The dreamlike fairytales of Kirsty Mitchell

For Kirsty Mitchell, photography can be an escape hatch. “The basis of that was reality was awful and I needed to create something that allowed me to block everything out. In 2007, my life was at a bit of a crossroads. I’d been unwell and found myself becoming quite introverted. I picked up a camera and it became this voice for me when I couldn’t talk about what I was going through.”

When her mother Maureen was diagnosed with a brain tumour, the medium’s capacity for transformation helped her deal with the trauma of losing a parent. She began her project, Wonderland, in the summer of 2009, as a small project to help her make sense of her grief.

“The only way I could deal with it was [through] photography. It was this absolute rage that went through me and I threw myself into something obsessively. I started taking hundreds of photographs constantly, to lose myself in something other than what I was dealing with.”

Comprised of otherworldly images that can feel like fragments from a buried fairytale, Wonderland stitches together the imagery of dreams, illustration and fables to create “a more beautiful place than…reality.”

The intense colours and floral detail reflect Mitchell’s personal connection to the British natural landscape and the folkloric inspiration stems from her mother – an English teacher whose love for storytelling is echoed in the work. While the images are striking, they also carry a streak of melancholy that reminds the viewer that despite the bright colours, this is a response to death.

Mitchell is now raising funds on Kickstarter for the series to be made into a book – as it stands the project has raised over £250,000 from almost 1,800 backers. She has built up a serious online presence – first on Flickr, and now sharing her process with over 300,000 Facebook fans. “A lot of people ask me how to be famous – I find it an odd concept really because I didn’t do anything other than produce the work. People connect with them in very intense ways because of the emotional content in them and the story behind it.

“It’s attracted a far wider audience: people who have lost loved ones, people coming from fashion costume and styling and people who just like photography because there are all these elements to the series.” This intimacy is evident on her website, where she shares personal “diary entries”, about the images she releases, writing how and why she creates them and the emotions that propel her.

Mitchell worked in fashion design for a decade, learning under tutelage of Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen. Mitchell describes McQueen as “the epitome of the fashion/art crossover”, his theatricality and sense of drama leaving an indelible mark on her approach (she designs and produces all costumes and props herself).

Mitchell’s work is painstakingly constructed and entirely self-funded, with the project spanning six years of work. With make-up artists, lighting set-ups and even a videographer documenting her process, I ask her if a sense of spontaneity is lost among all the controlled staging?

“I think working in the landscape gives me that. I plan everything religiously, scouting the location weeks beforehand and all the costumes and props are months of work. But once you take that out into the landscape, particularly in this country where you’re at the mercy of English weather, you can’t prepare yourself for the way nature will interact with what you put before it. That’s something that I actually really love, and it breathes life into what I’m doing.

“A huge part of what drives me is being out in the wind and the rain and being able to feed off that. It’s a real adrenaline boost and I couldn’t get it any other way. The best way to describe it is it’s when you’re a kid and you’ve been out riding your bike all day. You come home exhausted, but you feel so alive.”

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