Nothing. Just a nice letter, telling me everything is fine.
That is nice too, a nice letter! My first question is related to the information, regarding City Diary, you may find on the website of your publisher Steidl, in the online bookshop. The word ‘imperfection’ there struck me. What does it mean to you?
Mirelle, I am not so much into reality, whatever that is, not so much for the surface, not for the commercial surface. I am not made for reality; it is over dramatized. Much more important is the longing for being close to each other, for dreams, or memories, or emotions, or nightmares… These are deciding our way of looking at reality. This is what I am looking for in my pictures. I am looking for that kind of inner reality, if you want. I am not so much into the perfect SQUARE. I am NOT looking for that. I am looking for what I can identify myself with.
This relates to, what you call, your experience with ‘the nature of humanity’. Is that correct?
Yes, back to basic, primitive. I don’t really want to use my brains when I’m shooting images. I prefer to be intuitive, and shoot with my heart, or my belly, as much as possible. I think the brain is just in the way.
You shoot images with the guts?
Yes, do you understand that word ‘GUTS’, the stomach…. Yes?
MT: Yes, I do, down there, visceral feelings. And why are these ‘guts’ experiences always documented in black and white?
Because I am a lazy type… I started in black and white, which for me, actually, has more colours then a colour picture. Because you add your own experiences and your own memory. Which is a memory in colour. You add that to the black and white pictures, which means, you’re not directing your colours. Which means also, there are more colours in a black and white picture, because it differs from person to person. It is just my lazy way.
I looked at Amazon.com and got a little confused, because the following is announced: ‘City Diary is the beginning of an open-ended book series, commencing with 3 volumes in October 2009, which will be added to periodically.’ And I see a purple hard cover. While ordering the book from Steidl, I received three large cover soft booklets in a carton envelop. How, or to what extent do these publications relate to each other, I mean, the purple hardcover edition and the three stapled brochures with a clothcovered spine, housed in a sleeve?
That is not correct. The publication was supposed to come out in 2009. It’s then that I brought my pictures. But Steidl has many, many, many photographers who want to publish books. So they were putting my publication on hold, probably, and that is why it is coming out now, in 2012.
So it was an early announcement and the book changed in the production process, got a different form of presentation and cover, eventually? How did that change in the process take place?
Exactly. We were not ready. Greg [Greger Ulf Nilsson] and me, mostly Greg, had an idea to make a series of around nine books. The books were supposed to show the way I am taking pictures. Because I am using my camera as a diary. Just adding picture to picture, to picture… all the time. We talked about it. After these three books, perhaps, will come out one book. After that two books and after that three books more. I don’t know, we will see… But it is an ongoing project.
But why this book-technical decision: three volumes that almost look like magazines?
Book-technical (…)? This is just a way to show…This is one of the ways, to show what you are doing. That’s the only thing it is.
Why do you think your work has such a strong impact on a younger generation? It’s a rhetorical question, but stil,l I like you to say it.
Mirelle, I don’t understand that really. I don’t understand the question really. I don’t understand why a younger generation likes me. I don’t understand why. I mean, I am not making pictures just for a younger generation, mostly just for myself and the people I take pictures from. That’s all. Perhaps they can recognize something. They can connect their own identity to these pictures. These pictures are no ‘brain pictures’, they are ‘back to basic’.
But have you had comments from young people. What do they say?
Oh yes… Jesus! I always have workshops. It makes me feel good to look at what other people are doing. I can see how their work develops. I can very much connect myself with that. I think that kind of sharing is very important. For me it is ABC. After one or two years at the Photography school in [Estrama] I started to teach, to earn some money. At the same time I was at Cafe Lehmitz in Hamburg, by the way. It was fun to see what other people were doing. I liked it very much, I still like it. I always look at pictures!
Do you feel affiliated with J.H. Engstrom?
Of couse, because, Jan has been my assistant in 1994, 1995, 1996. I met him two days ago. We had some beers and were talking about his latest project. I always see his pictures. And he is looking at my pictures.
Tell me about the pairing of the photographs, the sequencing, and why THREE volumes?
Sequencing..? I don’t follow you there.
‘Sequencing’ means one picture following the other; how you built a narrative in the book
Ah, you mean the connection? You know, I am more interested in questions, then in answers… That is also my platform in selecting images. More and more questions. I am not looking for the obvious things. Well, I look for myself in the combinations. That’s all I can say. I don’t want to give any answers. There are not so many answers really. But I love the questions, I love the free way of associating pictures with your own life experiences in different situations. I like that. When I teach, and see that approach by other photographers, I love it.
