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Adventures in Self-Portraiture: We Interview Anna Isabella Christensen

Photographers that have true originality in concept and style are few. But Anna Isabella Christensen’s photographs show just that. We discussed her photographic adventure in Iceland, where she took self-portraits to a new level.

The otherwise ubiquitous self-portrait becomes a work of wonder when it is shot by Anna. Instead of being an instantaneous, throwaway snap, she has put time, effort, creativity, and adventure into producing unique shots.  

She also shuns heavy image manipulation, so her self-portraits are very different from, say, Brooke Shaden’s. Anna mostly develops her photos in Lightroom, so none are composites, and she doesn’t Photoshop herself into the landscapes.

“The photos are real, but I think that raw files always need some editing because they look quite dull otherwise.”

Anna's Journey to Photography

Like many good photographers, Anna's creativity has been expressed in other areas, such as drawing, painting, and writing too. She didn’t set out to become a photographer, but in 2015, she started exploring nature. The enjoyment she got from that kindled an urge to photograph it. At first, she was shooting with her phone and a point-and-shoot camera but then graduated to what she called her first semi-professional camera.

© Anna Isabella Christensen. All rights reserved.

She didn’t know any photographers who could teach her, so she learned most of her technical skills through YouTube videos. Because this is an unstructured way of learning, she also did a short online course to discover and fill in the gaps in her knowledge.

Her photographic journey began by photographing close-ups of plants. Then, during a visit to Southeast Asia, she started capturing landscapes. Although she enjoyed that, she felt there was something missing, and, when she returned, she started including a human element in the photographs. Her mom helped her in the beginning by modeling for her. Subsequently, that progressed to her figuring out how to take self-portraits.

Self-Portraits and a Passion for the Natural World

In my conversation with her, it became plain that photographing herself isn’t a matter of vanity or publicity. In fact, besides her refreshingly honest approach to photography, Anna appears modest and camera shy. Instead, it’s her desire for self-expression and a reason to be in the natural environment that drives her work.

Anna takes the self-portraits because she likes being alone in nature, feeling she can express her feelings of appreciation and admiration through her photos.

I’m so grateful for those moments that I want to 'freeze' them with my camera. I’m happiest in nature, and this whole process makes me feel so alive.

She has a passion for environmental causes, believing in doing everything we can to protect nature and animals. She told me that if people felt more connected to nature, they would also do more to protect it.

To me, nature is everything, and it adds so much harmony, beauty, and clarity to my life. I hope that my photos show it. I’m trying to show a harmonious relationship between a human being and nature in my photos.

Inspired by Nature

When people tell her that her photos inspire them to spend more time in nature, she considers it the highest compliment. She also recognizes the importance of spreading awareness of the physical and mental benefits of spending time in nature.

© Anna Isabella Christensen. All rights reserved.

Her style of photography is imaginative. The images would not be out of place illustrating scenes from a fantasy novel. This is unsurprising, as Anna’s influences include Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. She considered Iceland to be the perfect location for her type of photography.

I try to make my photos look like something from a fantasy world, and Iceland made it very easy. I loved the waterfalls, the glaciers, the lava fields, the moss, black sand beaches, rock formations, Northern lights, everything!

She certainly pushes personal boundaries when taking her photos, learning to overcome her discomforts for taking photos in all kinds of conditions.

My photoshoots really help me to train my willpower. I know that nothing is going to happen if I pose for five minutes in the cold, yet it's still it’s so hard for me to take off my warm jacket and change into a light dress every time, but I feel like each time I overcome myself, I become stronger.

Anna's Iceland Adventure

That dedication to her art paid off on her recent visit to Iceland. It was a spontaneous decision to take herself there. She booked her flight just days before flying there alone, hoping to see the Northern Lights. Not knowing beforehand that there would be an eruption or thousands of earthquakes while she was there, she felt very privileged to have witnessed them. Falling in love with that otherworldly landscape, she extended her stay from one month to four.

Despite the visit being a last-minute decision, the eruption photos involved planning, including checking the volcanic reports from the authorities and the weather forecasts.

To photograph the volcanoes, she was setting off to arrive at a location between 2 am and 5 am. The nighttime hikes would take between two and four hours. Sometimes, she would go with a guide and at other times alone. The night shoots would not only show the glowing lava flows but also meant that the areas were not packed with other people.

© Anna Isabella Christensen. All rights reserved.

Anna told me that thousands of people hiked to the eruption site every day. She would not have been able to take photos with the compositions that she wanted without other people in the frame, so the best times to visit were between 2 and 5 am, as there were usually just a few people then.

Mindful of safety in the way she works, Anna only took photos where it was allowed by the search and rescue teams, so the closest she could get was a few hundred meters away from the crater. The eruption site is officially open to the public and therefore considered safe by the Icelandic authorities. She told me that it was a relatively small eruption situated in a valley that is surrounded by mountains. In the beginning, she was able to walk around the valley and see the crater from all the angles.

