Dick Svedenborn (Part 2)

In part two of our interview with photographer Dick Svedenborn he pays tribute to his contemporaries that inspire him, his views on photo editing, speaks candidly about his take on the local media and his plans for the future. (Read Part 1 of the interview with Dick Svedeborn here: Dick Svedenborn (Part 1)

BTC: Beyond The Crane; DS: Dick Svedenborn

BTC: You are neither a prosperity photographer nor a pushback photographer; you rather seem to be driven by curiosity?

DS: I would say that during my time with Fotosidan (Swedish online photography community) I was a prosperity photographer. Back then I used to think that whatever got likes or many comments were the good photos. I feel it has been difficult to build a personal compass around what is ”good” and what is ”bad”. I’ve needed my small group of photography friends to help me with that. Many photos simply need time.

BTC: You remain active on Instagram. How does it work for you?

DS: I post some photos on it such as what I like at the time. Some photos endure while others lose their shine after you’ve looked at them for a while. It’s like a history record of what you used to like. To me, photos of sunsets rarely keep their value over time. People in a context, however, usually continue to be interesting.

BTC: So we’re talking inspiration. Where do you get it? Is it on Instagram or from the classic photo books? Or maybe something completely different?

DS: I’d probably say reality; to meet people. Then there are people that I’ve met that are important to me like photographers who have pushed me forward. I met Åsa Sjöström (Swedish award winning photographer) who told me she often began by pulling down the contrast in her photographs and then started to build them up again. I went home and tried and there and then I left the high-contrast images that I would have been stuck doing before. I often tell stories about situations with low tempo and intensity – why should I increase the pace in the photos with high contrast? Lower contrast and subdued color saturation fits well with my kind of photography.

As I am a gut based photographer driven by interest and curiosity my inspiration comes mostly from what I feel, think and how I react to a person or an event. I become curious about something. I get inspired at the same time and want to know more. I feel that I have to look at a lot of photos from others in order to develop and push myself forward. I buy a lot of photo books both from the photographers that I know that I like and from the photographers that I know less about, just to see something completely different.

BTC: Is it the classics you buy or rather more contemporary photographers?

DS: I started out buying anthologies like “The 1000 best pictures” and so forth. Now it is more that if Hanna Modigh publishes something new, and I usually like what she does, then I’ll buy her book even though I don’t know what it’s about. The same goes for Elin Berge too. Sometimes I’ll buy a book just because I find it has an interesting theme. It could also be that I feel I know nothing at all about photographers from the African continent so then I’ll have to buy a book about Malick Sidibé or an anthology with pictures taken by African photographers.

BTC: Is it purely about the visual expression?

DS: I would say that it is either curiosity or interest that triggers me. I feel that my own photographs are closest to poetry if compared with text; an open reflection or contemplation about someone or something. I would not call myself a poet but it’s probably that category I fit into if I have to put a label on what I do.

BTC: Do you ever catch yourself realising “Ah, that photo is just like the one he or she already took” on occasion? 

DS: Yes, I guess I do sometimes although I’d say it’s a rare thing. I am convinced that the photos I make come from the inspiration of other photographs I have seen. I like a mess and some disorder in a photo; I like it when it’s not to corrected and adjusted. In this sense I see Jens Assur and Lars Tunbjörk as great role models. Tunbjörk had that very orderly disorder.

It is true that I’m influenced but I’m not trying to recreate a “Tunbjörk-image” when I take pictures. It’s probably more about aesthetics. I like his expression and his aesthetics so then it’s no wonder that it recurs in a part of my photos. The same applies with Martin Parr’s humour and messiness. I usually focus more on content than on form. Hanna Modigh or Nan Goldin have an authenticity, openness, and a focus on content that I like.

BTC: They also have something in common in that there is a stillness in what they do. Reflection.

DS: Yes, I would agree with you there but Nan Goldin I think does pretty vibrant images. They have a high intensity and capture a quite concentrated moment, you could say. Hanna Modigh is also a little bit like that, a little quiet, yes it is probably more quiet. Nah, I have a hard time placing Hanna’s photos, I have no clear analysis of it.

BTC: You’ve mentioned quite a few Swedish photographers. Is your homeland where you want to immerse yourself?

