Anders Petersen Interview

It feels right to be speaking to photographer Anders Petersen just after midnight. The witching hour is his hour, or more importantly the hour of his subjects who at this time willingly cast reflections of revelry, regret, loneliness and salvation for only him to see.

Fascinated by the lives of the physically, temporarily and emotionally incarcerated – a group he includes himself in – Petersen is a determined and pioneering explorer of this image-rich domain.  Often amusing, sometimes macabre, but always captivating, his images are an exercise in challenging perceptions both visually and socially.

All images © Anders Petersen

To this day he has no limits. That statement is not entirely true. Nowadays he does find the heat of, say, a Roman day draining him of his strength while he prowls the city’s streets, following people he meets there in the bars and in their homes so he may capture their lives and the scarce light that shines down upon them, searching always for the common ground between them.

He also claims to be extremely shy. “I think being shy is something good. Many of my friends, who are famous photographers, have that shyness also. They are not the talking types. Socially they are very shy.” When I suggest this is paradoxical to the images he produces, Petersen replies that this social handicap is in fact a powerful asset which he uses to jump into meeting people. “If there is something I am very afraid of I am drawn all the more to it, and from there that I want the picture I take to be as close as it can be to a self-portrait.”

When Petersen says self-portrait, this does not mean the people are playing a lesser role to him. Far from it, they are in fact chosen for the range of similarities they share with him – these are the qualities he is photographing. “I am not a vacuum cleaner, I choose people that I can identify with because after all we are not just the person we would like to be, we are many personalities and this is what I hope to reach,” he says.

Fundamentally, Petersen’s approach has not changed since it was first crafted out almost 50 years ago with the photographs he created in Café Lehmitz on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s ‘once notorious’ red light district. That was the pivotal moment he started this journey, this style of personal documentary – an important part of which is the powerful drive to always give something back.

For his first exhibition of this work, Petersen put up around 350 pictures on the wall over the bar. He made an agreement with the barman that everyone who recognized themselves could take down that picture and keep it. After four days there were no pictures left.

“Everyone was happy, I could see that, and proud because they could see they had many friends. I was drunk all the time because everybody liked to say ‘skol’ to me so often. For them it was like a big family album where they could see themselves in different situations. It showed they were not alone. They straightened their backs a little bit and I told myself if this is photography then it would be nice to go on like this, and with subsequent projects I have tried always to have an exhibition where I was shooting to show the people what I have done, to show all the pictures so they can see the whole thing together.”

‘A big family album’ – this phrase is the core sentiment at the heart of Petersen’s work. It was a sense of familial devotion that was behind the images he created in Hamburg, and it is a sense of the family of man that influences his work to this day. When we speak about it, Petersen suggests we should not think of his motives in such a romantic way, but it is hard not to when he says, “It does not matter if I am in Japan, Italy or Stockholm; I look for what is bringing us together. I don’t look for things breaking us apart, and if you have that in your mind and your heart then the process is much easier and it opens doors for you. I think people feel that when you meet them, and it is then that you start to have many friends all over the world.”

It was with a longing to explore that a teenage Petersen arrived in Hamburg in the 1960s. He met an international gang of people there all of whom were keen to discover an alternative life and they bonded. He fell in love with a girl; “We were not the best children of earth probably but we saw many things.” And while this relationship did not last, his emotional investment in the people he met and the places he frequented was forever sealed.

Following a period of study in his native Stockholm with photographer Christer Strömholm, a friend and lifelong inspiration to him, Petersen returned to Germany wanting to make images of the friends he had made on his previous trip. Most had passed away. “It was very sad, I met with one friend Gertrude and told her my intentions and asked that she help me. She didn’t know how she could, and even said that it would be impossible to take pictures here, but I said I have to try, and after three beers she said we could meet in a bar called Lehmitz, it was close to a big statue of Bismarck. She said to meet at one. So I went there at one, but when she said one, she meant at night and so was nowhere to be found. However there were a lot of people and it was a nice atmosphere and there was a nice light so I stayed.”

“I put my camera on the table and one guy came up and said he wanted to look at the camera and I said yes. We had many beers together and started drinking stronger things and then some beauties came in and we started to dance to some great music; The Stones, The Beatles, Little Richard and Chuck Berry I seem to remember. Then I suddenly missed my camera and as is typical of me, I thought I had been robbed, but then I saw it down in the café. People were throwing it between them and taking pictures of each other. I was a little bit drunk and said, ‘It’s my camera so you have to take a picture of me.’ They thought probably there was something logical about this and handed the camera over and so I kept on shooting. Then Gertrude arrived two hours late. When she saw me there taking pictures she said well it is working.”

Over the course of the next three years, Petersen would come and go, staying with his new family while in Germany, returning to Sweden to develop his films, make prints and to earn money because he was not making any from his photography. This he did this by working as a barman, translating books and counting words for people. For him ensuring that his subjects were central to the process was the most important thing. Without a firm end such as a book or an international exhibition in mind, he took his time on the project – an approach we agree is somewhat lacking today.

“There are very few people who are diving into projects for longer than one year now, but that is our time, we are all in a hurry. When you are looking at people working in photography today, there are so many types and with digital, it is also so much easier for everybody to connect. That is a lovely thing, wonderful, but if I talk about the family tree of photography, I think I am connected to a special branch with its roots in private documentary photography starting with my friend and teacher Christer Strömholm. He started with a project about Parisian transvestites - Les Amies de Place Blanche.”

