Copyright by Anders Petersen.
March 25th, 2014. Stockholm, Sweden.
I got up that morning feeling energetic and excited as ever, undoubtedly also with a slight sense of nervousness. I was actually going to meet him, one on one, at his lab in Gamla Stan, Stockholm. I could hardly believe it. Even though I have lived in Sweden for over 3,5 years I went over my Swedish grammar and vocabulary the day before in order not to make a fool of myself when speaking Swedish. It was a conscious choice. Even though it is an absolute privilege to hear him speak in English I thought that giving him the opportunity to express himself in Swedish would be best for both, I was sure of it. I had heard that he is suppose to be a warmhearted, kind and humble man with an unique and powerful character. You could say that I was looking forward meeting Anders Petersen (1944) that day.
I wasn’t disappointed and I left his lab 2,5 hours later with a smile on my face. I was grateful to have met such an inspiring person and felt that I had learned more about photography in those hours then I did the last 3 years all-together. If you ever get the chance to talk to him or attend one of his workshops than I would strongly suggest you do that. The actual interview was concluded in less than 45min, the remaining time was filled with talk about life, contemporary photography, his work, his interest in my work and the work of other photographers.
The reason for all this was that I needed to write an essay for my MA Photojournalism & Documentary Photography course at the London College of Communication. I chose to explain how Diane Arbus and Anders Petersen differ in their interpretation of post-war documentary photography. I have known Petersen’ work for about a year and this essay gave me the perfect opportunity to study his work and approach in photography more thoroughly. His work is admirable, it truly is, but I will let you be the judge of that yourself. After you read the interview pick up one of his books and let his words guide you through his images. Where they might seem difficult to process at first, you will find that his images truly reflect his personality and perception of life. It is a constant flow of feeling, emotion and questions.
Copyright by Anders Petersen
Interview with Anders Petersen conducted by Pascal Vossen on the 25th of March 2014. Stockholm, Sweden.
Christer Strömholm has been your first and most important influence. When looking at Strömholms’ photographs you won’t find any judgement or prejudice. The love and respect he had for people reflected in his photographs. What was it besides this love for people that inspired you the most about him?
There are many things. One of the most obvious things that meant so much for me was the combination of him as a photographer and man, there was no real difference. They were working together in a way. Him as a professional, as a photographer, as a teacher and a friend. He always took responsibility for everything he was doing. He was not the type of person that explained a lot, not that kind of teacher or tutor. By being there he showed us, the students at the ‘Fotoskolan’ in Stockholm, a way to be. Perhaps not the right way, but a kind of way. And I was very much inspired.
What I liked with him was the fact that he liked adventures. He liked people and he liked the discipline. He was a doer, he did something concrete. He was also a longing man, he was longing for tenderness, for love, belonging to something, to a group of people. I think that it is typical for photographers to be solitaires, they are quite lonely and a little bit shy. Sometimes some of them are using this shyness almost like a trampoline, jumping into life with a camera in their hand, as an excuse, as a key, to open up life and open up doors to other rooms. I think Christer was one of them. The camera in a way balanced the shyness and the fact that we all are a bit alone. it made life not so sharp, not so sticky and edgy.
You mentioned in an earlier interview that Diane Arbus was an inspiration to you. In what way were you inspired by her work?
Well, first of all she was a fantastic photographer! She was obsessed by being precise enough, in that sense also being general enough. Reaching many people being so precise, choosing while being so selective, when she was choosing. So the pictures were almost becoming self-portraits. I like that very much. And what is so fantastic with her is that almost every picture is posed, but this is not the feeling you get when you look at it. She asked the people if they could pose and they liked that. Because, probably, she was an attractive and likeable person. And she was extremely serious, extremely focussed at the same time. I think this combination made people like her and made it ok for them being photographed by her. I never met her and I never knew her, but she was probably a distinct personality with a distinct temperament. It must have been also a person with many demons.
Would you say that she would look at her subjects in a different way then you would do that? Especially in the last 10-12 years of her life?
Absolutely, I am looking in another way. I am more longing for togetherness and I am more looking for questions, not so much for the answers, but for questions concerning the people I am dealing with, I am sharing with. This is how I feel. I don’t know how other people feel about his, but I don’t feel I am stealing situations from the people I am shooting. I feel like I am kind of sharing my experiences with them. I am most of the time coming back, coming back with a situation, coming back with a picture to show them. This is how it was.