It’s a way of connecting. .. through the narrative of the book.
Absolutely…Yes, yes it is.
So how do you work? Just tell me HOW you do it. You sit there with your images. You’re at Steidl or at home?
I am in my darkroom… Yes. You see, I make these small repros on paper [showing me in front of the webcam small images, cut outs on paper, approximately 10x15cm]. I have these small pictures and put them together. And then I end up making different combinations. This is the way I do it. On my work table, and on my wall, here behind me.
That’s where it all takes shape.
In one of the reviews on City Diary, I read several images in City Diary have already been published in other Petersen books, I read. And they say: ‘the printing is better’, ‘large size, bleeding images’, ‘printed on matt paper’. Those are quit some decisions that were taken.
Yes, there is a book called Frenchkiss (2008). There is a book called Sete (2008). I was artist in residence at Groningen Noorderlicht, together with Antoine d’Agata, Kent Klich. Some pictures are from that AiR. Some pictures are from Sete, and Gap, and Saint Etienne, and Utrecht, and Paris and Rome. For sure, I have used some of the pictures in other contexts. I like that. I like to go back. And to combine them with new pictures. In this City Diary there are pictures of five, six years old, combined with quit new ones. And there is a new kind of expression, because of that.
Like making connections between the present and the past?
Yes, exactly, yes….exactly, it’s a red line.
Why are… maybe once again a question that has no answer… Why are your books some of the most collectible by a living photographer? Some people say it is the ‘vital photography’, and ‘Petersen is the real thing’.
Mirelle, I don’t know why. I don’t understand that, no. I don’t know where they got that from… I have no idea. But they are very much sold out. Perhaps that’s why.
Yes, then they become rare, and a higher market value, prices are going up….Then they are collectable
Yes, it is big business. Not for me, but for other people…the collectors.!
You make some money on the books?
Oh, no, no, no… HAHAHA!… The opposite. The opposite; I don’t calculate that way. But I do sell pictures. That’s right. Probably because of my books in the bookstores. People see my books, and perhaps they see my prints in an exhibition. They call me, and want to buy a picture. That’s perhaps one of the ways.
I think it is about the pictures in your books, the ‘vital photography’, life the way it is, the real stuff.
But it is about many ways. You cannot say these pictures are ‘true’, and other pictures are ‘lies’. It’s all about the temperament, the personality. You know how it is…It is all subjective. There is no TRUE truth…People are talking about ‘bad’ and ‘good’ pictures, I don’t really believe those exist. I think you should talk about ‘believable’ or ‘un believable’ pictures. Believable pictures you have to feel, to smell, to taste the temperament of the photographer behind the picture. And IF you do that, IF you feel that, one way or the other, then it’s getting more and more believable. And then it is, of course, a kind of ‘GOOD’ picture. GOOD work.
Because it is touching you on an emotional level. And you look at pictures with your senses?
Yes, EXACTLY!! That is very correct, Yeah. YOU LOOK WITH YOUR SENSES. That’s good…
We talked about some of the cities photographed, Rome and Utrecht. There is also Tokyo, Stockholm…So….
Yes, and Okinawa…
OKINAWA! That’s in Japan. South of the main island. Okinawa has a tragic history, because the Americans came during the Second World War. The local population died during the battle of Okinawa. Many people were killed.
I understand you went there during travels from 2004 till 2010. Why did you go there? What was your intention?
The first time I went to Okinawa was in 2000. I went there because I was invited for, what you could call, an artist in residence. They have something in Japan they call: EUROPEAN EYES ON JAPAN. So, they invited some photographers from Europe. You earn some money. They pay the trip. Then you can work, unlimited, for three weeks. In one of the prefectures of Japan. And Japan has 48 different prefectures. By now, this long term project is almost finished. As soon as it is finished the organizers will bring out and publish a big book about ‘European Eyes on Japan’. It will be interesting, a lot of nice photographers are involved.This is for photographers like me a way to make a living today. That they have these kind of residences….You also have them in Europe, in the United States. Not in the Scandinavian countries.
So, in the realm of such a visit you make picture stories of people’s lives?
