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?”
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.
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.”
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.
Lead image shared with permission of Kelly Robitaille