Raised on a small farm in rural Alberta, Canada, photographer and digital artist Renée Robyn, was born into a family of artistic abundance. Little did she know, she was residing in a wondrous fairytale-like region that would serve as one of her greatest creative inspirations. Known for her unique digital alchemy and illusive cinematic aesthetic, Robyn approaches her work with fierce expression and vulnerability, leveraging striking subjects and daring photo manipulation to compose utopian atmospheres that represent a universe far beyond reality.
Describe yourself as Renée Robyn and describe yourself as Renée Robyn, the photographer and photoshop alchemist.
That’s a really good question. I’m not sure I’ve ever considered that before. I am grateful this is in writing because it gives me time to think. Renée Robyn is mostly a little tired these days, but then again, when I think back on the last 12 years, I suppose that’s always been a constant. Being an extrovert in an ongoing lockdown has been a practice in mental endurance. I recharge in big groups of people—shows, concerts, and live events. The more people the better. I have always been adaptable and normally, I can do alone time for a couple of months and hold myself together well. Going into 14 months of it, however, is requiring me to dig deeper than I expected and ironically, I think a lifetime of kink practice is helping me. Where I normally spend my energy in huge outward blasts, it’s been a practice of pulling it slowly within myself. I envy my introvert friends. Renée the photographer is a different beast. She’s hungry and constantly restless. The goals she has are always just out of reach and the more skills she learns, the bigger the mountains are that she wants to climb. She’s grateful, but also constantly uncomfortable.
Thinking about your own creative works or those of others, what is your definition of creativity?
I’ve never asked myself this question. It is just a state of being. I have never really questioned where it came from or why I do the things I do when it comes to creativity. There’s just this pressure in the middle of my back and at the back of my brain. It feels like I have to release the pressure valve periodically. The best way to do that is to do something creative. It doesn’t even matter what it is—filling in a coloring book, watching some videos on particle physics, gaming, or making images. There’s just this constant pressure in my body and the only way to lessen it is to do and learn things. I think creativity is a very personal experience and everyone uses that energy differently.
You have been photographing the intricacies of shibari for long while, including your magical mermaids. Talk to me about the general idea behind this specific rope series and what makes this concept unique from the others? What was your creative approach?
I’ve always loved shibari, I think it’s beautiful. There’s so much beautiful rope work in amazing locations around the world. I love consuming those images, but I don’t want to make them. I don’t want to shoot ropes on location, not yet anyway.
More than anything, I love watching people go within themselves, particularly with suspension sessions. I shoot everything against a white wall because I want to express what shibari feels like for the person in the ropes. What it looks like in their minds, the quiet, deep places within themselves that they go.
I have an affinity for photographing the pause in between, the exhale, when they release and let themselves go. Having a behind-the-scenes photographer on set really tells the full story, and I always try to have one with us. I try to capture a small slice of the experience while they capture the reality of the experience. The laughter, the loud exclamations of release when the ropes finally relax, or their bodies finally reach the ground again. The mermaids were just a mixing of themes, which is something I constantly chase with my work. I am always listening to music, and I have been collecting remixes since I was young. I approach image making the same way. I think about what would happen if I mix two unlikely things together. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, but sometimes it does.
Shibari, while an incredibly connective and sensual practice, is still seen as taboo in our culture and is often times, misunderstood. If your series were to start a conversation with someone who may be uncomfortable accepting something different, what would that conversation sound like? What message do you aspire to communicate with your images?
Shibari has frequently been photographed as a painful, sadistic practice. While that may be true for some people, anyone involved with the scene knows it is more than that. Yes, there’s an entire culture of people who enjoy the purple limbs, distorted body parts, and bruises. The sadist in me enjoys them too, but not in the photographs that I make. As I mentioned above, the behind-the-scenes photographers we bring on tell the story of the chaos behind the scenes. There are safety crews and usually the subject’s spouse, just out of frame. Everyone ready to leap at a signal from our model that they’re ready to come down, or that something needs to be adjusted. However, I want the shibari image I make to look like the deliberate, consensual, and respectful art that it is. I want to give viewers who have never seen it before, a glimpse into those quiet moments. The seconds where it is just themselves, the pressure, and their breath. Some of my favorites to photograph are self-riggers though. It truly is like watching a ballet. Because they are in control, they often can stay up for much longer, and while our safety teams are always just out of frame, the energy in the room makes for a completely different experience. Sometimes I wonder if self-riggers are wasted on stills, that maybe video would be more appropriate. It is inspiring having access to both worlds, and I hope to share my appreciation for it honestly to others.
Do you ever feel that you have to censor your creativity because you don’t want to offend anyone?
Fucking. Constantly. While I am completely comfortable offending people to a certain extent, there is a limit. I make a lot of my living in the commercial photography realm and sometimes there are boundaries to that. I have no doubt that I lose clients because of some of the images I share, but I’m okay with that. It just means they’re not really my kind of client anyway. Creativity for me, while it is constantly a release of inner pressure, it is also not how I truly express myself. When this became a full-time career, I had to make a splice in my brain. This is how I feed myself, and thus, there are limits as to where I am willing to go and still have it in the realm of public opinion.
Describe your photography journey. How did you get from being an aspiring photographer to creating the career of your dreams?
Well, I mean the short version of the story is that I was run over in a motorcycle accident. I was riding to work one morning, mistakes were made, and I wound up getting run over. I had been modeling for about 11 years at that point and I was supposed to be walking in Fashion Week in three weeks, but here I was in the ICU being told that I might not be keeping parts of me. Growing up on a farm, I had always been really strong and constantly active. I’ve never lost complete control of my body like that before. Prior, there was always a way to “muscle through” whatever the pain was. I had broken bones before, but never to that extent. I spent months learning how to walk again, but I also used that time to learn Photoshop better. I had been taking photos for a little while and I knew that my old life was going to be no more.
