For photographer Eli Wirija, the highest form of art evokes an emotion in the viewer without trying

The New York-based photographer toes the line between reality and fantasy in their surreal and striking portrait-based work.

1 February 2021
Reading Time
3 minute read

“There is so much beauty to appreciate as long as you open your eyes,” says Eli Wirija, on just one of the reasons they first picked up a camera. In a poetic interview reliving their upbringing in Jakarta, a move to New York and becoming a photographer with clients such as Nike, Atlantic Records and SSENSE, Eli tells It’s Nice That how they became the artist they are today. Speaking of their earliest memories in Jakarta, a place that “resembles a floating city in a small aquarium,” Eli recalls how “the large density of people in a small island makes it feel constantly alive.”

Sat in their room, they often daydreamed about making an exciting escape beyond the heavy rainfalls and honking cars of the nearby main road. At the age of 15, they became intrigued by photography – a means of capturing the fleeting present – and asked for a camera. Eventually, they got a used DSLR and rapidly learned all the technicalities of the machine (from lighting to composition) marking an impassioned love affair with the medium. A year later, Eli moved to America where they ended up attending art school specialising in graphic design. Some time later, they unearthed some information that would prove vital to their practice: “that my great grandfather was a renowned local photographer,” they explain. Having opened his own photo studio in the 60s, he would serve his community by recording wedding and family portraits, a trait the New York-based photographer now draws inspiration from.

Immortalising captivating moments through photography, Eli describes the medium as an extension of their “brain’s external hard drive.” They continue: “I am very forgetful so to be able to remember via photographs provides me with great pleasure.” Looking to document beautiful scenes which may otherwise go unnoticed, for Eli, these moments are similar to catching a firefly in one’s hands, applying the right pressure so the firefly has enough space to breathe while its beauty can be appreciated at the same time.


Eli Wirija: S295135-R2-E042 (Copyright © Eli Wirija, 2021)

When it comes to the style of Eli’s photography, they are drawn to the otherworldly, toeing the line between reality and fantasy in both a conceptual and visual way. With a boundless imagination, they like to daydream through different dreamscapes to inform the photography. In turn, there is a poignant element of surrealism in their work. As expected, experimentation is also key to their work; and there have been times when Eli has spoken through colour. Now however, they are more interested in a muted form of expression, preferring “the simple hoy of honest depiction” and cherishing the highest form of art as “one that evokes an emotion in the viewer without trying.”

With a list of enviable clients under their belt and having been featured in the likes of British Vogue, Vanity Fair and Refinery29 (just to name a few) Eli’s striking portfolio has a clear creative vision, and puts the subject’s intended emotion centre stage. It is their personal projects that really spark a creative flair in the photographer however, and a particular highlight is to be released later this month which Eli is particularly proud of. Sadly, it has to remain a secret for us but in their words, they “know it’s going to be amazing.”

Eli has a strong creative rhythm (which can also be pretty chaotic at times) going through cycles of intense outputs followed by a month of hibernation, where hanging out with friends, going for walks and watching movies takes precedent. When that magical creative sensation does hit however, they sit and scribble ideas down onto a notepad, notes that later become a loose outline of ideas and storylines. Then, mood boards come into play which make it possible to imagine the style, make up and model Eli wants to work with. “When the team is finalised,” they add on their creative process, “it’s just time to execute which is usually the easiest part. I reach a state of flow when I’m shooting, where nothing else exists.”

Later this year, Eli hopes to release their first photo book in summer 2021. The book is a compilation of their life spanning five years captured through a point and shoot camera. Taking the viewer on a tour of Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Mexico and the US, it gives an insight into Eli’s friends, part of the underground youth culture of New York amongst various street scenes they encounter, and beautifully photographed too.

GalleryEli Wirija (Copyright © Eli Wirija, 2021)










Louis Vuitton




Evodie 7195


Bryan LR

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Eli Wirija: Havana & Family (Copyright © Eli Wirija, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.

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