Dick Svedenborn (Part 1)

We caught up photographer Dick Svedenborn to discuss his approach to his work and how it has evolved over time. In the first part of this two part interview he describes how he finds inspiration in random places and the perils and pluses of having your work on social media.

BTC: Beyond The Crane; DS: Dick Svedenborn

BTC: An obvious place to start but what kind of photography do you do? 

DS: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about this and for me photography has too few categories. The story I’m after is usually not the story of the person I photograph. I see something; I reflect on something; I shoot it; I catch something that means something to me. As a photographer, I am almost always involved in the subject. That makes it difficult for me to categorize what I do. Subjective documentary might be more appropriate.

BTC: Does the story come first and then you capture it in an image?

DS: I see myself more as a gut photographer. I react to something and feel something. Then I take a photo, which afterwards is given context. My attention is caught by something like the environment, a person or an event. Things that captivate me in a way that I cannot really express.

Normally I get a feeling or become curious and think “Okay, how does this work?” Then I take the camera and try to make a photograph of it. It’s intuitive, I try to capture the feeling I have in order to be able save it.

BTC: Do you sometimes stage your photos? Do you interact with the process?

DS: Stage photography is something I rarely do. When you ask the question “Hey, I’m a photographer, can I take a photograph of you?” you often disrupt the scene or event. What I want is to recreate what happened before I entered the scene. It might be that I will direct a bit and defuse the situation by telling the people to ignore me as I take pictures. That’s one way to interact. In many cases, I’ll take the photograph before I reveal myself. Then the photograph is more natural.

BTC: Would you just toss your camera over the shoulder and say, “Honey, I’m going out to take some photographs?” Are you aware of what you want to capture before you go out the door?

DS: Early on the most common situation was that I saw something while with my family that I wanted to capture. Then I’d try to create a 10 minute gap for myself. More recently it has become more that I have created the kind of project where I can actually say, “Honey, I’ll go out for an hour or so and shoot a few photographs.” It’s a way for me to be sure to create space to develop and push myself a little bit further. Not only to respond to the gut feeling I have but also to create projects that I can return to.

BTC: Do you have a goal to create a series of photographs or similar? Or do you just want to see if you can discover more of what you’ve seen before?

DS: Well, I try to think a bit more about what I want with the project, but I am very much driven by my curiosity. Almost all projects are based on my own interests; something that I have a feeling for. A project I’m working on now is about an allotment area here in Malmö. I was there with my son visiting a flea market and thought the area was very intriguing and started to wonder how it could be that people can have an allotment in the middle of the city. I was curious about how it works. What does that small world look like?

BTC: Has anything else random like that captured you?

DS: There is a mini-golf course not far from where I live, which is almost always open. How can that be? How do you find people to cater for a mini-golf course that is open nearly every month of the year from 10 in the morning until 10 at night? Then the camera is a damn good excuse to get into a situation and say “Hi, I’m interested in you, could I take your photo?” Then people start to loosen up a bit and start to talk. As I learn more my curiosity grows into new dimensions and I can nerd into things even more!

BTC: Is it that you have gone from being satisfied with the experience there and then, to wanting and trying to reach a little further. Are you deliberately aiming to make something specific out of it?

DS: Absolutely. I would say that the start of it was probably our honeymoon in New York. I took a photograph of a pink lady in Williamsburg that looked pretty cool and I felt quite satisfied with it. That was probably the first photograph that I took where I felt that now I have something that might interest someone else than just me! A photography that expressed something different. I then tried for a long time to take that photograph again but this time in Sweden. But I realised after a while that the expression of Williamsburg in New York is different than in Sweden so I had to somehow interpret it and try to find out what equivalent of the pink lady exists in Sweden.

BTC: The spectrum is perhaps broader there, but if you look deep enough you’ll see similar nuances here too? 

DS: The expression in that photograph was easy for a viewer to take in. A pink outfit, a lot of pearls, glitter, and big heavy gold glasses. It is visually interesting! A local history society in Broby, Sweden, is perhaps a little less visually interesting. Through this process, I feel I found my way into what I’m doing now. I also realised that I’m not really a single-photograph person. I usually think that a story needs a lot of photographs. As a photographer I need many photographs in order to be able to tell the story. The theme for my photographs is usually my interest in people who are in their own environment. That’s my common denominator.

BTC: Can you elaborate on that a bit? 

DS: I am interested in environments which I think are authentic and the people and events that are in them. I’ve seen that that’s what I always come back to. In a way, the project way of thinking has come late. I would like to be able to create projects that allows me study it a little closer, dig a little deeper, and come back if needed. To not just shoot the project when I happen to be passing by. To make sure I find places for my projects that I easily can come back to.

BTC: We’ve talked about the story in it. Is it a classic story with a beginning, a middle and an end?

DS: I would say that it is not usually a story I have clear and evident to me when I shoot. It is more a reflection or contemplation of something that I react to. I go to places where I meet environments and people that interest me. Then when I’m back in front of the computer I do a selection and that’s when the story starts to form. I see if I’m missing pieces of the story and return to the place or person. When I return I have ideas of what I want to capture in mind.

In the story I’m working on now, about the allotments, I’ve noticed that I don’t have people in the photographs at all. It’s probably the first time I’ve shot a project that is primarily about physical environment. This made me wonder if I should continue that way or if I should add people into the story. I have still not yet decided.

BTC: How do you finish what you have started? Is it sometimes that new questions pop up after the first visit and you want to find out if there are even more questions out there?