Is this part of the responsibility?
Yes, yes its a part of the responsibility, correct! Nowadays it is easy to send them a picture. It was difficult before. Nowadays I can scan the negatives and send it by email to them. Low resolutions and send it to them, so they can have it. If they want a re-print, they can call me and I will do it for them. Many are doing so, many are calling me and asking me for the picture. Yesterday someone called me from London. I photographed her in London during my residency in SOHO. She lost my number. Thus she went to ‘Photographers’ Gallery’ and they gave her my number. So she called me.
It is much nicer to communicate and be a part of something, sharing something. That way you are not feeling so lonely. Being a photographer is a privilege, if you use it that way. Remember, I have been photographing since 1966.
I am not really a photographer when I go and meet people, I am more a type. I am just Anders. I also take pictures and they know that, but most above all I am Anders. Thus I am not shooting from outside to the inside. I am shooting from the inside. There is a big difference, mentally.
Are you never afraid that when you grab your camera that you revert the situation and create a certain distance again?
No, I am not afraid of that. I am showing my camera as a part of me, but I am not always taking pictures. I am not shooting all the time, perhaps not at all. But I have the camera on me and I talk to them. I ask questions about them, so I learn something more. Photography can be very much a way of learning and if you are curious it’s a good thing to have this tool, the camera. it can be..you know..it can be.
Is it correct that you don’t have a certain narrative in mind when you work, but that you focus more on certain themes or subjects?
I sounds very egoistic and probably it is but I am mostly looking for myself. It is about the identifying process. I shoot what I can identify myself with in one way or another. It means the memory is very much alive when I shoot. It is open.
You know, I come from a bourgeois area, group of people. When I was seventeen/eighteen I felt that there were so many lies I had to deal with. I had difficulties with that. So I wanted to see if there was something more straight around the corner, something open minded and for me more understandable. This is also what I found in Hamburg and I am happy for that.
How did you manage to maintain such remarkable consistency in your work over the last 47 years? and was this a conscious decision?
I don’t know, but I am rather stupid to put it simple. I am also naive and in one way or another still innocent. This is not just what I am saying. I am probably that, even if I have experiences. This is good when you are out on the street, to be as innocent as possible, to have the eyes of a child. You know, to open up, to see everything for the first time in your life, even if you have seen it for 50 years. But to do so, even if you are my age, you have to focus, you have to discipline yourself and it is a kind of a meditative process. You have to sharpen yourself. This way you can also open up and go for it. You cannot just sit at the bottom of the pyramid and be rather safe and lovely with your whole family and everything there, a television set, a good wine, good food, being rather comfortable, with all your friends. Even if they are extremely, extremely important. You cannot shoot from that position really, not the real way. You have to peel it off, peel off the surface, be just thin, don’t be too comfortable. You know, this is me, it keeps me sharp, curious, alert and straight.
Photography it is not a very kind thing. It is not like that. It is more like Cartier Bresson said “you have to isolate the target when you are out shooting”. He was a hunter, you know, he knew! Even if this isn’t really my way of taking care of the shooting situation. But you have to be razor blade sharp if you want to go behind the surface. Don’t just applaud and think the surface is enough. Then you have to go behind! In order to do so your have to be sharp and strong. Or to put it in another way you have to be weak enough, yes, weak enough, not strong! You have to be weak enough to open up. Leave your brain and go for your heart and stomach, intuition! This is what I believe in and this is how I usually work if I am trying to put it into words. It is a feeling. Don’t think too much, because then it becomes very difficult.
This is so typical photographers. They do the same wrong thing again and again and again.They see something fantastic, something they really love, but they don’t dare. They go around, you see, like a cat around hot milk. They do not go straight on the lobster [claps his hands once], like that. Because they are scared and afraid of whatever they are afraid of. It is ok to be afraid, but it is not suppose to stop you! You are not supposed to be afraid of being afraid. When you feel something, go for it!
Are you never afraid of rejection?
