We’ve featured the work of Bella Kotak numerous times in this magazine as well as in our various handbooks and on our social media. She shot the dreamy, silver-toned elven image for the cover of our spring 2018 Tolkien issue, did a lush Labyrinth-inspired shoot for our summer 2016 issue, and has supplied additional mistily gorgeous images that seemed to emerge straight from fairy tale and myth. Rarely, though, do we see the woman behind the lens. In our cover image and on these pages, Kotak turns the camera on herself, and the results are astonishing. We were curious to know more.
Enchanted Living: Can you talk about where you’re from and how you got into photography?
Bella Kotak: I’m currently living in England; however, I spent my formative years growing up in sun-kissed Kenya. I’ve always been attracted to the medium of photography. The art of tangibly catching a moment in time and immortalizing it forever has always fascinated me. I started pursuing this curiosity consciously around 2007. It was then that I discovered Photoshop and a group of photographers on Flickr that inspired me to start a self-portrait journey. That was my introduction to creative photography, and following that fascinating path led me to where I am now.
EL: What inspires you?
BK: I’ve often thought about what my inspiration is. It comes from a variety of sources: models that I connect with, locations that are rich with storytelling potential, flowers for the fragile strength and beauty they emit, fashion that’s rich in craftsmanship, stories, paintings, drawings, sculptures, where I am in my life … I could go on! I’m open to all that captures my interest, and when it comes to creating imagery I try and translate it into visual form. Ultimately, I think the vision comes from wanting to create something beautiful. To create pictures that romance and enchant people, whisking them away to another world. If I’ve made someone pause and push their worries away, if only for a moment, then that’s enough for me.
EL: What inspired these series of self-portraits?
BK: I’ve wanted to capture self-portraits for a while, but with the ease of shooting others it never was really a priority. I much prefer to be behind the camera than in front of it! During these Covid times, it was impossible to shoot others, and this created a perfect opportunity to turn the camera to myself. It was really interesting to put myself in the place of my models. I kept thinking about how my angles and expressions looked, and if I was looking at myself what would I correct. I’ve learned that for future self-portraits I should take a big mirror with me—that would solve a lot of angst!
It also helped a lot to have my husband here with me. He was incredibly supportive and motivated me to step outside my comfort zone. He assisted me a lot in capturing these, which was a huge help!
EL: The theme of this issue is “natural magic.” Do you have any thoughts about that?
BK: I don’t know if this is what you mean, but for me, I believe that magic exists in this world in various forms. It exists in the birth of new life, the light at the end of the day, the warmth of loved ones, the steadfast growth of spring blossoms in the cold air, and moments that are precious and all too fast and fleeting. That’s magic to me. Not everyone sees this everyday magic disguised as ordinary moments. To me that’s the most natural form of magic. It’s all around us and up to each of us to recognize it, embrace it, and be grateful for every moment of it.
EL: We’ve featured your work many times, including shoots inspired by Tolkien and Labyrinth. Can you talk about those and your love of fantasy generally?
BK: First, thank you so much for featuring my work and being such a wonderful supporter of my passion. Those series came about through our mutual connection, Ian Hencher, a friend and co-creator. He helped me set up the styling of those two stories, and I invited the team to the locations that I felt provided the best backdrop, and together we created moments in time that are my absolutely favorite memories. The fantasy genre has always been a place I could escape to ever since I was a child. The journey through the imagination, a place without limits and freedom, has always appealed to my nature. Bringing that feeling of wonder to life, and drawing others into my worlds I feel now is more than a passion—it’s a calling. In a world full of so much pain and sadness, these pockets of beauty, I hope, can bring a moment of peace and hope.
EL: Can you talk about representation?
BK: That’s something that I’ve only started to really understand the importance of. As a person of color it’s strange that I never really questioned my own preferences, unconscious biases, and social conditioning. There’s still so much to unlearn, but I’m on the journey. As a photographer, you are in control of the narrative that you share through your art. Whenever I come across portfolios where only one race or aesthetic is celebrated and portrayed, it can feel a little like being on the outside looking in. This is why representation is so important. It visually shows people of all colors that they are considered beautiful in the mainstream world and that they too can be the hero or main character of their own story. And equally as important, it shows everyone else that all kinds of people can be main characters too.
EL: How do you want your work to impact your audience? Has that goal shifted?
BK: I have been on a journey to consider the deeper impact of my work. I have a long way to go, but I can say that I now create with more intention. If my goal is to create imagery that captures the viewer’s interest and inspires them to step into my world for a moment, then I want them to feel accepted within it. It does not matter what skin color, race, or gender you are, you should know instantly that you are not only welcome in my little worlds but you are a part of them. I also want to challenge myself more, to create and bring to life bigger projects that I’ve been dreaming of for so long.
EL: And then: How do you, in your everyday life, stay enchanted?
BK: I go for walks, create playfully, and laugh a lot! Living in the countryside offers an abundance of beauty and calm. Imagining little worlds with fairies and the mysterious characters that live in the woods and at the bottom of my garden keeps me entertained for hours and connected to my inner child—who is still amazed that I can create a living playing dress-up with friends!
Model: Bella Kotak / @bellakotak
Photography: Pratik Naik / @solsticeretouch
Headpiece and dress: Lory Sun / @lorysunartistry
Retouching: Bella Kotak and Pratik Naik