DS: That is the difficult part with my process; it has no clear end. I get more and more curious the more I see. It almost takes a mechanical impact for me to complete a project.  Very few things are finished, most of my projects are still ongoing. What I have concluded in recent years is that I have to deliberately create closure.

BTC: How do you mean? 

DS: I have this idea that I should do a book, just to get closure on some of the projects that have started as open boxes to be filled with just about anything. In a way I do not need it as   photography for me is a process. I’m curious  and the camera is a way for me to be allowed to be curious and to create. For my own part, I do not need any closure. I’m don’t take pictures for an audience; I do this for myself. It is more about if I want to create an audience for what I do and then I have to finish things; to be able push myself to the next level. This is also to create an opening to do things in a different way and develop even further.

BTC: In order to get any kind of closure it’s always be good to get feedback.

DS: Yes, and reflections from other people.

BTC: This suggests a desire to reach out? Although the process is the most important part for you.

DS: Yes, absolutely. It began in the (Swedish online photo community) Fotosidan forums and with posting photos in order to get them liked. It was in some way about confirmation, a way to get nurture for my creative process in order to get energy to devote more time and to develop even further. That’s how it was for me, of course I was seeking  confirmation to get new energy.

BTC: Is that a little risky? 

DS: In a way it is a little dangerous too because it is not always what you get confirmation on that you yourself consider to be your best work. The photograph of the pink lady is easy for people to like but I don’t think that photograph is that important to me anymore.

BTC: That photograph works well into the modern social media flow.

DS: It is popular on social media. I think a lot about how dependent you are of getting an approval and confirmation and how much I do what I do because I want to. As more time passes, the more I feel that I don’t need to try to be mainstream. I can be niche; I don’t make my living as a photographer.

BTC: You have a job, a family and a house. Do you feel you can do the kind of projects you really want to do in the wiggle room you have? It’s easy to say, “If I only had half a year without a job, I would have done it this way!”

DS: Good question! I believe that it’s about having a great interest in something as this will give you the strength and interest to take things even further. This way you will become better. I am a little sceptical of natural talent – many hours of work is needed, not talent. Spending time on  things enables you to become better and takes your ideas forward. So yes, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had unlimited time to devote to my image creation. But it’s of no use, as I won’t ever have unlimited time.

BTC: So in dream scenario, where you have unlimited time, what would you do?

DS: I have a lot of  projects that would benefit greatly if I went there for two weeks and focused solely on it. Börjes in Tingsryd is one of those projects, which I love, that I think I’ll never be able to finish as I only go there once or twice a year for two hours to visit. Of course I think about what it could have been if I had stayed there for a few weeks.

At the same time, I feel that the benefit of having access to limited timespan is that it makes you sharper when you actually have the chance to go there. Your approach is more meticulous and you make sure to get the images you need. Somehow I feel that I have reconciled with the idea that I do what I can do within my own limitations.

BTC: And you can always work close to home. 

DS: Yes, a way to solve this is that I start a project which is close to the places I often find myself in. This is a way to keep the process going despite the often limited timeframe. I’m lucky that I’m interested the slow everyday way of life in Sweden; things that are just as they usually are. These things interests me and this way I can find projects just about anywhere.

BTC: Is it easy to maintain your artistic integrity in the conditions that you work under?

DS: It’s a kind of dynamic that is quite tricky. For example, when I’m submitting to a competition or a show that I want to be in  or just when making a selection. The first time I submitted to the Autumn Salon at Fotografiska I was pretty curious as to what I thought would please the jury, so I sent in a wide selection. On the second occasion I submitted what I felt I wanted to show to the Autumn Salon. I discovered that they were more interested in the niche photographs from the first time around.

This year I submitted again but did not get selected. I’d say that the integrity increased by having been selected before. You become a little bit cooler. The question is what would have happened if I’ve had the broad popular photographs selected the first time? Maybe I’d have become a different type of photographer today?

BTC: Some people see it as you’re doing something right if you publish something on social media that does not get any likes as it something that does not already exist. If you publish more of the same (what’s already popular) you’ll for sure get your likes.

DS: It’s pretty fun with Instagram because you’re looking for feedback on every photograph you post. Why else post it at all? Or else you want to make a statement about who you are. I think a lot about the fact that I can feel any way I want about a photograph. But if I choose to publish it I hand that photo over to the audience. And if the photograph doesn’t say anything to the people looking at it, then the photo doesn’t really matter.

BTC: So it is all a part of your evolution as a photographer?

DS: It’s a journey I’ve made or an insight that I have gained; I already know that certain types of photos will work and will get likes on social media even before I publish them. But that doesn’t mean I think they are better photos. It’s just to maintain being humble and realise that I’ve also changed my way of looking at photographs over time. What I liked five years ago, I might not see the same way today. I guess that’s how it is for other people as well.

BTC: So your perspectives change over time?

DS: You shouldn’t judge what’s ”good” or what’s ”bad”. My own process is pushing me into exploring other things today and I like other types of photographs today. I have a small group of people that I show pictures to every now and then. We meet up and show photos to one another. That has given me strength to discuss my photos. If you know the person who gives feedback, you can take even the toughest feedback without it being so dramatic. It says something anyway, as it could be coming from people knowledgeable about photography but from different background. It’s always interesting to see what the reaction will be and you learn something.

In part two Dick discusses the photographers that inspire him, photo editing and plenty more. Read Part 2 of the interview here.

Selected work

From the series Ladies


More from Dick