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Get Out of Your Creative Box: Fstoppers Interviews Kelly Robitaille

Like many new photographers, Kelly Robitaille started by taking photos of her children, but she would become well known for a striking visual style that is anything but typical. 

Kelly Robitaille is a high-end retoucher and photographer known for her “Whimsy Waifs,” an award-winning surreal portrait series. In an industry where so many photographers struggle to find their voice, how did Robitaille create such a unique style? An active imagination, a free afternoon, and some Photoshop skills.

As many parents know, a free afternoon is a godsend, and for Robitaille, it was a chance to finally create a bit of art without restrictions. She wanted to know how far she could push her Photoshop skills in the service of ideas she’d been kicking around but had never had time to explore. Before she realized how much time had passed, it was midnight, but she had finally created the surreal image she’d always wanted to make. After that, she spent all her free time taking old photographs and giving them new life with the techniques she learned. Soon, she started shooting with the goal of editing in her new style and found herself craving those moments of being in a flow state where her artistic visions came to life.

“It’s the best feeling. There’s nothing like it. I mean, yeah, I have kids and they’re okay,” she joked. “But this?” 

Image shared with permission of Kelly Robitaille

There is a lot that goes into establishing a visual style, and one of the hallmarks of Robitaille’s aesthetic is an overall dark tone that reflects the trauma she experienced as a child. She views it as a form of therapy that allows her to work through things that affect her life. “At the end of the day,” she said, “I create these for myself. They’re my therapy.” But Robitaille is quick to point out that a dark tone and enduring struggle doesn’t mean her art is tragic. Every character she creates is part of a story, and the end of those stories, for Robitaille, is hopeful. Despite her character's struggles, she views her creations as empowering and rebels against the idea that images are valuable based on how “pretty” they are rather than how truthful or impactful they are.

This has resulted in highly polarized reactions to her work. Some fans see themselves and their own journey overcoming struggles in her work and are very drawn to and passionate about her creations, while others simply see something that makes them uncomfortable and responds with negativity. Some have criticized the delicate frames Robitaille creates for her characters as celebrating eating disorders or promoting unhealthy body images. But Robitaille says the emaciated frames of her Waifs are storytelling elements that help convey the spiritual and emotional frailty of someone undergoing hardships. In the service of telling the story she wants to tell, Robitaille exaggerates things like features, props, makeup, costumes, and posture, using physical characteristics to express emotional or spiritual ideas.

Image shared with permission of Kelly Robitaille

Having spent the last few years cultivating this signature style, Robitaille is passionate about encouraging photographers to develop a creative style that resonates with them, rather than what they think will get them attention or likes. “It’s like people are scared to do something different, and they’re scared of the repercussions of doing something because someone might not like it. And I think we often get stuck inside of this box because we’re afraid to be different and if people don’t like it then we’re going to get shut out.” But Robitaille has dealt with that fear and says she wouldn’t be where she’s at today if she hadn’t taken the chance to do something different and believe in her own vision, even in the face of naysayers. 

For people who want to explore their own creativity, Robitaille says it’s a personal journey but the most important part is to give themselves permission to try and not assume they can’t out of fear of failure. “Human beings have a tendency to say, ‘well, I’m not capable of it so I’m not going to try...’ well try! And give it a go. And if it’s not what you want, give it another go. And if it’s still not what you want but you want to keep creating, give it another go, and eventually, things fall into place.” 

One of the other things Robitaille says often holds photographers back creatively is the need to constantly create content for fear of being forgotten, which leaves little time for diving deep into creative ideas or letting them develop over time. “I would rather see one amazing creative beautiful image once a month than see five images a week that are standard, typical, no story, with the intention of just being ‘seen’.” She says photographers need to give themselves permission to take the time to develop ideas and think about how they can interpret their ideas in a way that makes them visually accessible to interpretation by an audience. When the pressure of a quick turnaround is removed, Robitaille says that gives artists the ability to form a concept, set it aside, then look at it again with fresh eyes. “Give yourself the time to sit down and be creative instead of trying to fit inside the little box. I hate that box.”

Image shared with permission of Kelly Robitaille

Perhaps the most inspiring part of the interview was toward the end, where Robitaille observed that we are the ones who put limits on our own happiness or what we can accomplish and that once we realize those limits are self-imposed, we can remove them. “Why would you, out of fear, not create things that have the ability to impact other people?” And there is comfort for Robitaille knowing that her work is out in the world making an impact. She said there is nothing better than getting messages from people who have been positively impacted by her work or from students who felt like her art gave them permission to express themselves without fear.

