guidance. I’m still working out the details and sketching out ideas but I’m excited to get started.
Do you have an agent?
I do not.
How do you grow your business and how do your clients find you?
Mostly through social media. My Instagram account. Also, my website. Social media is my main source of exposure. I have a small, but wonderful online community of fellow artists and supporters. I am always trying to find new ways to grow and get more reach.
What is it about the Hudson Valley that makes it unique to live + work here?
This is the most beautiful place I’ve lived. The mountains, the river, and the parks all have their own language, and their majesty is inspiring and intoxicating.
Do you shoot locally? If so, tell us about some of your projects here.
I mostly shoot in woodsy areas, along nature paths, and in my home. A few years ago, prior to the pandemic, I worked on a project called Witches and Woods and I photographed women in natural settings around Beacon and Woodstock. I rarely photograph others, so it was a lot of fun. A few years ago, I did photojournalistic work for a Hudson Valley magazine. It was a great way to learn about the region and explore businesses I wouldn’t have otherwise.
What impact does your business have on your community?
I’m not sure that it has had any impact yet, to be honest. Despite living here for four years now, I’m not really involved in the art community or the general community at large. Growing up, the community was never stressed in my home and I got used to being a bit of a loner. I also have some social anxiety in certain situations. But I’ve been working on that and trying to get more involved. Kingston has a huge art scene and artist community, and I am planning on spending more time up there.
What local businesses do you rely on to be successful?
Beacon Fine Art Printing is my go-to printing and framing spot. Rob Penner is super talented, kind, and does beautiful work.
What is missing in the area that you wish we had?
I’d love to see more galleries dedicated to photography. Photography is the ugly duckling of the fine art world and it’s a shame. I’d also like to see workshops, classes, and events for photographers and multi-media artists here in Beacon.
What would be your dream assignment?
To get paid to make whatever work I want. Seriously. Right now, I have three jobs, unrelated to photography, and I’d love to receive a hefty grant so that I can just work and not worry about having to pay the bills. I’d also love to do a series for a niche hotel, do book covers, and do album art. Music is a huge part of my life, and it would be awesome to work with a band/musician.
Who or what inspires you personally?
My partner, my friends, magic, my surroundings, music, books, film, and art.
Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
When I was 18-20, I danced on stage with a rock band. It was a lot of fun while it lasted. Hmm, what else…I’m vegan. I speak Russian. I don’t know how to ride a bicycle. I have a weird thing for sitcoms. Frasier is my favorite show of all time and I’ve seen the series at least ten times.
What is your current state of mind?
The last two years have been challenging and I’ve been focused on healing and getting past certain life-stage issues. I suppose my current state of mind is a mixed bag: mentally exhausted but also cautiously optimistic and hopeful, excited for what’s to come.
Contributor Sal Cataldi is a musician, writer and publicist living in the Hudson Valley.
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