Deep diving into conceptual photography: Raffealla Fernando on her 2021 celebrity calendar

Raffealla Fernando is one of Sri Lanka’s best known conceptual photographers on the international stage. An award-winning photographer, each year Fernando throws herself into conceptualising her favourite passion project – the Raffealla Fernando Celebrity Calendar (RFCC).

16 February saw Fernando launch the 2021 edition of the RFCC at The Kingsbury Colombo graced by many Sri Lankan celebrities. 

The Morning Brunch spoke with Fernando about the 2021 RFCC and to learn more about Fernando and her craft. 


Raffealla Fernando

Tell us about the 2021 RFCC. What was the concept behind it? 


We wanted to keep the common concept of “glamourous” throughout the calendar. Glamour was a key point. We featured 13 celebrities in this year’s calendar – Shanudrie Priyasad, Raween Kanishka, Madhavee Watsala Anthony, Shalani Tharaka, Nadeesha Hemamali, Samanalee Fonseka, Niranjani Shanmugaraja, Saranga Disasekara, Dinakshie Priyasad, Sachini Nipunsala, Randhir Witana, Sachini Ayendra, and Sangeetha Weeraratna. 

For this year’s calendar, we didn’t do a specific shoot for January. We had all the celebrities on one page with their masks on, dedicated to 2020 and 2021 and our new normal of wearing masks, and bringing that out in a conceptualised and fun way. 

The overall inspiration behind this calendar is very different from our other work. We put a lot of thought into it. We made our mood boards and style boards, and this year we decided to share our style board with the guests of our launch event. The inspiration was different for each and every celebrity and photoshoot. We did a lot of research into our celebrities, looking at if they could carry off the concept. It was a lot of work and development. 

I styled all 12 shoots, but we worked with a very interesting and talented team of designers who all did a fabulous job with each photoshoot. I had in-depth discussions with them once I developed the concepts and gave them some rough ideas about the designs they had to do and they did some fabulous work. 


You’ve been a photographer for over 12 years. How did you get into it? 


I started out as a designer. I’m a fashion graduate, but I’ve always been very interested in photography and art, even when I was schooling. I schooled at St. Bridget’s Convent and was in the Photography Society. We were usually asked to cover school events, but that was never my thing. I used to take portraits of my friends and they would tell me how amazing my portraits were, and getting such compliments was like an energy boost. At the time, I had no idea about lighting. I would use CDs and pieces of mirrors to manually get the light right. 

When I was working as a designer, I didn’t have any photographers capturing the style I like – something a bit dark that has a story and that was well conceptualised. I’ve always liked art with a story that was a bit dark. So I decided to try it out. This is now my 14th year as a designer and my 12th year as a photographer. 

I’ve always had this mad passion for art and photography. I used to study art and sculpture, and I was always working on different solo projects. I had my first solo exhibition at 14, and I’ve won lots of local and international awards as well. I had my first painting displayed in the Japanese Art Gallery at 15. 

As a photographer, one of my biggest moments was winning Best Fashion Photographer of the Year at the Fifth International Achievers Award 2017 in London. It was the first time ever that an Asian had won the award, and I won out of 310 other photographers. Another big moment was being ranked the eighth best photographer of the world at the BEFFTA Awards UK. I competed with 150 other photographers. I was also a finalist at the New York Fashion awards, and just being nominated was a big deal for me. 


Back to the RFCC, you’ve been shooting it for nine years. How different is it from the other work you do, and what would you say your biggest learning has been from the whole experience? 


It’s a very different experience from my other photoshoots. With my other work, I work for a client or a brand or an agency, so I have things limited. You can’t really go crazy with concepts because you have to find a way to follow and work for others. The calendar is something I do for myself, and I get to go crazy with my concepts. Like I said before, I love dark art and I love conceptualised photography, so my biggest learning is that it’s always fun working on the calendar.

I go all out with my calendar; we work a lot on the concepts, we start almost one year ahead, so we have a lot of time to properly develop the concepts. I’ve already started on the concepts and casting for 2022. Working with celebrities is not the same as working with models – you have to respect the fact they have their own image to maintain and what you do cannot affect their image and what their fans think of them. You have to think carefully about the outfits, the poses, the makeup, and all that. 

I love working with celebrities and models when we’re doing a concept shoot. You can get the celebrities to act it out for you and they get into character while shooting. It’s a very different experience from fashion. 


You had a team of 38 people working with you. What was that like? What were all the different roles that had to be fulfilled to make this calendar happen?


It was our biggest team ever this year, playing many roles. We had makeup stylists, hair stylists, nail artists, our celebrities, the designers, stylists, assistants, post directors and post-production artists, video crews and video assistants, colour graders, editors, art directors, and a lot more. We had about eight or nine people working in each department. All these job roles were involved in our shoots. I think that mostly in Sri Lanka we don’t see all of these job roles in most of our shoots, but to keep the cycle going, we need everyone to work together to make it a success, which was one reason why we had a larger team this year despite Covid-19 restrictions.  

Apart from the crew, I would also really like to speak about the event team who worked on the launch of the calendar. The team from Wide Vision and Soo Chai. We had a very interesting and talented creative director to plan out the event. We did something different and changed the exhibition space. The colour theme was white and he put his heart and soul and so much work into it. They did a lot of work for the event to make it a success, and I definitely need to mention them because the event is a part of the calendar. 


A calendar for 2021 inevitably sparks discussions about plans for 2021. What have you planned for yourself and Raffealla Fernando photography?


Last year, I had a lot of plans for myself and my teams; plans for foreign tours and international projects and a lot of other things, but sadly, Covid-19 happened. For this year, I thought my biggest plan would be just going with the flow. The calendar was an annual thing that we really had to do. Up until Christmas, we were at a stage where we were thinking “let’s not do the calendar”, but the celebrities and the team involved all wanted to do it. After nine years, it would simply have been a shame not to. 

For this year though, we’ve planned and thought, but we’ve not made any big plans because we don’t know what might come our way, but there will be a lot of interesting projects in the future for us in both photography and designing. I’m hoping to launch my own RTW (ready-to-wear) line. I’ve already been doing luxury and exclusive wear, and I’d planned to launch the RTW collection last year, but it had to be postponed because of Covid-19. 

I’ve got some interesting photography projects happening currently and I also have a cinema project on the way, which is very exciting, and, by God’s grace, if things get better, I have some international projects in the works that I’m very much looking forward to.  

My personal plans for myself include me and my loved ones just being healthy and safe from Covid-19, and, of course, we hope and pray the vaccine works.