Yes, yes, Ja, ja….Yes, I’m very lucky, and very privileged. You know, by having a camera, you’re getting invited by people. They open up so many doors for you. It would never be possible for me to enter a mental hospital without a camera. Or a prison without a camera. It is due to the camera I can go there. And it is due to the camera I get to know such very interesting, such fantastic people. And if you’re curious, I mean, you need to be motivated, If you’re really curious, this camera is a fantastic thing, a tool that opens up doors for you.
It’s a vehicle….
YAOO…! It is, it is! You can say so.
So where did you end up, let’s say in Utrecht?
In Utrecht?… I went around there.
Why did you go there?
I went there because Ipe, one of my friends, advised me to go there. I met people, had a good time. It was very bad weather… very nice people.
But how does it work, I am very curious. How do you MEET people, and have a good time? How does it work. HOW DO YOU DO THAT?
I meet them in the street. I present myself. I ask them whether I can take a picture. It is very simple, back to basic again. I’m telling them what I want to do with the picture. Perhaps I would like to have an exhibition. I am talking more and more about their lives. I am asking a lot of questions about themselves. After a while I take more pictures. Perhaps we go to a bar, we take a glass, and I take more pictures and after that perhaps they invite me at home … and we are making dinner together and I take some more pictures. Something like that.
This all takes place in one night? Within 24 hours?
Yes, one night. And then I come back, three days, later… This is what I am doing very often here in Stockholm, because I live here. It is easier.
And in Saint-Petersburg, why were you there?
Where..? I was in the streets..?! OH, WHY? Because I was curious! I like to travel and am curious to meet people, see how they are… Also having a good time with people.
But how do you get engaged really? It’s a kind of marginal world, you get involved in. Don’t you think so?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think they are special people. You don’t have to go to special places to find people. They are not so marginal as you think. Every human being, every person, is somehow a bit of a ‘marginal person’. I think so, really! I see people from all kind of different social classes. They are among us, they are half a meter away from you. It depends what kind of glasses you want to put on. What you want to see…You don’t have to go to special places, not at all. They are here. I am not looking for special people. I am just looking for people that I can identify with. Perhaps you can connect that to the kind of longings and dreams, and memories and nightmares we were talking about earlier… So when I see that connection in the eyes and in the body language of someone. I go to the person and talk to the person. In this way we have contact. I am starting to make pictures. Yes.
Talking about the word ‘identify’. You say, you have a strong, if not total, identification with the people you photograph….
Not TOTAL, not total….
A strong identification. You ‘feel’ the pictures. Because of somebody else in my personal environment, I was struck by a similar personal structure…. I don’t want to suggest anything, nor offend you, but there is an identity disorder which is officially termed Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), expressing itself in at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities or dissociated personality states that alternately control a person’s behavior. YOU ARE ABSORBED by the identity of the other. Which means you do not impose YOUR identy onto the other, that’s why the other is opening up so much… for you.
I think, Mirelle, we all have, both of us have, many identities. People have many identities. We are not THAT ONE, or THAT ONE. We are many people in one body. It depends very much on the situation and the people we meet of course. And what country we are in.
People with a strong ego and a strong feeling of ‘SELF’ are not identifying so easily with others. They do not meet so easily with the other. If you are open-hearted, open-minded, curious, and there is not an EGOISTiC self standing in the way, people open up… they show more. Is that the case?
I don’t know. Perhaps it is, yes… I think being a little bit stupid, a little bit childish, not a little bit, a lot probably, being childish, being stupid, being confused. All these things I am. I am quit stupid. I think that is very good. If you are looking for ways to express yourself visually, for taking pictures. And innocent. So you see the street, where you are living, you see people almost as if it is for the first time in your life. Even if you have seen it all for twenty years. And it does not go by itself, you have to fight for it, of course. To fight, not to be in a box. Fight to be open, to understand how important that is. Being open-minded. To have soft eyes, not hard eyes. To be SOFT, like a mushroom. You know: taking in, things, when you are out walking. And being stupid…That is very GOOD…. NOT USING your BRAIN. Many times I think photographers are using their brains too much. And it is never so successful. Because photographs, images, they are much more concerned about emotions, rather than the brain. In order to tell a story, you have to understand it is not about the brain, the mind. It’s about the expression your pictures have. It has to be OPEN…But I’m getting very expressive now. Do you understand?
Yes. I was thinking about a meditative state of mind, consciousness. A kind of awareness that has nothing to do with thinking and thoughts… but with experiencing in the body, with the senses. Then you are open minded. Then you kind of experience the world as new, every moment you are out there.
Almost like that, yeah. Good.