At the end of the day, isn’t the ability to express ourselves without fear and have our work make a positive impact in someone’s life what motivates us to pick up our cameras? And if it is, then everything boils down to having an idea and pursuing it with passion, as Robitaille does. 

To learn more about Kelly Robitaille, you can head to her website or check out her Instagram page

Lead image shared with permission of Kelly Robitaille  

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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If this is about breaking out of comfort zones, she needs to find other ways in expressing surrealism that dont involve only promoting overly thin women. Thick, curvy and all of the above have the ability to portray surrealism as well.

There's a bit in the article about how the choice to portray extremely thin women is a narrative element to show their emotional frailty. If you look at her Instagram, too, there are a few normal and heavier framed people peppered in there.

They’re peppered in, because most people follow me for my art and not my actual photography

You’re really out to get me today, aren’t you. This is NOT reality. Not meant to exist in reality. This is art based on my experiences in an abusive household growing up, feeling frail, small, unimportant. You can choose to not like my work but at this point I’m sick of you dragging my name through the mud here and on Instagram. See what you want, or understand the why.

Who said a thing about being secure? Don’t like my art? That’s fine! Move on to the next thing 🤷‍♀️

Almost every comment you’ve made on Fstoppers is negative. Maybe attempt giving some positive constructive feedback next time. It’s good for your soul

Ok bud 👌

Maybe you should study up on art. These are made to not be about you and how you feel but how the artist may feel. There are many artist that take the human figure to the extreme for different reasons and until you speak to the artist you may not know what it was inspired by. Can't you just look at it as art, or are you so jealous of good work you have to try and pick her apart.

Shut up. Just shut up. People like you are not happy until everyone is miserable. Guess what? Your work sucks and nobody really cares about your dumb overly PC bullshit. You could only wish you were 0.0001% as talented as Kelly and that’s why you are left with nothing but trying to drag her down to your level. You’re just another sad troll that the internet created. Piss off into the night.

Not taking sides here but aren't you doing almost the same thing you're accusing Teresa of?
Imagine whirled peas! :-)

The characters in Ms. Robitaille's work aren't promotional or aspirational representations of real women. They're avatars of experiences. They're expressionist. She doesn't make her subjects frail to make them surreal, she makes them frail to convey an emotional/spiritual experience visually. The result is surreal. It has nothing to do with promotion and everything to do with creative self expression.

Eye catching, no doubt, that will not be to everyone’s taste due to her particular aesthetic. The intense processing and what looks like the distortion of the image to achieve the end result is ok, I suppose but does the heavy ‘cartoon filterish effect’ push them over the credibility edge? Could you see them hanging on the wall of a gallery? I’m not sure. I always admire a photographer who achieves a strong visual style but is she pushing those sliders just a bit too far? The treatment of the eyes in all the images do make them, for me, uncomfortable, but possibly that’s the point. I’m not sure. Photography is hard, it’s hard to stand out and I’m sure these images will have an appeal for some but not me, though it may be interesting to see how her style develops. To conclude just be a bit more careful with the eyes.

You have to admire her regardless.

I don't know about gallery, but could you see anybody paying a dime to put these pictures on a wall in their house?

It reminds me of the movie, "Green Card" when Gerard Depardieu plays the piano and answers his audience's stunned silence with, "It's not Mozart." ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Y’all are vicious tonight huh. Quarantine has made everyone forget how to be kind to others.

You thought that was vicious? It was supposed to be funny. That's the problem with the internet: without facial expressions or intonation, subtlety is lost.

Beautiful work as always Kelly. I know what it takes to create an image like this and the amount of work you put into every subject is outstanding. Keep making your art, the ones they criticize and say they will never make it always become the most sought after artist.


Really interesting work love the creativity of it. Would include it in any gallery. I majored in photo-illustration but have spent my career shooting what is just in front of the lens, Most of what I loved doing you would not want to hang on your dining room wall, In my youth photographic inspiration came from the masters and now it comes from the incredible work being created by young women as I create what's in my head. Thank you

Hey Kelly, we're not all angry trolls on here. In fact I've only logged in to post something positive about your work. It speaks to me and I find it creative, powerful and thoughtful. Reminiscent of Mark Ryden whose work I love. I know random comments make very little difference in the great sceme of things but keep on keeping on.

