Introducing 1854’s Fast Track winners: Sari Soininen, Cassian Gray and Aart Verrips

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1854’s career accelerator for unsigned talent is back! Apply to 1854 Fast Track Vol. 2 to get in front of global brand directors, advertising agencies and industry figures at LE BOOK Europe this September.

1854’s FastTrack open call promotes unsigned talent in the commercial sphere. Here, we meet three of this year’s 18 winners: from shimmering desert cities to hallucinatory dream places, they explore worlds both real and imagined through the lens

Five years ago, 30-year-old Finnish photographer Sari Soininen had an LSD-induced psychotic episode. “I experimented with the drug in very unhealthy amounts, and the psychosis had serious consequences on my life. But it also profoundly changed the way I perceive reality,” she remembers. It also led her back to photography — something she hadn’t engaged with since graduating from the Lahti Institute of Design in 2014. Soininen was recently named a winner of 1854’s inaugural FastTrack initiative, launched earlier this year as an open-call for unsigned talent. A total of 18 photographers, deemed to represent some of the industry’s brightest emerging talent, were selected to have their work championed amongst talent representatives, advertising agencies and brands at LE BOOK Connections Europe and throughout 1854’s global network.

Dimension #4 - © Sari Soininen
Dimension #7 - © Sari Soininen

“I started to make self-portraits as a form of self-therapy,” Soininen continues, “and taking these became a valuable way for me to deal with the traumas left in me.” In 2019, she decided to get back into the medium, embarking on an MA at UWE Bristol. Her graduate project, Transcendent Country of the Mind, is inspired by the warped, otherworldly perception she encountered when she was ill. “With photography I can create these dream worlds, and turn reality into something else.”

Transcendent Country of the Mind takes us on a trippy, neon-hued odyssey through a land of twisting trees, euphoric skies and watching eyes. “My psychosis was very religious,” she says, explaining the symbols. “It took parts from Christianity and the naturalism of Finnish paganism, and during it the sky looked like it was from the Bible’s revelation story. I also felt like I was constantly being watched.” While human faces are obscured in her pictures, animal eyes are piercing and ever-present. All of her experimentation is done while shooting, and she uses a range of coloured gels and flashes, projectors and effects including long shutter speeds to enhance the atmosphere. She used the same process for her project Black Cat Kingdom a sci-fi style photo-story about a gang of black cats that surrounded her one afternoon near her home. “It felt like I had encountered a glitch in the Matrix,” she says, true to style. She is hoping to publish a book of Transcendent Country of the Mind later this year. 

Dimension #3 - © Sari Soininen

Elsewhere among this year’s roster of FastTrack winners, 23-year-old Cassian Gray recently completed a photography degree at Kingston School of Art. Working mostly in colour, because he prefers the richness of tones, Gray’s photography is inspired by his mother’s painting practice. “Her fine art portraiture seeps into the kind of photographic portraits I want to make,” he muses. “I try to achieve an image that’s visually compelling; subtle and soft, gentle, and honest. I hope to bring an intimacy to my images, which arises through the exchange I have with the person or place.”

His series With Sand and Fire arose through such an exchange. During a two-month stint working in Dubai, he shot street portraits of migrant workers in the desert city. “I spent days walking around, hearing their stories and feelings about this new land,” he says, “and the resulting project explores the many individuals who are brought together under the sun.” Later, in his series The Posties, he looked to London’s postal workers delivering mail throughout the pandemic. “There had been an extensive amount of coverage for NHS workers and other essential roles, and that’s when I began noticing the humble, iconic red posties as they moved on their rounds,” he recalls. “I suddenly realised and appreciated the integral role they play in society, and this made me want to create a photographic project about them, in an editorial style, hoping to shine a spotlight of appreciation.” And so he began hanging around the depot near his home and asking for portraits. 

With a style that bridges documentary, art and fashion, Gray says he is ultimately drawn to the “unseen”: “parts of society that are unrepresented, invisible, unconsidered, and often taken for granted. I use the camera as a tool to raise awareness.” 

Spaghetti Juntion - © Cassian Grey
Naomi - © Cassian Grey

Joining Soininen and Gray in our lineup of hotly-tipped talent, 24-year-old FastTrack winner Aart Verrips cites the world of fashion photography as the platform he needed to be both creative and political. Like Gray, Verrips also looks to make space for underrepresented subjects, collaborating mostly with people from his birthplace of Johannesburg, South Africa. “I love telling stories, and also coming back to the fact that Africans have often been painted in a bad light or misunderstood,” he says. “I want to show the whole world that Africa, and South Africa, can stand up next to any other country in the world in terms of creativity.” 

After growing up on a farm outside of Pretoria, Verrips worked as a pastry chef before finding his creative voice in photography. “I started out with my first fashion film for Oath (the brand now more widely known as Rich Mnisi) and then I started assisting some of my favourite photographers, one of those people being Kristen-Lee Moolman,” he says. Now, at just 28 years old, he has already channeled his vision into assignments for the likes of Adidas, Levi’s, Vogue and GQ.

In a kaleidoscope of jewel tones, Verrips’ images have a crisp and clean aesthetic, with a playful romanticism distilled by artful blurs, spontaneous choreography, and sculptural, printed backgrounds. Thus far, he’s worked predominantly in editorial fashion photography, but he’s seeing his style shift more towards highly-styled fashion portraiture of late. “I think that’s because I’m enjoying creating images that tell stories,” he says. Other than that, his ideas can come from anywhere: “I’m always looking for new inspiration in everyday life. From walking on the street, to looking for interesting locations or people to work with.”

Simone Roche x HM x Sunday Times - © Aart Verrips
Choe Andrea Welgemoed x Hunger Magazine - © Aart Verrips
Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London