DS: I think that we in Sweden have a great narrative photography tradition. Sune Jonsson, Jens Assur, Lars Tunbjörk, Hanna Modigh, Elin Berge Åsa Sjöström and many more. There’s a tone in their pictures that I like that feels a little Swedish or at least Scandinavian. It’s not staged but feels authentic.

BTC: Documentary photography holds a strong position in Swedish photography.

DS: Yes, that’s something that also inspires me. I have trouble when it gets too neat and corrected – all set and complete. There must be imperfections, scuffs and resistance in the photographs for them to be interesting in my view. You cannot reveal it all. It cannot be a closed photograph that says it all. There must be an openness that allows the viewer to add himself/herself into the story. The story should not be complete; the viewer must be involved.

BTC: If we’re talking selection and editing. Do you do your own editing (in Photoshop)? Do you do photo montage or collage?  

DS: I almost never do collage. I try to keep it pure and not to use the clone-tool in Photoshop. However, I permit myself to straighten up vertical and horizontal lines when editing, and there I can allow myself quite a lot of freedom. When it comes to colours and contrast levels I have almost no qualms either.

For a long time I tried to find my own style. Today I believe that image style is your own aesthetics; what you like aesthetically. I now have a rather pragmatic approach. Usually I combine photos from different contexts and different lighting conditions into a story. This way you have to do something with the photos in editing in order to make them to hold together. You need to fix things afterwards. I’ve found that a good method for me is to reduce the saturation and contrast levels, as I feel this makes it easier to put together a series of images into a story. Even though that thought wasn’t part of the process of taking them.

BTC: And the usage of colour plays a big role?

DS: Colour can be quite time-bound. I feel that the time aspect isn’t that clear when you lower saturation. Everyone knows exactly how the 70’s looked when it comes to colors. By bringing down the saturation a bit the image becomes a little less time-bound. I also realised that the tempo of my photos is better suited with low contrast. The intensity of the images becomes lower, which often translates well with what I want to convey. I’m talking about nothing and slow everyday events – topics not that well suited for high brightness and high contrast.

BTC: Like you said, you are naturally curious so does that make it hard to categorise what your genre is?

DS: The reason I have difficulties placing my own photographs in the documentary category is that the story is usually not only about what I portray, it is my personal observation of what I see. It is a reflection; my reflection of what I see with my vision. There is also one thing that I think creates an image style, which is my interests and what I see and react to.

I don’t like it when you instantly can tell that a certain person took the image. I would think that over time I will change my way of taking photos. My aesthetics will change. Sometimes I shoot a story that is more vibrant and maybe then the images should be different.

I’m thinking a lot about how I choose to process an image. Is it mannerisms? Do I do things because it’s in fashion right now? Do I do what’s best for the photo/story? I really do not know, only time can tell how it really is. I just react to something and feel something.

BTC: Maybe it’s about the inner compass: What is good based on myself?

DS: To me, it’s about just enough processing of the images to get the right tempo and to be able to put together a series of images by tweaking some of them. I really have nothing against cloning in Photoshop, I just don’t do it. What I do is not a reality in that way. I do not pretend to to portray anyone or anything. I reflect on it but I choose not to clone because I understand that it could be problematic if people do not know about it.

I think Gursky, whose pictures don’t really depict reality, works. I’ve experienced that some people can be provoked when they learn that things have been added to or removed from a photo, but it does not bother me at all. Gursky has never claimed to tell us anything about reality, or to be true. He does what he wants and his photos make an impression on me anyway!

BTC: What are your thoughts on the value of images in the future? On the basis that it is getting difficult to determine whether a photo is true or not.

DS: I think that just as with writers it is the writer who, together with the text, will bear the responsibility. For me, the discussion if a photo is credible or not because they have used the clone tool in Photoshop is not that important. To make a photograph black and white is in a way a much bigger intrusion than to remove a small interfering leaf.

The fact that there are rules for what is allowed when editing an image, for it to still be credible, is a bit strange to me. I hope we get to a point where the image and photographer together with the publication cater for the credibility.

I also believe that we would do well to have more photographic categories. A photograph can be more than just journalistic, documentary or art. If we compare with the text, there are different forms like chronicle, tale, personal stories, satire, and more. We need to be at a position where the photographer tells their story and the viewer’s themselves assess credibility. It may be that my knowledge of the underlying categories of photography is limited but I feel we are forced into either journalistic, documentary, or art. And none of them feels spot on for what I do.