Still I think it is because of this ‘identification’ that people define your work as a ‘personal journal’. You being a ‘diary photographer’. Cafe Lehmitz as a’family-album’ of a bar visit in the outskirts of Hamburg. What explanation do you have for the URGE to take on yourself the, in most cases, dark identities of others: prostitutes, drifters, alcoholics, drug abusers, criminal loners, homosexuals, psychiatric patients?
For me this is not the dark side of humanity. it is more about my way of identifying with the people I meet. On the other hand, I always felt a little bit outside the established society. And rules, and these kind of things. Perhaps there is a connection, with my personality. Of course there is. It is not a big deal really.My best moments in life have been when I was seventeen years old, I met people in Hamburg. We were a group of people coming from all over Europe, from The Netherlands, England, France, Italy. Only one person from Finland, and me from Sweden. We were meeting in Hamburg. We were not the best children of God. We were staying there close to Sankt Pauli, in the Altona district, at Grosse Freiheit and Reeperbahn. Having a wonderful time together. These people I met taught me many things about life. I went away, left Hamburg when I was 18, after staying for half a year, without taking any pictures. Just painting and writing, as I did at that time. Then I went home, doing many things, or not doing many things. Doing too many things… Then I started a photography programme at an art academy. I had to start making pictures. I went down to Hamburg, back to my friends to make pictures from our lives, because it was a beautiful life. And I had learned so much. When I came there they were all dead. It was horrible, they were all dead, they told me… and they were. Almost all of them. For me it was easy to stay there. Try to look up, find the things I was longing for: the kind of people that I had met. Five years before… This is the way I came in Cafe Lehmitz, a beer hall in Hamburg. Where I met people, who had almost the same kind of atmosphere. That’s where I started to take pictures, in cafe Lehmitz.
That is a beautiful insight. Thank you. Still, I am looking for this ‘connection’. You’re NOT completely puzzled, nor confused by, let’s say, the mystery of what you see and encounter in society, but I think you are able to accept, to connect and coincide with the people you meet, without stigmatization, no pity, no judgment. In doing so, you become ONE with them. That’s why people show up, they open up for you…
It is also a question of what you are giving, you are getting back. It is very simple. Back to basics. It is all very primitive. You know, it is also important to understand the simple fact that we are related to each other. It doesn’t matter where we are coming from, we are one big family. It does not matter if we come from The Netherlands, Japan, or Sweden, we have the same kind of longings. The same kind of wounds. The same kind of collective memory. When I meet people, sometimes, they can identify themselves with me, as I can with them. And then you have suddenly a magic situation. Yeah, it is magic. You feel, there is a fever in there…
Now I am going to ask, maybe, the most personal question. And, maybe, you consider this question offensive. If so, you may just leave it as a question, I will understand. I see so many interesting and half dressed, or fully naked, women in your pictures. Telling me: OH, yes, that is how we really are, how we look, how we are shaped, how we act, in a natural way. And that is very beautiful to see. Because the representation of women, in general, is very polished nowadays, it’s an artificial image, a role playing game. I was asking myself: Did you go to bed with all these women, are they opening up only for the camera? They are (partly) undressed. Are you married, do you have children? How does this work?
It works like this. Some of the women I went to bed with. Not all of them. Nowadays I have a girlfriend that I’m staying with. It is fantastic. Nowadays I try not to go so far. I try to stay a little bit outside. I try not to have my both feet in the situation. One foot outside. One foot inside. And trying to find a balance between them. Because it is typical for me to loose myself in a situation and just disapear in the situation. Then I forget to make pictures, to shoot. If you have a relationship, it is not good to go around with women a lot. It is not what I want. Nowadays I stay more at a distance, cool. But on the other hand I loose myself in different ways.
That’s more or less what I meant with, it is just a term, I know: Dissociative Identity Disorder. But it has to do with that identity thing. That is as such described: People with DID are completely involved in the situation. The identity you have at home, the responsibility and everything that goes with it, is not there anymore… A different way of being, forever encapsulated in the moment and fully magnetized by the people you encounter…It is interesting, but also scary…
Most of all it is interesting. It also means you have a lot of responsibility.
Do you feel that?
Absolutely. I feel it while working, I feel it throughout my life. As a photographer you have a lot of responsibility, towards the people you take pictures of. You have to take care of that very much…You have to be very honest, very straight, absolutely.
MT: When does a work day start? What does it look like, during working hours?
