David Høgsholt made himself available to answer questions from the readers of Rubixephoto as a consequence of this. There you are his original answers, in English, the interview has been translated to Spanish here.
What was the impact of the two World Press Photo Awards you have received in your personal and professional life ?
Well, I think that it is often a bit difficult for photographers who do long term projects to differentiate between our personal and professional life;-). For me, my in-depth projects are always driven by personal reasons as I find that is the only way I can find all the energy I need to keep shooting for as long as it takes to really make a project that has the ability to touch and move people.
But to get back to the question: on one level, awards are nice because they are a nice pad on the back from industry peers. This is a lonely job, we often have to dig deep to find the energy and people with more regular jobs often don’t understand how difficult it can be to do this work. So, awards are a welcome recognition from people who knows. Professionally, it specifically meant that I had a much easier time getting to see and meet editors whom I had always wanted to meet. It gets your foot in the door much more easily. From there on, you still have to produce good work and never stop doing so to keep your clients.
But I wouldn’t say the awards had a life changing effect on me at all. At the end of the day, we always have to remember that so many other good projects are not as lucky and don’t get picked. It is a matter of lucky timing and a jury that happens, as a collective, to appreciate your vision, story and style that year. Maybe the same story wouldn’t have won the year before with a different jury? That is a very humbling thought.
Which are your favourite technical resources (camera, lenses, strobists and so on)? Could you explain us your process to edit and post-process your images?
I am actually not that strong-willed or dogmatic about the gear, I use. The Mia project is shot on quite a lot of different gear. As long as it is in the 135mm format and in black and white, it will fit in. The earliest pics are from a Nikon F3 with manual lenses. Probably some Tri-X or Ilford film I developed at home or at photo school. Then came a lot of years where I shot on an old analogue Canon EOS 5 with a 35mm/2.0 or a 28../1.8 and then when I took my internship at the Danish newspaper Berlingske, picked up one of their old Canon 1n(?). I was shooting digital all day long for my newspaper work, but the chief photo editor let me buy all the film I wanted and thus I kept shooting film (T400cn, think it was called). At one point, I started shooting quite a bit of 16-35mm because I wanted a bit more wide-angle. Then, later on, when the 1Ds and 5D came out and I worked staff at a different newspaper, I sometimes shot Mia with those digital cameras. And there are even a few shots in the mix from a Leica M6 from a time where I wanted to shoot something different.
There is quite a bit of flash too. It might be hard to tell because even though it is bounced flash, I photoshopped the files with quite a bit of contrast as the flat look of the bounced flash did not suit the rest of the project. But I just “lost” too many moments in dimly lit apartments shooting a 28mm wide open and very slow shutter speeds – so, that’s why I started shooting flash. But the point was, that I always tried to make it look as little as possible as flash. I think I used the 540 Speedlite? Basically just the pro Canon flash that was out at the moment. TTL flash in film days were always pretty easy and forgiving.
Javi loves long-term projects. He thinks that it is important to let the pictures settle* so that you can show clearly what was going on when the photo was taken and that it is a good way to reflect the passage of time form the point of view of the photographer. Do yo agree?
(* Javi means that it is important to wait time before editing and selecting the pictures in order to explain the story in depth)
Javi, I couldn’t agree more on the need for and benefits of waiting. It could very well be the main benefit of working long term without a deadline. I have edited the Mia story for a decade continuously and it is pretty much set now (the big edit on my website) – until I gather more material.
In the early days, I fell into the trap of focussing too much on the hardship of her life. On the drugs, on how it looks when she did drugs. Later, it evolved and I started choosing images that, while they still showed the action, they were chosen because they had stronger emotional content.
I have one dogma in photography which is: “what a person does in an image is never as interesting as how it feels to that person to do what he/she does”. So, in the pics of Mia doing drugs, I want the images to convey a feeling much more than just show how it looks. I want us to feel her need, her longing, her desperation. Later in the process, as I learned more, I found out that so many people couldn’t relate to Mia’s life. The pics were too strange to them – or rather, the scene and life and what goes on in them were too strange and scary. When people can’t relate to your pics, your loose them. There is no connection, so you can’t tell your story because they are not “listening”. That’s when I realized the need for focussing on the aspects that we can relate to in her life.
