Interview with Chelsea Benwell, photography student at Plymouth College of Art in the UK :
When did you begin realising that it was horror photography you wanted to do?
I dreamed of someday making a Horror movie, even before becoming a photographer. The ground was always fertile. I made my very first Horror image in 2003 – a picture called PHOBIA that featured my baby girl sleeping in the leaves with a tarantula on her chest. It was made the night before an underground art show I had been invited to join. I thumbtacked the print to the wall and watched people flip out. I’d say from that moment on, Horror was my focus.
Considering all the hard work that goes into the process, how long does it take to create one of your images?
Weeks. If there is a Kickstarter involved, months. My most recent project INNSMOUTH took over a year, from first discussions to delivery of prints. It began as a 10 image sequence with Oscar winning make-up artist Joel Harlow and (I hoped) his buddy Johnny Depp. ALICE IN WONDERLAND 2 jumped into production and my team left the project. I regrouped with Kosar, whom I had worked with several times before, and then recruited Doug Jones. I chopped 10 images down to 1 and ran a Kickstarter campaign, and into production we finally went.
What has been your favourite project to date and where did the idea come from?
My favorite project was my first – AFTER DARK, MY SWEET – which dealt with childhood fears and featured my own children. The idea came from spending time with my children and realizing that they experienced all of the same fears I had as a child. I began meditating on their universal nature, and soon enough these ideas exploded in my work.
Do you find that you’re always learning something new about photography?
My first 7 years as a photographer were mad with questions and experiments, I remember a great zeal in learning something new all the time. All of my friends were photographers. I lived, ate, and breathed it. I had a true and genuine love for photography. By the time I made my first Horror photograph, I had congealed into a mature photographer with a particular and personal aesthetic. I knew how to light things, and the camera had become an extension of my arm. I no longer think about photography. I don’t look at photography, and I don’t really have many photographer friends anymore. These days my preoccupation is with what to place in front of the camera. I feel like I now learn with each new photo project how to re-explore composition and staging, how to better manipulate the viewer’s reaction, how to get more detail into my sets. I am in pursuit of scale and production values now.
What kind of equipment do you typically use? Do you tend to do a lot of post production or is that something you tend to avoid?
Canon Mark III mostly now. I used hot lights forever, but I’ve recently been using strobes for crowd scenes like LAST STAND and INNSMOUTH. I use fog every chance I get. I do everything live in front of the camera, but more and more there is an equal amount of work in post-production. making sure all the best footage fits together as perfectly as I can make it.
Are there any photographers/artists that you really look up to? Artists that may influence your work or just people that really inspire you.
These days I spend a lot of time thinking about Guillermo del Toro.
Is there an area of photography that you are interested in but maybe haven’t explored?
Yes. Countless ideas and projects. From technical fetishes like wet plate photography, to contrary project ideas, like shooting images depicting Bible stories in modern dress.
What do you feel makes the perfect horror based image?
I’m trying to figure that out every time I pick up a camera. This I know – you must have the tension of a victim and a villain juxtaposed in a single frame, the moment just before impact.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to become a horror photographer?
Be prepared for a grim reception. Galleries will not want your work, assuming (with some accuracy) that work designed to upset the viewer will not easily sell and could be bad for business. Ad agencies will not hire you if they can’t present your website and portfolio to their clients to consider. Haunted Houses are cheap, and so are bands and authors. There is just not much money in this ‘field’. In the wake of my appearance online, a few other photographers jumped in and started shooting Horror as well. Most have moved on to other subjects though, because of how little commercial demand there really is for this kind of work. I stick with it because I want to publish a book (coming next year!) and I don’t give money enough concern. I have deeper artistic motivations. If I was in it for the money, I would be a big shot advertising photographer instead of a notorious underground art monster.
Be able to separate what you do for love from what you do for money. Say yes to every gig and hustle work, and spend the money you make on shooting what you love. Eventually the 2 converge, and you spend more time shooting what you love, for money. But I shoot and hustle work all the time and a lot of it is basic photographer stuff – portraits, weddings, architecture, etc. I still keep 2 websites because no ad agency will risk offending a client. Also, people will be afraid of you. Doesn’t matter how nice you are. I kind of like it, but it’s another consequence to expect.
“The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.” – Wes Craven
Actual advice: watch every Horror movie you can, pay attention to what frightens you, read academic books on Horror and the psychology of fear, and shoot as much as you can, always careful to push yourself to your absolute best every time. Solve problems, but never cut corners.