Kelly, i admire your dedication to your craft. I cannot image the time it takes to not only plan snd shoot the images, but the time spent in post processing which looks to be substantial. Art is incredibly subjective and beauty is recognized through different magnification of lenses based on personal experiences. I personally understand your art and appreciate how eccentric it is. There is a strong market for what some might label "dark art" ...and you have a defined niche. Keep creating striking, visceral images that evoke this type of response. That's what art is all about anyways right? Keep giving the world something to talk about, push boundaries and make no apologies for your creativity. One love....a fan.

Ms. Robitaille: Well your digital manipulation and illustration skills are obviously well-honed! You can clearly turn the dial to “11”. But now see if you can turn it to, say, “3”. That is, perhaps you’ll find a more nuanced hand to be a stronger suit and produce more compelling images? See the work of a German photo artist who calls herself “Loretta Lux” (not her real name) for some good examples.

Well done. Now move further toward sharpening that blade. (And seek audiences outside the online photo enthusiast world.)

Hi Kelly......I for one think you're genius...the amount of detail and nuance is amazing and you only have to see one of your images and you immediately know it's you..I would happily hang one of your works of art on my wall 😁😁....I can understand why some people don't get it but it's a case of..( as we say in the UK....MARMITE...you either love it or hate it ).....at least either is an emotional reaction which is a good thing..it gives you food for thought....and besides..there are millions of astounding images out there..but most have the emotional impact of custard..which is pointless...you forget them in an instant......not so of your work !!!!.......keep on keeping on 😁😁😁😁

I really don’t understand the criticism Kelly is receiving. It’s beyond silly. People are telling her how to create, which is just shameful. She’s a photographer but clearly a digital artist above all. This is her vision. If you don’t like it then bugger off. You’re not obligated to like it but you don’t have to drag her through the mud either. It’s surrealistic art and it’s not supposed to be taken literally. If Kelly’s work doesn’t meet the messages you want to see then seek out the artists that do meet your needs. There are plenty out there. Otherwise you’re just bullying over the internet and creating a whole new set of problems for someone who’ve never met in person. Grow up!

Her work is incredible. Very powerful storytelling imagery.

It's a definite "Alice in Wonderland" approach. Nevertheless, this young lady is extremely talented.

What is wrong with you guys? These images are really beautiful and require lots of efforts and creativity to see day light and if it is not your taste guys, just skip it and move on. Of course all of us have right to have opinion and right to say, but do not abuse artist with you words please. Kelly, your work is stunning!

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And this platform is for people to post articles and photos for feedback. If you can't take the heat please keep out of the kitchen.

I see this as photo manipulation, not photography.
Yes, the pictures are beautiful and actually *my type of art*. I like this surreal type.
Just, not really photography. More like a digital artist.

Isn't almost all photography manipulated? At what point do we make a distinction?

I guess it's a personal opinion. But in my opinion, a photograph is a picture which is taken in-camera. Making a slight edit to add a little sharpness or enhance colors doesn't change the main content of the picture. On the other hand, it's called Digital Art when an enormous amount of changes are made through edits and almost unrecognizable from the original.

What Rick said. These are absolutely amazing pictures and she's very talented.
But I wouldn't call this photography. The images are changed so much the original is unrecognisable. For example, the eyes are oversized and definitely not what the model looks like. Skin changed, things warped in Photoshop, etc.

I'd say, if an image is altered so much that you'd think it's digital art, that's when I stop calling it photography.

Being an old guy there was a lot you could do in a darkroom they were just a hell of a lot of work. Things evolve over time it is the nature of life and that is ok. The only area of concern is photojournalism as it can cost lives and start wars the lack of honesty in an industry in which political partisan is the norm may one of the reasons for its demise. Photographers should also give serious thought to the rise of AI. There is honesty in Kelly Robitaille's work.

I thought this old chestnut had been put to bed years ago. In photography anything goes. Why do people put some virtue of doing all in camera, especially if one shoots in RAW? Since the very beginning of photography photographers have always messed with their negatives and worked creatively in the ‘darkroom’. What’s important is the final image. The only caveat would be documentary and wildlife photography where the final image needs to have some visual honesty and integrity. It the photograph is all about composition and aesthetics replacing a sky on a landscape, removing an inflamed spot from the nose of a portrait subject or changing the colour of an object in the shot is fine. Who cares if if leads to a better image?

We are not talking about visual honesty and integrity. We are talking about the difference between Photography and Digital Art. Both are wonderful, just not the same.

P.S. I looked at your photography work and their awesome.