BTC: With the gigantic flow of images available today will we ever see iconic photographs such as those from the Vietnam War again?

DS: I have not thought much about it but I think I see a lot of photo journalism today which just reproduces an image that already exists. That especially applies in the daily press. Media companies struggle in a way to make themselves relevant today by publishing the same kind of stories that they have always done. I also see a trend that whatever the masses like is considered to be what is good. Image knowledge might not be the focus? It may sound a bit elitist but I also believe that the more people practice reading images, the greater the number of layers and complexity photographers can use to tell their stories. People’s knowledge about images will increase as we see more photos every day.

BTC: But that may come with an associated risk?

DS: The risk is that it’ll be the contrary, i.e. that we’ll see less variety and that in the end only what is considered to be mainstream will remain. I hope that variety and complex stories will prevail but I just don’t know. I think as we have a bigger flow of images the visual communication has become more important. Over time, I hope more focus is given to the image in schools and education and that image critique will be a big part of the curriculum. Just like talking about source criticism regarding text, we need to start doing the same thing with images. The images are getting a more and more prominent place in society.

BTC: To learn how to read an image just as you learn how to read a text?

DS: Yes. There is also a kind of status relationship between image and text that might be balanced out. Today, I feel that the text is considered to be of greater value even though most people are looking more at the images. The text and images do not oppose each other but we need to increase our knowledge of how we look at images. The intentions of the publisher of the image, source criticism about credibility and so on.

BTC: When ”everyone’s a photographers” and “everyone’s a publisher.” Will then not only how you read an image changes but also how we all express ourselves visually?

DS: Have the media companies done the right analysis? To try to popularise themselves by all means so that eventually they will not have a product that people want. They fire photographers and focus on what is considered to be mainstream, which in a way takes away from their own existence.

I’m really tired, for example, of our local newspaper Sydsvenskan. It used to be a fantastic pictorial newspaper but now doesn’t really deliver on that point any more. The product they produce today is pretty poor in my opinion. It’s really just tradition that makes me a subscriber.

I really don’t understand their thinking? Moving towards the broader and providing less depth and insight as well as getting rid of talented photojournalists. How do they think, really?

BTC: It is anybody’s guess. Only the future can tell.

DS: Hmm…

BTC: To round things off a bit. You mentioned that you are aiming to publish a book. Can you tell us anything more about it?

DS: The book is a way, as we talked about before, to get closure on some of the projects I have started. This in turn is for me to be able move on. By releasing it, I can open up for something new. It is a reflection on what I’ve done so far but I’m not that far into the book process yet.

One question that I have had with me is some sort of comparison between urban and rural areas. Is the city real? Or is it just a collection of smaller communities? It could be some kind of reflection on growing up in a small village, Teckomatorp. The remains of the welfare state that I grew up in, how does it look today? What’s “Folkhemmet” like today? To be able to answer this I’ll need to explore more places than I have done up until now.

BTC: If we meet again in say 2-3 years. What more have you accomplished with your photography?

DS: Since the process of moving forward is very important to me, I hope I can see in 2-3 years that I have taken the next step in my own photographic development; my own narrative. That I will have a vision of the end result with me already early in my process. That I have ideas of the start and end of a project already when planning it. That I have a clearer idea of exactly what I want to tell.

I happen to have a lot of photographs of ethnic Swedes. In 2-3 years, I hope I’ve also been able to explore and capture other areas and other realities as well.

I hope that I will have been able to reach out a little more with my photography. You know, to have made some kind of imprint with a book or exhibition as a way to bring myself further on my journey. Feedback provides you with access to other people’s thoughts on your photographs. With this insight it’s easier to decide whether or not to continue.

BTC: A more daring Dick in his storytelling? Who dares to get out there and showcase his work?

DS: I hope that I’ll have more projects starting from a clear idea and that I’m able to challenge my gut based strategy by starting with a story I want to tell. To maybe also be able to tell the story from the perspective of the people I portray; to not always make myself so important. Not just reflect and react but also to tell someone’s story! Ah! Yes!

BTC: We look forward to that!

DS: Yes. We’ll see…


Selected work

From the series Ladies


More from Dick