Henriette Sabroe Ebbesens' surrealistic images often require a second or third glance to comprehend what exactly is going on. By using mirrors and playing with reflections, the Danish artist turns her subjects into sculptures. Her visual language, which moves between distortion and poetry, allows bodies to merge with their natural surroundings.
In her images, the photographer portrays solitude and togetherness, opening up a conversation about (self-)perception and (sub-)consciousness, identity, curiosity, and preconceived notions about reality. Henriette's work as a doctor feeds into her artistic practice and vice versa, leading her to explore scientific connections between creativity and the mind. We spoke to the Copenhagen-based artist about how she uses her camera to create a clash between something familiar and something odd, how she got into fashion photography and what we find on the camera roll of her phone.
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Please start by briefly introducing yourself to our readers.
Hello, I’m Henriette! I'm a 28 year old artist and a medical doctor based in Copenhagen, Denmark. My projects span from research about the creative mind to art, fashion, and commercial photography. In my artistic practice, I search for irony and identity and create visual worlds where you don't always recognise reality. In my scientific research, I try to understand what happens in the brain when you create art. At the moment, I'm working on a research project with a specialist in psychiatry in which we are investigating links between creativity and psychopathology.
How did you find your way to photography?
I took a course in photography at Georgia Southern University, where I studied art for one year (2015-2016) through the Georgia Rotary Student Program. My photography teacher Jessica Hines taught us how to use the medium to express ourselves artistically. Before this, I thought of photography only as a journalistic medium. This realisation made me change my primary medium from painting to photography.
After I moved back to Denmark in 2016, I started submitting to PhotoVogue. PhotoVogue became my art school, where I submitted my photographs almost daily. Through this platform, I was scouted for commercial jobs and exhibitions, made several contacts within the industry and expanded my network.
To what extent, if at all, does your background in medicine influence your work as a photographer?
I believe inspiration comes from everything I experienced and learnt from what I studied. Having emotional experiences in my personal life is probably what inspired me the most. Yet I can never tell from where exactly my art comes. It's a mix of all the impressions and experiences layered in my subconscious mind. I never felt like I was doing work based on my medical experience. However, I think it is interesting that a lot of my work is about the body and self-image, especially when my day job during my studies was assisting my mother, a plastic surgeon.
It fascinates me what is going on in the brain when you create art. It's a process that, at least to me, looks very subconscious and connected to feelings rather than the logical and conscious mind. I would say that one career path inspired the other, as my creative thinking inspired me for my current research project about creativity and psychopathology. It might be a cliché that the mind of madness and genius is not far from each other, but when I was interning at the psychiatric department, it was really an eyeopener to me talking to people diagnosed with schizophrenia because I thought that the difference between an artist making up their own universe for their art is not that far from someone living with schizophrenia and experiencing a surreal world happening to them. This is not to romanticise mental disorders or describe artistic minds as something pathological but simply a curiosity about creativity. Genetics between creativity, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder has been proven, so I think it is interesting to dig further into this, trying to describe overlaps in ways of thinking.
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The distorted bodies and often confusing reflections in your work symbolise a blurred or unclear self-image for me and also speak of changed perceptions. What are the main topics you focus on in your photography?
I love to question what reality is and how it is experienced differently by every person. How each person's filter affects our individual perception of the world. In my photographic works, I use mirrors to distort reality to show this filter that we all look through. In my scientific research, I ask the same questions about how each person's mind and eyes see the world differently. To this question, identity becomes crucial, and I find my photographic work also a search for my own identity, where I discover bits and pieces of my subconscious mind while creating my artworks.
You play with a notion of reality, allowing photographs to almost turn into paintings. What influences and inspires you?
My works are about the boundaries between reality, fantasy and the surreal. Here, photography can do something that a painting cannot because you have a realistic expectation to photography, as it is also used as a tool to document reality. My style is also a study of the boundary between painting and photography, as I have a very experimental approach to my work. I started experimenting with distortion because it could give me this interesting painterly effect. What mainly inspires me is the scientific way of observing reality and the world around us.
The mirror is a crucial element in the production of your images. How did you come to use it?
In concrete terms, the mirror works as a symbolic boundary between two worlds, with reality on one side and imagination on the other. As an artist and medical doctor, I am on the border between two worlds by standing with one leg rooted in science and another rooted in art. I came to work with mirrors just by coincidence based on a curiosity about using different tools to manipulate reality without Photoshop.
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Most of your photos are taken at lakes, in fields or forests, and under blue skies. What role does nature play in your pictures?
The nude body and nature are elements we know from the natural world. Placing these objects in a surreal context is interesting as it creates a clash between something familiar and something odd. Geometrical structures and physical laws can be seen and discovered in the natural world around us. This is to me so fascinating that it seems surreal. According to The Theory of Relativity, you can bend space and time. I illustrate my distortions by bending light rays with mirrors. The weather is essential in my work, as I almost always shoot outdoors with intense sunlight and a blue sky. This way, the colours will appear the most vibrant and beautiful.
Are the images you create all naturally distorted, or is there a lot of post-production involved?
All my images are naturally distorted. I use different kinds of mirrors and reflective material to create distortions and illusions in my work. I use Photoshop for colour and light editing, or if I happen to show up in the reflection myself, but never for making the distortions.
It is like an experiment on creating an illusion with the mirrors, but more so, I want the viewer to question what they see. Practically speaking, I bend reality and capture it with my camera for the viewer to experience a different reality than they are used to. Some of my works from my series Growing Up are based on collage works mixing my own photography and photographs from my childhood. These are made by cutting the collages in photoshop. This process is a bit different; it feels like solving a puzzle.
In your work, bodies and objects transform into unexpected and abstract shapes. Do you approach your projects with a clear idea of the result, or is the outcome often spontaneous?
I never have a clear concept before creating new work, but I might have a vague idea of what I want to capture. This includes special items or ideas I feel drawn to. I then go with the model and props to an outdoor location. What happens in front of the camera is determined by my mood, the mood of the model, and sometimes just by coincidence. It feels very intuitive, and I think my subconscious plays a vital role in the process. After some time, I can look at the work I created to figure out what it is about. By analysing my own work, I feel like thoughts and memories from my subconscious mind suddenly take place in my conscious mind and I learn new things about myself.
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You have collaborated with various fashion brands and magazines in the past. What are your plans for the future?
I just wish to always be able to express myself artistically and learn and evolve through creativity and experimentation. I love to do this through different mediums, including fashion brands and fashion magazines because I learn a lot through creative collaboration. However, a mix of collaborative work and working alone is the better option for me, since I want to stay true to my artistic language and mind, which I can most purely obtain when working alone. Recently I have been very interested in moving images, and I have been experimenting with making short art and fashion films. I want to continue working in this direction and see where it can bring me.
And as a final question: what photos would we find on your phone's camera roll?
I take a lot of pictures of random things I find inspiring. It could be when traveling, visiting a museum, or when walking in the park. I rarely look back at these pictures, but the freezing of moment of these things states the importance of noticing to me. Apart from this, I photograph my friends and family during everyday life, vacations, and celebrations. My father taught me the importance of documenting your life, as it is nice to look back on good memories.
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