“Then there is Ed van der Elsken with Love on the Left Bank, and of course you have to mention Lisette Model, Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin – they were all working like that in a way. If you go further you can see Boris Mikhailov, now living in Berlin and Daido Moriyama still working hard with book after book at 74. There is Antoine D’Agata with his passion. Michael Ackerman and his patience and curiosity, he gives a lot of time to his work, his last book, Half Life, took him five or seven years to do and that is fantastic. Have you seen Bruce Gilden’s Tokyo book? I think that is one of his best books. I think his style, approach and direct way of approaching really works there with the mafia guys. It is great fun to look at it – how he connected animals to the people.”

The type of photography mentioned here requires a deep commitment from both the photographer and the subject. The process is less about image making and more about sharing ideas, emotions and trust. The photographer must be open to new perceptions, adaptable to new ways and not afraid of the changes that might occur to their own sensibilities. Petersen shoots with 35mm only because he wants to be within touching distance, letting people know he is there for them.

This degree of connection was perhaps at its strongest during the three years Petersen spent photographing a group of friends – comprised of both workers and patients – residing in a mental hospital. He had a huge personal investment in the society in place there, a fact that is evident in the humorous and theatrical portraits he has created – a portrayal that had to be turned completely around from his initial idea.

“I was stupid; I started by trying to take pictures that were bad. I focused on dramatic situations – when there was fighting for example. Only after half a year of that did I stop after realizing that this was not what it was about at all. I didn’t care about the differences. I looked for what made us friends, what made us closer as people and what we had in common, and realized that it was up to me to find that, so I tried it differently. I changed my camera into medium format for a meditative way of shooting and decided I needed to stay there. I told the people in charge I wanted to sleep there.”

“That was when I took most of the pictures, during the night and early in the mornings and early evenings. I learned a lot about myself – there is not such a big difference between being on the inside and on the outside. I also understood that I had to see the families so I went out all over Sweden to see the families and to show them the pictures I had taken. There were only seven pictures refused and 43 approved. You just have to show respect for where you are everywhere. When you understand this it is much easier to approach people. They invite you in.”

Persistence is also keen for this branch of photography. If Petersen had not insisted that his friend Gertrude help with his desire to photograph Hamburg, then his career might not have been born. Had he not changed tactics when photographing the mental institute then who is to say the work would have been successful? For his prison work, Petersen stayed with the inmates for more than two and half years. He was asked to leave on several occasions, resisting all the while. It was not until he was finally thrown out for the last time that he began the editing process, which Petersen tells me utilizes a different set of emotions to the ones he channels when shooting.

“When I shoot I don’t think so much. I mostly use my intuition, my heart, my stomach, but when I develop the films and I see the contact sheets I try to use my brain because I am putting pictures together and trying to build a story for myself. The most important thing for me is that I am believable and this is not about photography, but life, my feelings, the circumstances and the situation I was in when shooting. It is not about the viewer – the public that is supposed to look at the pictures because I don’t care what people will say. I am only thinking of the people in the pictures.”

Giving something back is an altruistic element to Petersen’s work that is appealing to me, and I would say it is a strong contributing factor to the success he commands. Rather than construct sequential environmental portraits of the people he chooses in isolation and incognito, he submerses his temperament fully in their mental and physical habitats and in doing so gains unprecedented access, enabling him to photograph the personality from all sides. In return he ensures these people are the first to engage in the story he creates. They are the important guests on the opening night of the group dynamic perhaps seen for the first time under a new light.

“It is a kind of sharing, this is true, but remember we are not supposed to be romantic about it. The subjects gave me their lives and situations, but I never wanted to be just a thief, coming there and stealing their faces and their atmosphere.”

As instinctive as his shooting may be, with hindsight, Petersen is able to account for the images he takes, mathematically breaking them down into the areas he concentrates on. “I think seventy per cent of my shots of people are when I have got to know them. Thirty percent are snapshots when I don’t know the person that well and it is then I avoid showing faces, I just show the body language or something like that. This thirty percent also includes city structures, the light, and lack of light, and so on. The final edit is a mix of these groups – the snapshots, the structure pictures and the meetings.

When looking at the full spread of Petersen’s images, it is not too difficult to determine what the themes are. Isolation and the stuff of dreams and nightmares permeate his work and when I ask why he has such a fascination for these elements, he tells me it is because they have always been present.

“I have always been solitary. When I was growing up I felt lonely. I was reading, I was trying to paint, trying to write and after a while trying to take pictures. I have always been connected to loneliness. It is my rucksack. It’s not so dramatic, but just a part of me.”

Taking his time to learn about his subjects’ habits and their environments has ensured a high level of comfort while in their presence. Such a good relationship has worked wonders for Petersen’s work, thought there has been of course a sacrifice – something Petersen knows only too well.

“If you have both feet outside of the situation you will just be a voyeur, which is not good, and so at times I have been too involved emotionally with what I was up to, but then no writer, no musician, film maker or photographer can create when they are down in safety. Safety is a drug, but when you are at the top operating, there is a fever, but after a while you have to come down because you cannot stay up there for too long, you have to come back to your family. I couldn’t always step out of the situations, and this balance is something I am still trying to learn – how to stand with one foot inside the situation and the other foot outside of the situation.”

The next time you are asked what are the characteristics needed to be a successful photographer, remember there are none that are hard and true. Curiosity is one, persistence is another. Patience and a strong will also help. After all it is your show, you need not be brutal, but you need to be somewhat of an egotist. But when it comes to capturing the essence of life, you also have to understand people and they have to understand you. If you do this then even in the paranoid and image conscious world of today, photography can still be the access-all-areas calling card. Without a camera Petersen would never have been allowed to go into a prison and stay there for two and a half years. Neither would he have been able to shoot so much as he did in a mental hospital. After all it was his camera that sealed his introduction with the denizens of Café Lehmitz.

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The Klieg Light is an online journal dedicated to photography, storytelling and film making.