Building a Magical Empire: Fstoppers Interviews Bella Kotak

Bella Kotak is an international fine art, fashion, and portrait photographer whose magical aesthetic has gained her fans all across the globe and garnered her features in industry magazines like Rangefinder and PhotoPlus, but her photography career didn’t start in the happiest place.

Growing Into an Artist

Kotak grew up in Kenya, surrounded by a melting pot of cultures and people of different ethnic backgrounds. She fondly remembers the welcoming culture, the stories, and food, and even the feeling of the air. When she needed an escape, she got lost in Western fantasies and fairy tale books. But her family moved to the UK when Kotak was 16, and everything changed. She became one of two people of color in her school and experienced racism and cultural ignorance for the first time. That was the start of an emotionally tumultuous time for Kotak, where she did her best to hide her internal pain by masking it with an optimistic attitude. “And then I found Linkin Park,” Kotak said with a laugh, “and that was it.”

Dressed all in black, listening to heavy metal, and determined to pursue a career in art, Kotak’s plans were brought up short when her parents insisted she go to university. In the gentlest form of rebellion ever, she chose to focus on architecture because that provided at least some form of artistic expression, but Kotak says she was not happy, which led her to photography as a form of escapism. “When I first started taking pictures, it was to escape the choices that I was making [...] I felt so lost, I felt so trapped, I felt really angry at myself more than anything, for not feeling strong enough to make bigger decisions, like just leaving this career.” So, Kotak pushed all of those feelings into photography. 

Photograph shared with permission of Bella Kotak

Through the medium of photography, Kotak was able to create characters that were delicate but powerful, controlling their own destinies in beautiful, fantastical worlds. Before long, her delicate characters became stronger, wearing armor and crowns as the symbols of strength that Kotak began to discover in herself. “I started to see them as queens because I started to see myself as a queen,” she said. 

Now that she has turned to make art into her lifestyle, Kotak no longer needs to escape into those fantasy worlds, so what does that mean for the future of her career? She is leaving that open to exploration, but for now, Kotak says she’s creating images that show the kind of world she wants everyone to live in and asking herself what kind of messages she wants to portray. “What do I want to see in the world,” she said, “and how does that translate into my work?”

One thing Kotak knows she wants to focus on is inclusivity. Living in a relatively homogenous community, most of the models Kotak worked at the beginning of her career were friends, and she says her portfolio suffered from a lack of diversity. But she’s made that a conscious point of change, working with companies like the Birmingham Royal Ballet, who cast people of color as principal dancers, and making more of an effort to contact models with diverse ethnicities and body types. She makes this effort, she says, because it reflects the kind of inclusive world she wants to live in. But when she’s putting together these ideas, what is her process?

Making Art 

Sometimes, inspiration hits out of the blue, and Kotak puts those ideas in her journal. Other times, she collaborates with the artists and designers she works with and takes inspiration from them and their designs to build ideas, much like puzzle pieces. Kotak says she’s also always looking for locations that inspire her, and from there, the concept comes together in a kind of rough framework. Rather than being too attached to a specific visual outcome, Kotak becomes attached to an idea. She says that gives her the openness to be able to use new inspiration to change things as she shoots or to deal with obstacles while protecting herself from disappointment. 

Another thing Kotak keeps in mind when creating is leaving room for the viewer to put themselves inside the world of her characters by keeping her images slightly ambiguous. “I feel like if I give too much context, it can detract from their experience of what they’re seeing [...] if they can create their own connection, they’re more invested.” 

Photograph shared with permission of Bella Kotak

Kotak is not only incredibly open about her process, but with her advice, and one of the main questions hopeful photographers have is how they can source the kind of incredible garments that contribute to the opulent feeling of Kotak’s work. “I created images with what I already had,” she said, “so whatever I could make, I made. I would go to thrift stores and find some cool stuff like lace dresses and things I could turn into headpieces.” So, Kotak advises people to start with what they can already get their hands on and put together a quality portfolio they can show the designers they’d like to work with and to be certain their portfolio is high quality, because if photographers want to work with designers on a collaborative basis, they need to be able to give the designers images that will help sell their work. And if the photographer intends to take the photos in a very artistic direction, to be certain they still give designers images that will sell their work. 

Kotak also said that if you’re not in a place where the quality is quite up to par or if you don’t have the confidence to seek a collaborative relationship, you can always ask if designers rent their creations, as many of them have designed specifically set aside for rental. Local costume shops, theaters, opera houses, or other performing arts venues can also be great places to find a wardrobe. Don’t forget Facebook groups for designers or places like Etsy, Kotak adds, because you never know how many of those designers are in need of great images of their designs. “You might even end up getting hired!”

Getting Paid

This leads to the question of how fantasy photographers get paid. With such a niche style, it’s easy to wonder how fantasy photographers make their money, but Kotak says there are several places to build income streams. Personal shoots should never be discounted because the world of fantasy lovers grows every day. Book covers can also be a great source of revenue, and Kotak says it was a mainstay at the beginning of her career. She would reach out to publishing houses and talk to their art director or cover designers, show them her work, and ask them to keep her in mind for future covers.

Photograph shared with permission of Bella Kotak

Stock licensing agencies, Kotak says, is also a good avenue for potential income if the photographer pays attention to what sells and curates what they post to fit those parameters. And finally, Kotak encourages photographers not to be afraid to build themselves platforms where their expertise can help others, whether that’s workshops, courses, or online mentoring. “And don’t feel like just because it’s a niche genre, there’s no money [...] there’s a significant amount of money in this because it is niche and it’s not diluted so much.” This means art fairs could be a potential source of income because there aren’t many fantasy photographers in those spaces.

Finally, Kotak made it a point to create and cultivate an email list for direct marketing and to treat the people who sign up for your list really well, because those are the people who want information and are most likely to buy or sign up for new ventures. “Give away something for free, treat them really well, share offers with them,” Kotak says, which is highly important, because the people on your email list will be more receptive in general than strangers and more likely to support you in the future.

And as she grows her creative empires with that advice, Kotak will continue to produce richly elegant worlds for her viewers to escape into that not only represent pieces of herself as she grows but the kind of world she hopes to live in. 

To see more of Bella Kotak’s work, follow her on Instagram.

Lead image shared with permission of Bella Kotak.

Nicole York's picture

Nicole York is a professional photographer and educator based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. When she's not shooting extraordinary people or mentoring growing photographers, she's out climbing in the New Mexico back country or writing and reading novels.

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It certainly can be! Just like anything, it takes solid marketing and knowing your target audience, and a bit of fearless creativity ;)