“I can turn reality into something else when I photograph it,” says Finnish photographer Sari Soininen. “I can create alternative realities and dream worlds, and visualize anything I see in my mind. With my images, I want to get the viewer to look at the banality of life around us differently, because I feel that when we let go of our ordinary perception, we can start to see the world in ever more exciting—or terrifying—ways.”

Look closely at Soininen’s project Transcendent Country of the Mind, and you will begin to notice some mysterious visual patterns. To begin with, there are trees almost everywhere, leaves and gnarled branches twisting towards dark skies. Elsewhere, there are illuminated clouds and plumes of smoke, wateriness and shadowiness, creatures including birds, dogs and cats, and human faces obscured or without features. Occasionally, there are also watching animal eyes, closely cropped and piercing amidst the illusory sequence. Lastly, there are a number of reflections and windows that feel like portals.

“Dimension #5” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

But where are they leading us? Where is this strange place that feels like our world, but has gone awry? The answer to this question lies in a particular period of the photographer’s personal history.When she was in her mid-20s, Soininen had an LSD-induced psychotic episode. “I experimented with the drug in incredibly unhealthy amounts, and the psychosis not only had serious consequences on my life, but it also profoundly changed the way I perceive reality,” she says. A few years prior to this, Soininen had studied photography at the Lahti Institute of Design and Fine Arts in Finland, but the impulse to make photographic art had all but left her during this dark period, remaining absent until after the episode was over.

“Dimension #7” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

At that point, in fact, she found herself reaching for her camera with an entirely renewed curiosity. At first she was making self-portraits. “Taking them became a valuable way for me to deal with the trauma left in me by the psychosis,” she remembers. But after a while, she began to turn her attention outwards, to different moments and scenes that might help visualize something of the paranoia and warped perception she’d encountered. Concurrently, she enrolled in the MA at UWE Bristol to study photography again, and it’s here she developed this project.

“Dimension #26” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

Transcendent Country of the Mind takes us on a searing, hallucinogenic odyssey through the world as Soininin saw it during her psychotic episode. “It explores my encounters with alternative dimensions of reality and perceptions of otherworldly signs around us,” she explains. Among those signs and symbols she speaks of, the natural world, celestial imagery, and religious undertones are recurrent. Explaining more about this, Soininen says, “my psychosis was very religious, and it developed from parts of Christianity and Finnish paganism. In Finnish paganism and folklore, nature plays a big role, containing a lot of mystical power. I think this is why I have chosen to photograph trees and forests for this project, because it speaks about the experience of feeling the true power of nature during my psychosis.”

“Dimension #2” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

Meanwhile, she also began to include cloud imagery because the sky would look to her as if it was from the Bible’s revelation story—looming and tempestuous—and she believed some people could control the weather with their minds. And how about those fiercely watching eyes? “During my psychosis I felt like I was constantly being watched, like some people or strange creatures were watching my every move, controlled by the devil,” she explains. Soininen had never really been religious before, but believes that experiencing something that felt so transcendently supernatural led her there in order to find answers to these otherwise unexplainable happenings. “Even though some of the images represent physical objects that are related to religion, I wanted to play more with the feelings of experiencing faith, God, Satan and sanctity.”

“Dimension #12” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

In a clash of photographic techniques, Transcendent Country of the Mind moves between washy, dreamy images and hyper-focused moments of heavy flash. “I think the mix of different styles speaks about what a psychosis or an LSD trip may feel like,” Soininen says. “It can jump from being extremely intense and scary to a beautifully-balanced heaven. I literally felt and saw heaven and hell, and the feeling of them was completely different, so that is why I have chosen to use different techniques.” Sometimes, Soininen says, she can just photograph a moment or a subject as she finds it, because it already seems to her to have that otherworldly feeling she is looking for, while other times she experiments with effects including projectors and long shutter speeds to intensify the atmosphere as she shoots. She does very little in the way of editing or post-production though, preferring to capture everything at the time of shooting in pursuit of a more authentic experience.

“Dimension #13” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

Then, of course, there’s Soininen’s color palette—prismatic and awash with intense crimsons, radiant fuschias, vivid ultramarines. She creates these unearthly hues by using colour gels on hand-held flashes. “The way I use color in my images is pretty intuitive,” she says. “When I see something that catches my attention and I want to add a twist to it with a color gel, I choose one that represents the mood that I get from the moment or the subject.” That figures, because for most of us colors are innately linked to moods and feelings, aren’t they? How often have you associated red with passion or anger, for instance, blue with tranquillity or yellow with happiness?

“Dimension #35” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

For Soininen though, there’s an added dimension to this, because she’s also attempting to capture how she saw the world when hallucinating, which means sometimes colors in her pictures appear in places we might not expect them to be. “These colors reflect my way of seeing the world: sometimes the ones I have chosen might seem strange to other people, as they have not experienced what I have. The way my mind connects things and thoughts together is probably quite different to how a ‘normal’ person sees the world,” she says.

“I don’t see hallucinations or anything like that anymore, but I can still remember how I felt and what I saw during the psychosis and that is why I am still able to notice that world in my surroundings. I think with strong and vibrant colors I am able to reflect this perspective to the viewer.” And that’s what she does masterfully in this project—captures the emotional temperatures of things we haven’t seen and translates them back to us in an immersive way that we, in turn, can feel the essence of too. Everything from euphoria to sheer terror is full and felt here in a photographic way.

“Dimension #4” from the series “Transcendent Country of the Mind” © Sari Soininen

Soininen is now working on the photobook of Transcendent Country of the Mind, which will be released later this year with The Eriskay Connection. “The book will be an intense, full-bleed trip to another world,” she reveals, “and in the middle, there will be a long, stream-of-consciousness text describing what I felt and did during my psychosis.” Looking back to the very beginning of this work’s journey, she remembers she wasn’t ready to talk about her history with drugs in public, and photography gave her another way. “At first I did not understand the therapeutic value of the project, but once I finished it I realized how important it was for me to go back to my experience. Making this project sealed the healing process of the trauma for me.” And now, she says, the past does not define her anymore. In the end, the act of taking pictures is what set her free.