A work day? when I am out?I was now in Reggiomillia. The earthquake area in Italy. I start the day, go out at 7.00 AM. I stay in a hotel. Start taking pictures around 7.00AM. because at that hour, people are very open minded. They don’t have any ‘surface’ yet, not yet. They are still in a sleep mode. Not really, but almost. They don’t have yet that hard daily mask on. It’s a very lovely moment; to be close to people in the morning. I love that. Then I go back to the hotel. OH No, no, no… I try to find a cafe. That’s what I do, when I am making pictures in a town, a city. Yes, I try to find a cafe where I go every morning. So the people get to know me. Because always the same people go there. So I will be among them and make pictures. Around 10.00AM, before it is too late, I go back to the hotel and take the breakfast. Afterwards, I go out again. I take pictures, I shoot, and then I go down to the hotel around 14.00PM, 15.00PM and take a ‘power nap’, of one hour. Take a shower, and go out again. I shoot, have diner with people, and we will see what happens. And THEN, thanks to the power nap, I am able to be out till 1.00AM or 2.00AM…It is important, the time I have at my disposal during these hours of the day. You’re really getting something out of it. It is good…..
Where do you go out in Reggiomillia?
Modena, Capri, I go to different places. I have a car. A guy was an interpreter, translating for me. I went to a dancing club for old people. I am not trying to make sentimental pictures, of sadness, or something like that. But find the fighting spirit among the people. The love and the fighting spirit. This is what I work with.
And food. Places where people have been eating and drinking. And still lives of food….
Yes, true, true…It’s important.
Let’s look at the pictures on the covers of the three volumes City Diary #1, #2, #3. Maybe just a short answer. What do we see on these covers?
There is a child on #1? It is a poster. This is the young guy going out into the world. Looking for life and adventures. And looking for answers to many questions. Hmmm.
Is that the woman?
No, it is the one with the cakes and …the teapot.
Oh, yeah..cakes…There are many cakes in life….[Both laughing]. Ok, you see what I mean. The last one is the woman, yes. What I like about that picture is: she is so very raw, sensual, almost brutal in her sensuality. And I like that very much.
The three volumes, books with flaps, have a grainy vintage look, a retro-look – triggering the hard disc of our collective visual memory – blending the styles of Ed van der Elsken (Love on the Left Bank, 1956), Johan van der Keuken (Paris Mortel, 1963)… also having that brutal rough edge… Daido Moriyama, Araki, Boris MIkhailov. Are you affiliated with their work?
Ed van der Elsken like? Did you say that? Oh, yes….More Daido Moriyama, then Araki. Of course, they belong to the family tree. Most of all, the branch starts with Christer Stromholm. And then, you’re right, with Ed van der Elsken. Especially Love on the Left Bank (1956), but also Sweet Life (1966). Love on the Left Bank is probably one of the most influential books for me… If you look at this book, it is almost like a photo school in itself….. There you see different ways of using light, different ways of shooting. Really, so many different ways… So many different kinds of lights: the sunlight, the wet light, the moon light, the morning light, the mirror light, the bar light of course. I really love this book. Then after that you also have to mention Lisette Model. You have to mention Weegee, You have to mention Diane Arbus and of course Nan Goldin. And you have mentioned yourself Boris Mikhailov… And very true.. he is a hero, really. Very strong, very strong. …And then of course Moriyama. I Identify with his loneliness, his desperation, his longings… Yes…Araki has it also, but not so obvious as Moriyama. Moriyama is the most believable of the two. For me, but in general one of the most believable photographers nowadays. And remember he is kind of old: he must be around 74. He is still shooting, still coming out with books…He is fantastic, also as a personality.
I would like to finalize our conversation and ask you when the next diaries will come out. The publisher writes: ‘as and when they are ready’. What is to be expected?
I think, what you can expect is surprises. Because I like surprises. And what you can also expect is NOT a conceptual kind of work, perhaps more emotional. Perhaps also more in harmony with the desperation I have. But also not too many nude pictures. More pictures of situations. Not too many portraits. More situations… Perhaps… we will see…
What is your desperation about?
‘Desperation’ is perhaps the wrong word… But it is always about one and the same kind of question: WHO you are and WHY? The more people, my friends, are dying, the more and deeper you experience LIFE… You feel death approaching.. And there you have, a natural kind of platform for desperation…. especially when your friends are dying…
I would like to thank you for your very honest and, what feels like, from the guts, answers…
Aha, Thank you….