No, I am never! Step by step I learned not to be afraid. I learned it in Hamburg. It is ok to be afraid, It is ok to get a no sometimes. You need to fail. Its ok to get a no. It is not a big thing and you just ask someone else. No one is dying, you know. You are not suppose to be the victim of the ‘Jante Law’ , standing there and saying excuse me for being a photographer, sorry, sorry. You have to be proud of yourself, you have to believe in yourself! You have to take your experiences and your emotions serious. Because if you look at it objectively you are very unique as a person, as a personality, but you have to understand it. Not just here [he point at his head], but here! [he points at his stomach]. It is easy to understand up here [points to head], but here [points to heart]. It is a question of training. You have to train it, train, train, making your mistakes, of course. But if you understand it in your heart, then you can do fantastic things. I am sure. It gives you so much strength, so many good vitamins. But here [points to his head] you are starting to manipulate, but here [points to his heart] it is more straight, it is more distinct and it is more giving you results, almost immediately. This means that if you have build yourself up this way, believing in your experience, your emotions and your knowledge that is forming your personality. I am talking about peeling off the pyramid and sharpening it, sharpening yourself. And it goes fast if you are trained in doing this. And you can go direct. You go direct into many groups of people and you present yourself. You are not suppose to whisper, but you are not suppose to shout. You can tell people what you are doing and then you can start asking questions and say that you are looking for pictures. Maybe then you follow the group or gang and then things start to happen. I have done it many times, over many years.
This is very inspiring because this way you learn. When you are safe you don’t learn so much. You have to give something in order to get something! You have to put yourself against the wall with not so much defence, just as you are, and it is good enough. this is when you have to believe that you are something, that you are unique, that you are special and that you can do masterpieces. But there is no masterpiece down at the bottom of the pyramid [he laughs]. You have to go up, I think.
Well, I don’t really think in masterpieces. I don’t believe in bad or good pictures. I believe in believable pictures!
Did you ever shoot color?
Yes, I did in order to earn some money. In the 70’s I did work for magazines (Paris Match,VE, Stern, Guardian etc) because I had to pay the rent. You couldn’t survive with black and white photography. But I got fed up with colour at the end of the 70’s, I was really tired of it. But during that time I shot black and white of course. During that time worked on and published the book ‘Gröna Lund’, the amusement park in Stockholm. Eventually I stopped with reportage work for magazines and wanted to do something that I had more of an emotional connection with. Thus I went to a prison and stayed there for 2,5-3 years. I didn’t sleep there, I couldn’t, but I slept outside the prison in my car. I had an old Volvo.
I remember that at 7 AM I would wake up and go into the prison. After a while the guards started to get friendly with me and invited me for coffee and sandwiches. I had breakfast that way [laughs].
I wasn’t so interested in understanding what it meant to be in a prison, what it meant socially. I wanted to know what ‘locked time’ meant for a human being around 20-30 years old, what ‘locked sexuality’ meant for them. It was horrible! When you are that old you are forming your life very much. To do that in a prison must be horrible, I know it is horrible.
Do you have any last words of advice for young photographers that want to commit themselves to what you once called private documentary photography?
A good advice is to accept the fact that you as a person are a member of a big family. It doesn’t matter from what tradition, culture or country you’re coming. We are all relatives and it is up to you to think like this. You have to be weak enough to open up for this special feeling that makes people come together. I want to make pictures that makes people feel good together, making them understand each other. Not isolating them! If you have this approach in photography it will help you a lot. Because it shows on the outside too, in your body language, in the way you take pictures. It helps you in the way that people say “welcome” to you, they open up doors for you, especially if you are open-minded and really believe in this. Not just up here [points to head] but here [points to heart]. And it doesn’t matter really where you are coming from. Maybe I am a bit romantic about this, but I think it is true.
if you are supposed to take pictures of the queen then you don’t take a portrait of her like she was a queen, just like she was your sister. That is the way to deal with photography. You do not separate, you bind together. You make people feel close to each other instead of the opposite. You make people feel good. Life is short and it is up to you to decide what you are doing with your life. I think that this is good for you as a photographer and for the people you photograph.
This is for sure a very romantic idea, but it is also a very important idea to believe in. When you are out in another country it is brothers and sisters you meet. We are not special people in that way. Even if you would meet a fascist, you always have to look for the little child of the person you are taking pictures off, peel the surface off, back to basics, be primitive! Most above all don’t be a photographer! even if you photograph all the time, do not be a photographer. To be a photographer you are not suppose to be a photographer. Photography is not about photography. Music is not about music. Writing is not about writing. It is about humanity, feeling.