I always tried to photograph the things in her life that were still “normal”. I always wanted part of the story to be about what Mia lost in her life, what the drugs took away from her. But now, I began to understand the importance of these aspects in the editing and how you can connect to your viewers when telling stories about something that most of us have no personal experience with. One of the most important pics in the whole story is from Christmas Eve and it shows Mia dancing around the Christmas tree with her family. Another important one is her walking down a small street in her hometown with a friend from childhood. These images we can relate to easily because Mia does completely normal things like you and I in them. And they are emotional and shows what I always admired Mia for – that she is a very good and caring friend and she tries hard to hold on to her family. The picture in the back of the car where she comforts a friend speaks about the same thing. Here, she is a caring woman and like in the other pictures this is a feeling and situation we can connect to – and they show Mia as a lovely woman whom we would all like to have as a friend. And because we connect to her and start liking her, we will be moved and impacted more when we see the sad parts of her life.
I would love to have the edit being even more centered on normal daily life things we can relate to. But the sad truth is that I have so few pictures of normal situations. (And the main problem with photography is that it is very difficult to tell stories about things that are not there – video and interviews do much better at that). I think I have tried hard to really push these pics into the edit whereas I have taken 1000s out that only spoke about the hardship. When I did a big exhibition in Denmark a few years back, I made sure that the Christmas Tree image was printed in a bigger size and it hung in a more prominent position – so even though I have too few images like this, it ended up carrying more weight in the story.
All these thoughts and nuances have definitely come with time. On these longer projects I often “test” my ideas, observations and views in a simple way: Once in a while, I will sit down and talk to Mia or e.g. the ladyboys about something I noticed or a point I want to make in my story. Many times they would say that before I brought it up they hadn’t really noticed but that they agree with me.That makes me proud and also puts me at ease as I know my understanding of the subject is on the right path and so will the project be.
I don’t think photographers should always agree with their subjects, but when you do in-depth work trying to portray a person’s life and emotions, then this approach is very, very recommendable. There is not a single image in this story that Mia has not seen and talked about herself. In the exhibition in Copenhagen we sat down and talked about the images for two days before I started printing. I showed her one image at a time and asked her about what that image reminded her of, what it meant to her. And then I edited her answers to become the captions for the exhibition. This had the very welcome benefit of letting the viewers know that Mia was very much part of the project – that she had seen and thought about all the images and the project as a whole. That it was not just an “outsider’s” view on her life. It was the view of someone whom Mia respected and whose voice she agreed with. I think that combination of her words and my pictures took away any doubts that viewers might have had about the project (and whether I had a right to show what I did) and left them completely open to taking her story in.
I have never before had so much response to my images. Often people tell you that the pics are strong or that they are “well shot” or the applaud you for your hard work – but with Mia, people ask about how she is doing, whether she is alright. And that’s all I ever wanted from the images of her life.
How do you select the subjects your work in?
For the long term projects where you really need a lot of energy to keep them going it is not enough to be assigned or paid to do it – you run out of steam. So, for those, I have to have a huge portion of personal interest and curiosity. I have to be able to not care what others say. Like for example, look at Mia or the Ladyboys – hardly new, original subjects at all AND people would tell me that in the beginning. But after some years of work, they are now, possibly, amongst some of the best, most nuanced, touching projects on the subject you can find.
Had I listened to a lot of people in the beginning I would have stopped many times. But I wanted to know how it felt to be living those lives. I really, really needed to know.
With Mia, the reason is that I have an addict in my close family and I felt a need to understand, on a more personal level, what a life like that feels like. I needed that for my own personal reasons and to get on with my own life. That might sound cynical and egoistical but I think it is a very honest way of working. OF COURSE, you have to be very sure that you behave properly when in the project with the subject. And when you are a working photographer and you know your work will get seen and you will share it with people, then I don’t mind that the core energy comes from a very, very personal place. I actually trust photographers who work like that a lot.
Do you read lots of documentation before and prepare yourself emotionally depending on the project? Do you prepare a brief or similar?
Depends on the nature of the story. If it is a very journalistic story, then I will research a lot going into it. It is good researching because it means that in the field you will be able to see things and connect the dots more easily and that will sometimes lead you to shoot pics that you wouldn’t have shot had you not realized the relevance from deep research. I know, an example would have been great, but I am blank now…
But honestly, sometimes, especially on personal projects, it can also be very good not to research too much. If you do a personal project to satisfy a deep personal need to understand a given issue or subculture then you might satisfy a lot of that need by reading too much. You will know too much and may not be as hungry to find your own knowledge through shooting the issue. So, I find that for the long term work, somewhere in the middle is good. Your curiosity will drive you to invest all the time needed in the beginning and you will research by shooting and going into the project by being close to your subjects. And then later on you will research more sources but you will also be able to balance your personal, untainted view on the story with what others view might be.
