Nothing fuels Rhiannon Rostami’s magical, creative energy quite like their otherworldly imagination. Born in South Philadelphia, by way of Delaware, the photographer’s work presents a duality—reality and an unorthodox fantasy where physical existence often meets perception, the bizarre interweaves with unusual, and the mind roams freely.
“As I evolved as a person, so has my art. I’ve allowed myself to get more ‘dirty’ with my process and go against the rules that are put on photography,” they share. “When I think about how I used to shoot, I realize that I never really let myself get loose with my creative process. I was too busy trying to match up to what I saw other photographers who I looked up to doing.”
With each project, Rostami exhibits a remarkable ability to innovate, harmonize, and communicate a new visual language that often warps their subjects into an alternate universe of its own. Rostami’s early years were instrumental in shaping their interest in photography and fast forward to now, their work explores the unordinary. “The stuff I’m doing now feels more at home for me. It feels more fulfilling. There was only so much I could do with my previous art.”
Taking charge of their own personal narrative, the artist has turned their lens directly into a reflection of endless inspiration and ideas with a sense of storytelling. We chat with Rhiannon in regards to their evolution as a photographer, editing process, and navigating the space among other topics.
Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?
For sure! Hello! I’m Rhiannon Rostami, a hip and fun photographer born in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but mostly raised in Delaware. My parents aren’t together, so I spent most of my childhood and teenage years going back and forth with them, which actually taught me a lot about life.
The majority of my friends were in Philly and that is actually where I was introduced to the world of photography. Aside from joining Tumblr in 2011, I knew a lot of kids in the Philly area who would share the photos they took on Facebook. I still can’t tell you what drew me so hard to start taking photos. I think it was the fact that drawing never felt comforting to me, and more so a burden to do.
For those people encountering your images for the first time, how would you describe your photos and how they’ve seemingly evolved over the last several years?
I feel like the only adjective I can come up with when I try to describe my photos to people who haven’t seen them before is that they’re weird. There definitely is so much more to my photos than that though. I don’t think I’ve fully articulated to myself what is going on with them yet. I like to create images that make people question the creative process of them. I like to hear the “how’s” and the “why’s” when people see my photos.
I think that has definitely evolved over the years. My photos used to be cleanly shot and straight, and didn’t leave much question to them. As I evolved as a person, so has my art. I’ve allowed myself to get more “dirty” with my process and go against the rules that are put on photography.
My favorite part of taking photos has always been the editing process because to me that has always been the time when I make the photos really my photos. When I think about how I used to shoot, I realize that I never really let myself get loose with my creative process. I was too busy trying to match up to what I saw other photographers who I looked up to doing.
Can you talk about what processes you use to give your photographs their surrealist quality?
Phew, a lot of hours staring into a bright screen and hunch backing! I spend a lot of time in photoshop. I’ve spent the last 6-7 years using the program and feel pretty confident in it now to create surrealness in my images. There is still a lot to learn, but thank god for Youtube.
After hours on photoshop and finally getting an image to where I love it, I print out the photo, which adds texture to it. I’ve also discovered that with printing out photos, the printer mutes down the colors and blends any retouching I’ve done to the photo perfectly. The last step I do is just scan the photo back into my computer.
Do you ever see your photographs as looking to convey a message or do they lean towards the purely aesthetic?
When I first started shooting until around 2019, I definitely tried to convey messages on mental health, loving yourself, and coping with whatever I was going through in life, but over the last year or two, I’ve pulled away from that. During quarantine, I definitely went through a transformation, as did all of us, but especially creatively. By the end of 2019, I knew I needed to do something different with my work. I was so bored of what I was doing and putting out, and it wasn’t enjoyable anymore.
The stuff I’m doing now feels more at home for me. It feels more fulfilling. There was only so much I could do with my previous art. Now I feel like I have endless inspiration and ideas. Though, I do sometimes create art that has aspects of the old work I used to do. I don’t put that work out because it feels too vulnerable, and honestly, I’m afraid of how people will react, or NOT react to it, you know?
Can you talk us through some of your favorite projects that you recently worked on? What response did they get?
Ooh, I don’t know honestly! Every time I do a new project it always becomes my new favorite project LOL. I feel like with every new project I do or take on, I’m bettering myself as a photographer. I’m learning something new with every shoot, but I guess to keep my answer short I’m still in the process of working on a project I know will be my all-time favorite.
I don’t want to share too much detail on it because it’s going to be a year-long project, but it involves a lot of creatives and multiple shoots that I CANNOT wait to share :)!!!! I feel like I’m creating a little creative baby right now.
With that being said, how did you find and choose your subjects? What qualities about a person make you want to take their portrait?
With the big project that’s being put into the works right now, my creative partner and I are scouting out people who we feel fit the vibes (hehe corny sorry) of the project. By that, I mean like their essence, their fashion choice, what creativity they can provide that we can bounce off of as we work with them.
I feel like I see people every day and go “I need to take photos of them.” Especially people with strong faces lol. I love people with features that aren’t usually seen or sought after. I guess that’s a very editorial thing.
How clear an idea do you have of what the photograph will look like before you manipulate it?
This is funny because nine times outta ten, my photos come out completely different than I anticipated. Which is fine, and I think is the beauty of doing heavy editing, but sometimes shit doesn’t work out! I always have clear ideas, it’s just being able to create those ideas that’s the problem. I have a huge imagination and ideas are always coming to me, but sometimes they’re a bit too ambitious and I have to put fate into the hands of my photoshop abilities. With that, I can’t always do what I want and have to improvise.
As a non-binary photographer, can you expand on why it’s important for queer and non-binary photographers to document the world?
Hmmm…this is a hard question. I guess for me, I see past what our society is expecting of everyone? I’m not sure how to explain this. In terms of photography, and art in general, everyone has roles placed onto them, and as a non-binary artist, I get to say f-you to those rules. I think that helps me out creatively because I just have that thinking process already? So as a non-binary, my view on the world and less judgemental, and I think a lot more freely, which allows me to see more beauty in people and their choices aesthetically? Is that pretentious sounding? God, I don’t know!
What are some of your main references or points of inspiration at the moment?
Pinterest! Pinterest! Pinterest! Pinterest! Pinterest! Pinterest! Love her. Talked a lot of shit about her in high school because I was ride or die for Tumblr. Also, everyone thinks she’s a dead site, but for inspiration, Tumblr is still that girl! I really stopped getting inspiration from Instagram. I think it’s too much of a personal platform and it’s easy to get sucked into comparing yourself to others on there.
In terms of this year, what themes are you looking to explore or delve further into?
I’ve been looking at contrasting themes a lot. Like things that wouldn’t usually be placed with other things. Experimenting more with storytelling within my images, as well. I think people are more drawn to storytelling because it’s something they can put themselves into and it becomes a little more relatable. I’m really excited to share all the work I’m creating this year, I know it’s gonna be big, especially for all the people involved!
Elsewhere in photography, Carianne Older captures powerful portraits of women like SZA, Kali Uchis, and more.