In a modern world that so often seems manufactured, sterile, and endlessly complicated, the feral purity of the wilderness can become a seductive, even crucial, escape. For those who can't physically leave the concrete confines of modern life, Darby Lahger's esoteric self-portraits and mystical renderings of the Swedish wilderness will take you there.
The forested province of Dalarna has become not only Lahger's home and the focus of her photography, but her salvation from a chaotic existence in America. Before meeting her husband, Johan "Shamaatae" Lahger, founder of the black metal project Arckanum, in 2007, the soft-spoken and breathtakingly beautiful artist describes an early life filled with turmoil, abuse, and crippling symptoms stemming from—then undiagnosed—autism, exacerbated by her mother's struggle with schizophrenia.
"We never had a stable home," Lagher recounts. "We lived in cars or we would camp in the mountains. The schizophrenia did lead to my mom joining the Michigan Militia and she was a Christian fundamentalist so she believed that the end of the world was coming and we needed to prepare ourselves because Christ was coming back. It was quite mentally traumatizing for a child to be told that all this stuff is happening. So I was a terrified little girl and very confused."
On her good days, Lahger says, her mother was a painter and published poet, teaching her traditions passed down from her Ojibwe grandmother, like sweetgrass basket weaving and hide tanning. This ancestry was also the inspiration for the tattoos, based on early paintings of Ojibwe tattoos, which Lahger says are the subject of much curiosity.
"A lot of people ask about my facial tattoos," Lahger tells Creators. "I got them when I was about 16 or 17. They were the first tattoos that I got ever in my life. I was very 'fuck the government and fuck society,' and I really wanted to remove myself from that and remember these feelings that I stood for all my life… I wanted deep, enriched culture. I hungered for something different. So I grabbed a hold of that part of my ancestry."
"I've gotten hell for having tattoos on my face," she admits. "But it's life. I tend to forget that it's there. My priorities aren't really my looks anymore. My priorities are my kids and doing things that make me heal and feel better in life."
Lahger, who was nonverbal until the age of five, says because it's not always easy to express herself in words, she uses photography, music, video, and drawing as a vessel for her emotions. "I just want to want to create something that makes somebody, somewhere feel something. Just be able to say, 'Hey I feel this, can you feel it too?'"
Over the years, Lahger has used various camera models, Canon S95, Canon SX50 HS, and most recently, Canon 30D, to create her striking photographs. For her, though, it isn't about the equipment.
"A lot of people ask me what camera do I use and what film do I use, if I use it," Lahger explains. "I use whatever camera is in front of me. I say to people all the time that you don't need a fancy camera to take pictures… I guess because I'm not schooled I don't really think about the technical aspects of my photography. For me, I don't really consider myself a photographer. I just consider myself a storyteller."
Despite the scenes of these stories being almost always devoid of people, they remain undeniably emotive. Lahger, who is also known online by the names "Old Hag" and "Witch in the Woods," occasionally includes allusions to her and her husband's Gnostic spiritual practice, Thursatrú.
Her latest works, grim, pencil-drawn portraits, mark a transition in medium and content, sparked by sudden tragedy. In 2016, Lahger's younger sister was murdered. Just months later, her father died.
"I just completely stopped taking pictures… I just needed to step away and heal," Lahger remembers. "Everything got real in my life. You really have kind of a realist moment where you're like shit is heavy now. Then I realized I needed to process my feelings, my life, because I had such a long hard life. It's time for me to heal so I don't lay this baggage on my kids. I told myself life is short and I'm going to better myself every year. I want to explore new mediums and better myself, and not stagnate."
"I started this series as a way to express these emotions that are kind of locked inside me. Some of them reflect that abuse that endured. It gets a bit heavy at times because you start to really kind of go back there as you're trying to create these feelings. Because you're trying to show what it meant to you. The depth of that feeling. It can become quite intense, so then I have to start working on something else," Lahger explains.
On September 16 in New York, Lahger's latest works will be exhibited at Last Rites Gallery, in a two-person show with Jasmine Worth. See more of Lahger's work on Instagram, and follow Creators on Instagram to find your next favorite artist.