'Lost in Translation' Photography Project by Elena Ohlander

'Lost in Translation' Photography Project by Elena Ohlander

I surround myself with creative and inspiring visionaries. One of them is a conceptual photographer and illustrator named Elena Ohlander, whom I am happy to call my best friend. Her focus is in conceptual self-portraiture and illustration that deals with identity, gender issues, space, individuality, and pop culture. Her main influences are Taiyo Matsumoto, Gregory Crewdson, Paolo Roversi, Cindy Sherman, and Japanese aesthetic.

Today I would like to share one of my favorite projects in her portfolio - “Lost in Translation.” I also had a chance to talk to Elena about the inspiration and creative process behind this project. 

Elena Ohlander is a visual artist, first and foremost. She reveals that despite a generally balanced life, at the moment she struggles to find the balance that isn't completely destructive of her personal relationships This kind of imbalance helps to inform her work and evoke specific feelings from the viewers - a reflection of something inside achieving that connectivity.


Lost in Translation was inspired by Elena's desire for a sense of belonging. She wanted to explore her mother’s heritage and was hoping to find a piece of herself somewhere there. Something forgotten or disconnected that would maybe resonate with her personally and those also searching for a deeper sense of identity. She travelled to her mother's country of origin, Norway, to the very streets she grew up on in the 1940's and 50's. Elena met family she did not know she had, she walked the cobblestone streets, adorned the traditional garb in celebration of Norway's national holiday of independence, and she fished in the sea her mother once sailed to emigrate to America. Elena completely immersed herself and was overwhelmed in a myriad of ways. She is now one year removed from her visit and the project, feeling unresolved. "I need to go back, it is calling me," Elena confesses.


The project has an interesting title - Lost in Translation. Elena explains that she chose it because of the emotional feeling she had while there in that place, and the literal differentiation when linguistically, phrases just have no translation equal in weight and specificity. “There are just no words. And these lack of words is how I felt, respectively,” she says. 


“The main struggle with the project,” Elena shares, “Was figuring out what exactly I wanted to say about this place that has become so intimate and personal to me.” An image that was more than just a figure injected in a landscape, but explorative, inquisitive, insightful, and furthering curiosity. She spent five weeks there in Norway and felt it was an obstacle to produce. “I was just experiencing my connectivity to the place and therefore only in the latter portion of my trip could I even begin to formulate and conceive my narrative.”


I have noticed that Elena’s work is solely in square format, I decided to ask her about it. “Square format is something to me that feels more like an encounter. I happen upon this snapshot much like the old albums of my mother’s past. I felt so connected to these square images; how they were so different from my life in the early 90’s.” She says she often wondered what is in the frame if that was a moving image of memory but also what is outside that frame. 

A wonderful revelation to me was when Elena said: “I personally find this easier when constraining my work to a square, otherwise I feel like I am revealing too much, like I'm sharing too much of the secret that I want the viewer to explore. Depriving them of that process of learning; about me, about themselves, about people and time.” 


My favorite piece in this project is Elena’s portrait in the window. When I asked what inspired her, she explained that in implementation, it served as this wonderful metaphor of how she was feeling at that moment.

“I was on the outside looking in. Physically, this place is on a remote island in Norway that a close family member owns. It is his sanctuary and in its own way, life out there in that place stood still. Time was just an elusive concept. This, in and of itself, was something interesting for a photographer to both grasp and attempt to capture.”




Elena is currently working on a project of her life experience and connectivity where she grew up, in Florida. Much in the way Elena explored Norway, she is here doing just the same. “Although, now it has become a deep itch, an obsession that has yet to be satisfied. I call it, Evacuation Route. I name it so, not just for the practicality of inevitable hurricane occurrence and the need for evacuation routes in our state, but the metaphor for my life," she divulges.

“I feel the need to escape to these places that bring me solace and a place I can project my innermost desires and concerns, only to come back focused and cleansed.” 

You can find some of the current Evacuation Route images on Elena’s website.




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Martin Van Londen's picture

I also like the square format. I feel like it can be a good story telling format.

Tom Lew's picture

I loooooove square format. I think elena puts it into words very well... it feels more intentional. All of my square images feel more special to me for some reason