I had to learn new skills, so I applied every second of every day that I wasn’t in physiotherapy learning how to move my toes again to getting better at digital art. I couldn’t get to the world, so I had to bring the world to me.
What has been the biggest opposing force that you have encountered on your creative journey?
My own fucking head. It can be very frustrating sometimes. I have these moments of glorious clarity where I can see everything in perfect luminance and then I am plunged back into the fog. That life of loads of physical activity has resulted me in a few concussions over the years and the brain fog is totally real. On top of that, however, is the very real imposter syndrome. That kicked my ass properly for years, but thanks to therapy and constantly keeping an eye on it, I am less mentally crippled as a result. It took a lot of years and I get angry with myself for wasting so much time and energy on it. The antithesis is the Dunning-Krueger effect. You think you’re the hottest shit, but in reality, you’re just garbage. Somewhere in the middle though there is useful harmony, but I wasted a lot of time in those realms over the years. It was unnecessary, but I suppose the only way out of it was through.
In a previous interview you had mentioned being involved in the kink community for your entire adult life. When was your earliest exposure to the BDSM community? Can you describe a specific event or moment in time?
Through a weird series of circumstances, I was given the book Screw the Roses, Send me the Thorns (co-written by Phillip Miller and Molly Devon) when I was a teenager.
There’s a good chance I was too young for the book, but in a world where sex education was limited to how to put a condom on a banana and birthing videos, it was like learning how to breathe air for the first time. This book taught me about permissions, boundaries, communication, sexual identity—as best as there was in 1995 when the book was first published anyway.
While I realize it is a book about sadomasochism, there are so many fundamentals that my young, tiny brain had never even considered. This book really changed my life, and I think for the better. It allowed me to have an inner dialogue about what my sexual preferences might be, that there was more than just the idea that if you’re a girl you must only like boys, and if you’re a boy, you must only like girls. It gave me a framework of what “yes” and “no” really mean, which at that time, was not something that anyone really taught in schools or in life in general. It helped me to create safe places in my mind to explore what future me might be curious about. The Internet was in its infancy at this point, and there were many late nights where I found myself browsing obscure online forums, devouring different fetishes and kinks, learning why people were into them and what I thought was interesting or not. There was a lot of, “nope, that’s definitely not for me” but I was fascinated by people all the same. When I turned a legal age, I immediately searched out places in my local city that allowed for that kind of exploration. I found a community and more or less, a safe place to explore.
In what ways has your personal experiences within the BDSM community influenced your creative style and ability as a photographer?
I think it has always made me a little edgy, perhaps? I mean to people not involved in the SM scene it could look that way. To people within the scene, it probably looks quite tame though. I suppose I create “fetish lite” images. My personal aesthetic has always been influenced by shiny things like big heels, latex, leather, ball gags, tight lacing, and so on. I just love it. My early work especially, was an exploration of those visual styles. I wanted to bring that part of my brain out and into the world and put it on display, but I didn’t want to bring everything out. Most of that world has always been kept private because it’s for me, not for everyone else.
How do you ensure your models are feeling comfortable and confident in front of the camera?
I use a lot of different techniques. First, I ask if they have any body insecurities I should be aware of, so that I can work around them. Younger me was a dumb ass and I didn’t consider these things, but older me knows better now. Sometimes it’s something we can work around in posing, and other times it’s a quick tweak in Photoshop. I want them to look at these images and see the best version of themselves, and I work to make sure the models know this. I communicate clearly, I try my best to be considerate, and most importantly, I am patient. Typically, I am working with experienced models who know what they like and don’t like, but sometimes I get someone who has recently undergone some life changes and maybe they’re not feeling their best. So, we take our time and work through those challenges, one frame at a time. I shoot everything connected to the computer, so they can see each shot as they come up. For experienced models, this is great. For some people who have a more sensitive opinion of themselves, for whatever reason, we will work more slowly. We will get shots that they like, and then continue to build their confidence and work in a direction that makes them feel great.
While I am the photographer, it’s not really about me. Yes, I’m the director of a lot of these projects, but ultimately, I want the person in the images to feel amazing about being in that frame. I rarely consider how I feel about an image. The important thing is the concept and the team feeling fantastic about a series of shots.
If you could choose a theme song for this shibari series, what would it be and why?
I imagine it more like a playlist rather than one particular song. I could be a little stereotypical and say “If I Had a Heart” by Fever Ray, “Paradise Circus” by Massive Attack (Zeds Dead remix). They’re amazing songs, and I think they do kind of encapsulate the feeling I like to express, but there’s been so much great music since then too. I have a love for heavy metal, but I never play it on these sets because it never feels quite right. I could definitely add “Go Fuck Yourself” by Two Feet and “Dark Times” by the Weeknd though.
Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned? Please explain your answer.
I think it’s both. I think that most have the ability within them, and I think everyone can benefit from having it nurtured. For some people, there is no stopping them. Their creativity comes out with or without nurturing like a force of nature. For others, it is quieter, sometimes waiting to be discovered later in life. I love that about creativity. It’s just this weird little thing about humans. We have this desire to express and sometimes be witnessed with that expression. People are an odd thing.
Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you feel compelled to achieve in the future?
Probably? I don’t think about it too often though. I’d like to make a book, but I’m also fine if that never happens. I don’t have an illusion that I will change the world with the pixels I make and I am painfully aware that having a career in the arts is a luxury, even when it’s hard. While there is a part of me that is extremely goal-focused, I know better than to only reach for mountain peaks. More than anything, I want to continue to create with people who inspire me and enjoy the process.