Profile: Keren Dobia
The launch of Keren Dobia’s first solo exhibition last year capped off a meteoric rise for the Melbourne-based portrait photographer. She shares why creativity, in all its wonderful forms, is at the heart of her work.
They say home is where the heart is, and so too for most portrait photographers. The origin of what they do often seems to start in the exact same place. After all, the best photography comes from shooting what we love, and what more do we love than our own family?
So it is probably no surprise that professional portrait photographer Keren Dobia’s first exposure to photography came from a family member, and her first subjects were the people she lived with in her family home.
“When I was 14 my cousin came from France to live with us,” she remembers. “The thing that seemed to interest him at school was being in the darkroom. He’d bring these beautiful prints home. I found it fascinating.”
On discovering that her school also had a darkroom, she convinced her art teacher to show her the basics and quickly learned the fundamentals of chemicals and processing. Already she knew portraiture was what she liked shooting, and lucky for her, the subjects were everywhere.
“I started shooting lots of portraits, usually my friends and family”, she explains. “The results were pretty terrible!”
Painting, drawing, costuming and interior design were all equal loves by the time she finished secondary school. “Maybe it was my competitive side coming out, but I’d heard that fashion school was hard to get into,” she laughs. “So that was that.”
She enrolled in fashion school. Working towards a degree in fashion design would become her focus for the next two years.
However she soon realised something was missing. Although she loved fashion, she found herself enjoying the process of photographing the clothes much more than making them. Deciding to spend a year off before committing herself fully, she found a job in the most unlikely of places—photographing families with Father Christmas at the local mall.
“I had to dress up as an elf and everything!” She laughs. Fortuitously the owner of the photography business also ran the local mini-lab, so she was able to learn colour management and printing on the side. Three months after she started, the manager quit and before she did she showed her the basics of Photoshop.
Fast forward a year and with her grounding set, she now knew for certain what she wanted to do—a photography diploma at Melbourne Polytechnic, formally NMIT.
She graduated and worked as an assistant to wedding, food and lifestyle photographers, slowly building her reputation and name as a portrait specialist.
Finding a place
For many photographers, finding their niche is something they could spend a lifetime doing and it’s something she has become more aware of since becoming a lecturer at Melbourne Polytechnic and RMIT in the Photo imaging diploma courses at both institutions.
“Potential students ask me whether they should forge their own path or study,” she says. “My response is always in favour of studying face-to-face. It opens you up to areas of photography you might never have discovered. Having access to teachers who cover a broad range of photography in a non-judgmental environment and who give honest feedback is invaluable. In my nine years of teaching I don’t think any student I’ve ever talked to at the beginning of the course has continued on the same photographic path.”
For Dobia it was a little more clear cut. She says she always struggled to photograph static objects like products or landscapes. “Being a really social person I’ve always felt most comfortable shooting people,” she says.
Even now, she doesn’t shoot much candid work of her own either. “As a photographer I quickly realised I couldn’t just stand back and watch, I had to be involved in the whole creative process!”
But just like most photographers, her work has evolved. She says she started by looking for interesting people to shoot, and simply putting them on a plain background, but then found she loved styling both them and the set. She continues to get excited when rummaging in op shops or when picking up recycling by the side of the road with visions of how these treasures may be used in a shoot.
“But there was a turning point, my printing teacher said ‘you spend all this time decorating the subjects, what about putting them into context?’ It was my penny drop kind of moment. You don’t have to have a background that’s clean and studio-esque, you can shoot people in an environment, whether real or constructed, that can add to their story. This can create a sense of fusion where the background and subject become more harmonious and support each other.”
It’s been said the secret to great portraiture is when an image tells us something about our subject. Sometimes this is done best by showing little, and yet sometimes it works just as well by showing the viewer more—a lot more. Keren Dobia’s photographic style is very much the latter. Think of it as a sort of ‘Where’s Wally’ approach.
Describing her photography now, three words come to her mind. “More is more”, she laughs. Her images are cinematic, colourful and dramatic, and have also become increasingly complex.
“I love having my hands in many pies, and I love being able to draw on costuming, painting, drawing and post production. Even complex lighting – I love to challenge myself. Its the best way to stay relevant and push yourself to create stronger and better work.”
But complexity for complexity’s sake rarely works on its own, and the level of planning in the images is testament to having a strong vision. For a start, great photographs also come from being able to draw the viewer’s eye to a clear focal point in an image.
“I want people to get lost in my images, discover the hidden elements and stories when they get closer. I enjoy the idea of a viewer getting absorbed in my work and finding a personal connection to the people I photograph.”
Before anything is captured in camera there’s a ton of planning, initially with concept sketches to help develop a theme, but also to define what to include and exclude in the frame. The planning gives an indication of the gear and number of assistants that will be needed on set too.
But more importantly her focus is getting it right in camera. While she has exceptional post production skills, she feels an image that starts out perfectly lit, styled and considered always lends itself to better quality post production and polishing options.
Working collaboratively with the subject is very rewarding and ensures important aspects of their story are also included. The entire process from start to finish can take as long as two months for a single image.
After a number of years of hard graft and refinement of what she does, she now has the freedom to create her own self-commissioned work. And with this freedom has come considerable recognition.
Part of this recognition has developed from her involvement with the Australian Institute of Professional Photography, the AIPP, and it was through the institute that the seeds of her I AM exhibition series of portraits were sown.
“As a student I’d started as a volunteer for the AIPP, and had begun entering images into the AIPP awards. A few years on I was approached by a photographer called Joshua Holko who had seen my work and wanted me to shoot an Annie Leibowitz-inspired portrait of him. Holko is a specialist Arctic wildlife photographer. Dad and I worked together to build a set for a very dramatic environmental portrait that was lit and designed to look like it had been captured on location somewhere freezing cold in the Arctic.”
With the shoot under her belt, she realised that photographing fellow creatives left her inspired. She began seeking out people with a creative leaning who might want to be photographed for the series. It was her success in winning the 2017 Australian Professional Photographer of the Year with images from her I AM series that has also spurred her on to continue the body of work.
As in any small community, one subject would lead to another, and then another, and before she knew it she had photographed artists, a permaculturist, a taxidermist, a leather tanner, a filmmaker and more. Some 18 months later, the resulting images all reveal something unique about each subject and were the subject of her first exhibition, I AM, which opened last year.
For now, there’s no end to the series forecast yet, with more and more doors being opened with the creation of every image. Keren Dobia is just getting started. ❂
You can see more of Keren Dobia's work at kerendobia.com.au.