by Mimi Norton/Lion Staff
A man hovers in the clouds; a woman’s torso has turned to purple smoke; and Shawn Dinwiddie sits in a shopping cart. By now, most Instagram-savvy Lovett high schoolers are familiar with junior Zelle Westfall’s photography account, @serenekween. Scrolling through, you might find it hard to believe that these striking portraits were taken by a seventeen-year-old student. With more than 8,000 followers, her photos, often surreal, have earned her a fan base extending far beyond these halls.
Her account features jaw-dropping pictures of people, mainly ones she takes in her at-home studio. Each photo strives to represent her subject’s aesthetic with a variety of color blocks and props in unconventional ways. For instance, in one of her photos, she painted an intricate galaxy on the side of her subjects’ face. In another photo, a girl is sitting, holding a sparkly wine glass to her lips, and wearing a knee-length leopard print fur coat with a large cat on her lap.
In one of my personal favorite photos of hers, the subject is holding up a disco ball, looking into it as they would a mirror, and the side of their face is covered in small, square mirrors as if they themselves are a disco ball.
Being a photographer myself, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat with Zelle about the inspiration behind these photographs. I began by asking her how she managed to turn this hobby of hers into a full-scale business, where she gets commissions almost every weekend.
Zelle told me that in Middle School, on a trip to the beach, she picked up her mom’s camera and took some “cliché, desktop-background-esque photos of sunsets and birds on the beach and things like that.” When Zelle showed her mom, she told her that if she wanted to be serious about photography, she had to get more creative. Evidently, she took that to heart.
Last summer, she had her first gallery show and she sold a few of her prints for the first time. This past December, however, she devoted more of her time to doing shoots with people, instead of making prints, because “no one wants to buy a print of a person they don’t know and put it in their house, haha,” she added.
“I’ve worked really hard, and with the money I’ve made from photo shoots, I’ve been able to buy all of my own equipment, pay for my own studio, and buy lenses for myself,” Zelle said. “I’m a working woman! And I’m proud of that,” she added.
She described a typical photoshoot: her friends/models/clients come over and get to be as over-the-top as they want. Often they use glitter, confetti, fur coats, lots of color. Zelle encourages them to “be dramatic! There’s no judgement, just whatever makes them feel fun and confident.”
I asked if people contact her, or if she reaches out to others, and she said it varies. Sometimes she’ll have an idea and know exactly who she wants for the image, but other times people will let her know they want to do a shoot and they’ll come with some ideas in mind.
Zelle has plenty of props in her studio, but sometimes people bring their own objects to represent themselves. “Usually, people might bring a guitar if they play, or cool shoes, or their favorite jacket, things like that,” she said, “It’s fun to play with their personalities and the items they bring.”
The shoots she enjoys most are when the subject gives her creative liberty. During these photo-shoots, she gets to meet them, “figure out their vibes, what aesthetic matches their energy, and build a whole style around their personality.”
She definitely loves the creative aspect the most. Recently, some arts and crafts suppliers have been sending her props to use. She photographs their products, sends the photos back to the company so they can use the photos for advertising, and in exchange, she gets to keep the props.
For instance, in one shoot, Zelle taped a dozen butterflies on a girl’s face and around her hair, and they looked so real. She later explained the butterflies were sent to her, so she used them in her photos and now has an entire drawer full of them.
I told her I did a double-take when I saw the photo with the butterflies, and Zelle responded, “I really enjoy photos that make people confused. A lot of my photos don’t make sense, and that’s kind of what I love about art - it doesn’t really need to make a lot of sense.” She added that if she finds a concept or color scheme that she loves, she’ll just go with it.
I asked her about her favorite shoot she’s ever done, and she said it was actually the very first time someone reached out to her and paid her. “She was this beautiful woman with this skin condition vitiligo on her legs and stomach, so there are patches of lighter skin in those places. She told me she’s always covered them up and worn pants, but after our photoshoot, she told me I was the first photographer who didn’t edit out those patches or cover them up. Then she thanked me for helping her to love herself,” Zelle said.
For Zelle, that’s the goal: “to show people how insanely beautiful people are.” she said. “That’s why I love my job, I get paid to do art with beautiful people. It’s amazing! People are so stunning.”
You can view Zelle’s photos on her VSCO account, at http://vsco.co/zellew/images/1.