Picture Perfect: Audrey Kelly

With help from her young daughter, the Derry-based photographer is expanding her portfolio from wedding portraits to award-winning digital art

How did it feel to win Digital Art Photographer of the Year at the 2016 Societies of Wedding & Portrait Photographers awards in London?

I remember being in total disbelief when I heard that one of the finalists, whom I was sure was going to win, was actually announced in third place. I recall turning to my husband, shocked and confused, just waiting for my name to be announced. When I came first, I was overwhelmed.

I was in a complete daze going up on stage to collect my award, and when I returned to my seat my husband – already on the phone to my daughter Chloe – handed the phone to me. I screamed, 'We won, pet!' Then I broke down in tears. I felt so proud that Chloe had helped in the achievement. I couldn't have done it without her.

What is the story behind the images entered, photographs of a young girl which have been digitally enhanced to show her floating in the air outside a window, or alone in an otherworldly landscape?

My daughter Chloe, now aged 12, started high school last year. In 2014, the year before, I created my first image of this series to symbolize her growing up, essentially. It caused a lot of differing views among family and friends. Some said it was haunting, some said it was angelic. I didn't mind what anyone else's views were, I knew what it said to me as her mum.

My little girl was growing up way too fast, maturing and starting a new chapter in her life. I remember other parents telling me that when your child enters into high school, in some way they drift from you. So I created a piece to put these emotions into play, to mark the end of an era in her life and mine.

That image won a prize last year at the Professional Photographers of Northern Ireland awards, so I decided to continued to create more work in the same vein, to continue to tell Chloe's story. She is on a journey, with many different paths to take. The concept of the series is about leaving behind the past and moving on to an uplifting, bright future. The sky is her limit.

Audrey Kelly PPRANI

Until now, you've worked primarily as a wedding photographer. Why move into digital art?

It was my very first time trying something different. I've always wanted to get into fine art photography, so I thought there was no better way than to create something close to me, reflecting something I was going through as a mum around that time.

How does your daughter feel about being the subject of the project?

At first she wasn't happy, but thankfully she has grinned and beared it, put up with my perfectionist ways as a photographer and played along, as she knows how much it means to me. I really began to love our days out shooting together, and Chloe has now gradually grew to appreciate that more. She feels happy that she's helped with me winning awards for my work.

She is also loving the fact that she's now semi-famous among my photography friends. Everyone knows Chloe and can't wait to see the next stage of her journey as represented in my work.

When did you first fall in love with photography?

My first encounter with photography was during the last year of my design degree in 2005. I fell in love with the moving image first and created a short movie for my final major using photograph frames and stop motion. I loved film but felt that the opportunities to develop a career in this industry in Northern Ireland were few and far between. I remember thinking I could still tell stories using the same principles through photography. My love for photography began then. I was excited for the new challenge and learning that it would bring.

Audrey Kelly PPRANI 2016

What was your first camera?

My first camera was a Nikon d80 and kit lens 18mm-135mm. I remember at that time it cost me around £1,000, which seemed a lot of money at the time for me as a student, but I knew it was an investment in my new career, so a must-buy. Now, seven years on, I have a kit and equipment worth approximately between £15-20,000, while still staying very loyal to Nikon.

Your type of digital art photography involves a lot of digital manipulation and image creation using Photoshop. Is Photoshop difficult to master?

If I'm honest, I never rated myself as a pro in that arena, but last year I spent time educating myself so that I could create what was in my head, and when I did discover what you can do within Photoshop, the possibilities became endless.

I love the fact that you can create more than just a photograph, adding different elements to bring that photograph to life. For me, it's a better way of storytelling. I love it. Digital manipulation can turn something basic into a piece of art.

What has photography given you in your life?

Ultimate satisfaction. It fixes all my needs. I'm naturally a creative person but also I love people, so photography lets me bring those two main qualities together to do something I utterly enjoy. It has provided security and has helped me to grow as a person.

Audrey Kelly SWPP Image

What have been the career highs and lows to date?

The highs are the first time a client sees their image, reducing them to tears on many occasions. My highest accolade is the SWPP award [winning image above]. The lows? Thankfully none so far, although I am very impatient. I know where I need to go, what to do and how to get there, but things naturally take time. I just get overexcited!

Just this week, you've also been recognized at the Wedding & Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) convention in Las Vegas. How did that come about?

WPPI is the daddy of photography competitions and photographers from all over the world compete there. I'm not sure how many photographs are entered into the competition, but it's certainly in the tens of thousands, so the chances of getting your photographs through to 'hang' at the convention is quite hard. I have my five out of five entries hanging, which is crazy to me.

One judge scored one of my pictures a perfect 100. It's my first time entering, and as a member of the WPPI, I think with a points system I have automatically gained my associate. It is a surreal feeling to know that judges who I hold in such high esteem rate my work. As my new digital art photography is quite different, I was initially scared to first put it out there to be judged, but I'm overwhelmed by the feedback it's getting, which excites me to produce more.

What are your plans for the future?

I have a written plan. In no particular order I hope to create employment, build on my brand, travel, become a speaker/educator, keep doing what I love, create, create, create, make people happy, expand and grow, and lastly, finish restoring my classic mini car.

Culture NI spoke with Audrey as part of Creativity Month 2016, a celebration of creativity and the creative industries in Northern Ireland. To view the full programme of events taking place throughout March visit www.creativityni.org/events. See more of Audrey's work at www.c2photographyanddesign.co.uk.

If you would like to be in with a chance of winning a year's worth of online photography classes enter our Engage Live Photography Training competition here.