Could you give some advice to chose and start a long-term project? And how to show it once it is finished?
For the choice of subject you can listen only to your heart. What makes you extremely sad, angry, happy? What don’t you understand but REALLY want to understand? Don’t listen to people who say your idea is not new, not original or whatever. Only listen to constructive advice from people how accept your choice and then get started. Shoot something near you, or something you can afford to travel to for long periods of time as many times as you can. And then once finished, you ask trusted friends or photogs and editors whom you admire to help you edit it. And then you start knocking down doors to show it. Show to editors at festivals but even better in their offices. Show it online, send it to be people. Get it out any way possible. Send to competitions also – view competitions as publications, as a way of getting more people to see your work.
On a personal note, I am always incredibly moved when I meet people who have had to deal with tremendous cruelty or unfairness in their lives and who still have not resorted to hate. Or how for no reason at all, other than bad luck or other people’s behavior, their lives have been wrecked. It humbles me deeply. Like how eg. HIV will kill and tear apart families of the poor while the rich get treated.
How do you manage your subjects´ expectations about your work? (It there are any)
I try to be very honest up front. I try to explain to them why I am there and that I can be “greedy” in terms of wanting more time, more access with the subject – BUT that I want my subjects always to be able to ask me to leave. That said, I make it very clear that vanity should not be a reason to ask me not to shoot. And then I often show a lot of my previous work and explain how I shot it. And I often say up front that I will show pics continuously and that there is always a way for the subject to later talk to me about the pics and whether they should be in the project or not.
Eg. Mia has 100s of little 10x15cm prints I gave her over the years. She has also seen each picture that is in the edit and exhibited in Copenhagen and elsewhere and she has had the chance to ask me not to use certain pics. She has never once done so.
I think my point is that on projects where we can be honest, we should be so. If I was trying to do a project about people I really don’t like and actually do not wanna like (let’s say crazy racist gangs) then I might not be honest up front. But then again, I find that I don’t photograph well on a hateful energy so I am not good at those types of stories anyways.
Fundamentally, I find that human beings tend to say no to things they don’t understand. They become suspicious and won’t let you in. It’s human nature. So, if you can play it all open and share as much information as possible, then the chances that they will let you in to their lives are much bigger. They can say yes or no on a more informed background if you tell them more. And if they say no, it is fine too – it would not have ended well shooting them anyways. And you can always keep trying to convince them too.
Not having a camera in the early meetings helps a lot too.
If it is a human rights story or an urgent social issues story, people will often give us access in the hope that we can directly help change their lives for the better.
I will, and have, explained to people that as much as I would like that to happen, the chances are that it won’t. I will say that my voice is tiny, but at least it is there and at least someone will get to know about this issue. And maybe with a lot of other tiny voices like this some sort of change might happen down the line. But it might not. But that personally, I want to tell this story and I would be grateful of they would help me do that. It can be hard to say to a subject who is hoping for more, but we have to be honest even when it is not what people want to hear.
If the people you are trying to connect with can feel that you genuinely care about them and the story, that does give them some sort of comfort, I think. I know, it is it not much.
The main point is that our visit should never hurt people. Be respectful. Say your goodbyes properly. And if you will guilty for going back to a nice hotel room and not being able to do more – that means you are a good person. And that you were just plain lucky to be born in a different family in a different environment. And you know it.
What would you say you have learnt about the human beings so far?
Wow, big question:-)
Well, I’ll sound a bit like a hippie and make my parents proud;-). But the more I learn the simpler it becomes. We are basically all looking for the same few things in live. We want to live in safety. We want to belong to a community. We want a roof over our heads and we want the very best for our children. Those mechanisms can lead to so many different actions. A lot of them good, a lot of them bad. Wars are fought over land to give safety to a certain group of people – or over natural resource for food or prosperity. People will migrate/flee for those reasons and to create better lives for their kids. People in subcultures will seek safety within that subculture and feel a sense of belonging and if we don’t accept them into our bigger communities they will retract even more.
It’s all pretty simple and I bless my work for being able to make me a wiser person. I still have a long way to go to becoming a good person, but I am sure I would have been a lot less nice and understanding had I not had the experiences of meeting all the different types of people I have.