Witnessing this eruption has been the most fascinating experience of my life. It felt absolutely incredible and surreal to be there. I was thinking that if I wasn’t a photographer, I would probably still go there 25 times just to see all that beauty and power.

Anna considers her eruption series of photos as symbolizing new beginnings, rebirth, and letting go of the old.

The Dangers of Photographing Near Volcanoes

I was thinking of the eruption as a healing fire that was removing everything that no longer serves us so we can be free to live the life that we want.

It’s not just the heat that is a danger from volcanoes; they also emit poisonous gasses. She recommends carrying a gas meter and a gas mask. However, it was windy and so long as she had the wind on her back, she knew she was safe from that hazard. The search and rescue team was on-site to measure gas levels too.

I’m extremely grateful to them. They were all volunteers and made it possible for all of us to enjoy the eruption.

She said she was also grateful for the way the Icelandic authorities managed this event. They made it possible for so many people to witness the eruption instead of just closing the area. They made hiking trails, parking lots, etc., making it easier for hikers. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people have visited the volcano since it started erupting.

Anna also told me that it’s important to not walk on solidified lava, as there can always be molten lava underneath. She always followed the rules there and, consequently, felt very safe there.

As we all know, with all the best planning in the world, things do go wrong, so I asked Anna if there were any accidental incidents that happened on the visits. She said that there were a lot of dust devils around the eruption site that was mostly on the opposite side of the lava field from where she stood. But, she was shooting with her jacket off at the top of a hill when she was hit by a very strong gust. 

It was already very cold and windy, so I kept my jacket right next to me and hid it behind my dress while shooting because I was only able to take it off for a minute or so due to the cold. And suddenly, this insane wind gust came, and it lifted up my jacket, and then, it threw it downhill towards the lava field.

Because I couldn’t see where my jacket went, I thought that it flew all the way down to the lava field and was probably gone forever. So, I was standing there in my dress, extremely frozen and without a jacket. Luckily, my friend, Vincenzo, (who was filming the video) was able to find my jacket, and it didn’t fly all the way down — it was around 50 meters away from us. I also had to search for my gloves afterwards.

The behind-the-scenes video was shot by Anna’s photographer friend Vincenzo Mazza, who is clearly a talented photographer too. He thought that it would be a good idea to have a video where Anna explains everything because there have been misunderstandings about her photography.

For instance, some people don’t believe that I take the photos myself and that I don’t Photoshop myself into the landscapes. I’m very happy that Vincenzo 'forced' me to make this video, because it shows my workflow very well.

He also has some amazing photos from the eruption! Making this video was his idea, and I was refusing to do it for a while, because I’m so scared of being filmed. So, we ended up filming it just before I left Iceland over two nights.

Anna does take regular landscape photos too. She knows that there are lots of places that don’t need a human element in them, and for her self-portraits, she tries to find locations and compositions where including herself in the picture adds something extra.  Commercially, Anna also does portrait photography for clients and sells prints on her website.

She has some new photographic ideas forming and is hoping to work with brands, and I have no doubt that her creativity, photographic skills, and originality will be called upon.

I encourage you to join Anna’s already popular Instagram following to view some more of her fantastic eruption images as well as other photos from around the world. You can also find her work elsewhere online, including Facebook, Twitter, and her own website.

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12 Comments

Yin Ze's picture

not this again...

Ivor Rackham's picture

This is the first time we have featured Anna's amazing work.

Yin Ze's picture

featured in another website. i would hardly call it amazing. just landscape photos with model.

Yin Ze's picture

if it was a dorky guy who did the same thing it would have zero traction.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Well, that's your subjective view. Clearly, if two websites think that her work merits being featured, then they can see something in it that you cannot.

Yin Ze's picture

if it was a dorky guy who did the same thing it would have zero traction.

Ivor Rackham's picture

As you said before, Yin.

As a "dorky guy" myself, I'm not sure if I would agree with you. If that is a description you apply to yourself, and you are a talented photographer whose work is unique, compelling, and merits writing about, feel free to drop me a message, and we'll chat about me writing an article about your work and experiences.

Yin Ze's picture

Well your coverage of female-male photogaphers is 3:1. I don't count the Gavin Hoey stuff as you barely go beyond the pr copy on the article on the olympus camera.

Ivor Rackham's picture

If I understand you correctly, you are changing your argument from male interviews not having traction, to an accusation that I am biased towards women in the number of interviews I have done.

Actually, the few number of interviews I've conducted don't make that statistically significant. Furthermore, you have counted incorrectly; not all the interview articles are titled as such. I've done two real male interviews, plus one comedic spoof one.

I don't take any notice of the personal characteristics of the photographer. I just look for work I like, or have an interesting story to tell, and I interview them.

Why do you object to women being interviewed? You do know how that comes across to the rest of the world, don't you?

Yin Ze's picture

Why so defensive?

Ivor Rackham's picture

I'm just correcting your erroneous comments.

Yin Ze's picture

Don't think you convinced anyone.