What do you think about the future of photojournalism?
I wish I could give a very happy answer to that one…! Honestly, I am sometimes frustrated with the outlook as it is now. I am frustrated that our industry is in shatters, I am sad that our youths don’t seem to take enough interest in the world outside their Facebook account. I am not sure where all this will go. I know the sources of income and traditional funding and publishing are drying up but I am not sure what the new possibilities are… If I was independently rich, I think I would probably only shoot my own projects and then live of my fortune – or if I had another good non-photo job, maybe do that and shoot on big project in my spare time every other year?
But I still love getting assignments and shooting the smaller stories too. I love when clients are happy and new readers get to see my work. But I try to stay positive. Just taking one day at the time.
Could you recommend some photographers or photojournalists? Why do you like their work? Please recommend us some photobooks as well.
Honestly, I am a bit behind on this – I used to buy a lot of books, but haven’t lately. I know these is a lot of new talent out there, but instead I will mention some of the most profound influences on my long-term work and approach. They won’t be very surprising, but as the true classics they are, they should be looked into by anyone wishing to do this kind of work.
I have a ton of respect for everything done by Eugene Richards. To always be able to find the energy to do very strong, social issues work for decades is astounding. He is very important to me, to photographers and to his country. If you can ever hear him give a presentation you should. He is so empathetic, so knowledgable, so humble and so angry at injustice – he is an icon in this type of work.
On the same note, especially, the early work of Swedish photographer Anders Petersen is just amazing. He gets so close to people, so intimate – I remember looking at a picture from his project about a Swedish prison where an inmate is having sex with his visiting girlfriend and thinking:
“Wow, that situation is so intimate, so genuine, so strong” and then I thought:
“How did he manage to even be in that room?! How did they let him? HOW do you do that?”
Swedish photographer Kent Klich inspired me too, or course, by his very intimate work on a Danish drug addict called Beth. He did a book in the late 80s called “Beth’s Book” Or perhaps “Book of Beth” which is just heartbreakingly strong but also has a lot of love and humor in it. He also kept in contact with Beth and continued to document her life.
I would like to ask something (maybe quite obvious)… but shooting stories like Mia, for example, where someone is offering you their privacy (I guess for no money), how do you build the relationship? Are you becoming friend/confidant? How do you get the distance between personal life and this photography project?
Hey Ely, great question and something that is often the source of pain, frustration and guilty consciences.
First of all, you are right – there is no money involved. I’ve paid some dinners and snacks over the years and once, Mia borrowed about 20-30 euros, which I had forgotten about when she paid me back shortly after:-)
So, that’s exactly how I would do with other friends.
In terms of our relationship I normally say, that I am probably 30-40% friend and 60-70% photographer – but if you ask Mia, she would probably turn those numbers around.
I care about Mia, when I see her these years I shoot less and less and we talk more and more. But the hard truth is that we would not have gotten to know each other if I haven’t approached her with the intent of shooting a project.
Our relationship would also be closer if I didn’t live on the other side of the planet (I am now based in China). So, I only see her, on average, once, maybe twice, a year now. She doesn’t have email or Facebook, and changes her phone numbers to fast for me to keep up so even though I think of her I can’t easily reach out and chat to her.
That’s hard and actually gives me a guilty conscience. It would be nice to be able just to say hi a few times a year and not only when I am in Copenhagen and carrying a camera.
But Mia is amazing in the sense that no matter how hard her own life treats her, she has resources to think about others. She is a really good friend to the people around her. A few years ago, not long after the 2013 Japanese tsunami and Fukushima disaster, I was back home in Denmark. When I met Mia, she said she had been really worried about me when she heard about the tsunami and nuclear power plant being on the verge of blowing up. I told her, that I was in China, not Japan and then she said that wasn’t that far enough from Japan that she wouldn’t worry. I, literally, couldn’t find the words to tell her how moved I was. It was like our roles had just been turned upside down – here, I was with a woman who sometimes have lived very much on the edge of life, who was worried for me… Thinking about it right now, gives me goosebumps.
I do think that Mia has been able to take some sort of comfort in having me as a friend – She lost contact with a lot or all of the friends who led more normal lives and I think it comforts her a little that at least she knows me and that I am doing O. She has always taken a lot of pride in the project and when the project has been awarded, she has always been very happy for me.
But honestly, I do think this is a very hard part of doing long-term projects. You often have that sensation of being the friend who ran away, who is not as good at staying in touch as you should be.