According to a popular proverb, a photo speaks more than a thousand words. But however paradoxical it might seem, if the photos themselves are surrounded by a language you don’t understand, you might never get to see them.
Not long ago, Mike Johnston, editor of The Online Photographer, published a list of classical photo books still in print. I’m a regular reader of TOP, and have a great respect for the editor, who is a person with an immense knowledge about the world of photography. The more disappointed I was, when I discovered that out of the eight books on Mike’s list, the number by or about non-US-American photographers were – zero!
Mike’s respond to criticism for being US-centric was essentially, that the list was a product of his own cultural upbringing – and that anybody would be free to make their own list…
The following is my response. Contrary to Mike’s list, I make no claim that the books on this list are “classics”. I’m not sure what a “classic” is and certainly don’t feel qualified for (or interested in) that discussion. There might be a dozen reasons why a photo book reach a broad public and become popular. And it seems that one of the prerequisites is that the accompanying text is written in a major language – preferably English. Consequently, I have put together a list of all the books by Danish photographers published in English that I am aware off.
Are Danish photographers better or more interesting than – let’s say – American, Italian or Congolese photographers? Not on an average. But some of them are in fact quite good. Anyway, whatever your interest in Danish photography might be or might not be: with this list, language is no longer an excuse to stay away.
A final note before we begin: I made this list out of personal interest. I claim no professional authority what so ever in this field. I just hope somebody will find it useful.
Bearing witness in black and white
It seems appropriate to start this presentation with a couple of books by Henrik Saxgren (1953). Saxgren has been a prominent figure in Danish photojournalism since the early 1970’s. Most of his work consists of photo essays from around the world – very often from places of conflict or poverty – with at strong sense of social commitment. Another part of his photographs depicts everyday life in Denmark, with an eye for both anger and humour.
Saxgrens photos have been published in magazines and a number of books. The first one in English was Point of view (Aperture, 1998). The book is divided into two parts, of which the first one is a retrospective collection of pictures taken during the 1980s. It opens with sunbathing and picnics on the beach in Denmark, but soon moves to other locations: Poland during the time of the Solidarnosc-strikes, Rumania in the aftermath of the uprising in 1989, street fighting and everyday life in Palestine and election campaign in Nicaragua. It ends in Denmark, among alcoholics and homeless. The second part is a collection of five photo-essays: a day in the life of a Cuban fisherman, children in Haïti living in a rubbish dump, refugees from Rwanda in a camp in Zaïre, under age prostitutes in Nicaragua and finally back to Haïti for a voodoo ceremony.
In one of his early books Saxgren has mentioned Sebastião Salgado and Mary Ellen Mark among his sources of inspiration. A number of the photos in P.O.V. resemble these photographers in style and/or subject. But in the end, Saxgren is Saxgren. He has a very good eye for contradictions, which from time to time introduces a certain bizarre humour in his pictures. He bears witness about injustice and inhumanity, but he also shows the small moments of joy and hope, even in the most depressing circumstances.
Saxgrens second book in English is Solomons house (Aperture, 2000). It’s about children without families in Nicaragua, doomed to live on the street, since the right wing government coming to power in 1990 closed the orphanages and social programs set up by the Sandinistas. These are very strong and emotional pictures of children immersed in a world of drug addiction, crime and prostitution.
After the publication of Solomons house, Saxgren felt it was time for a change. He moved away from working primarily in B&W and started experimenting with colour and new types of subject. His latest project consists of portraits of immigrants to the Nordic countries.
About ten years ago, a new generation started to make itself seen in Danish press photography – and abroad. In the last decade, Danish photographers has frequently been on the award list of World Press Photo or received other prestigious prices. One of them is Jan Grarup (1968).
Jan Grarup works for the newspaper Politiken, covering conflicts and catastrophes around the globe. Shadowland (Politikens forlag 2006) is a collection of his photographs from such places as Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Rwanda, Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq and Darfur. It is pictures of people involved in, but mostly victims of some of the world’s most brutal armed conflicts. In addition there are photos from earthquakes in Pakistan and Iran, and finally a small essay on life of the European Roma – a.k.a. gypsies – a people unwanted and oppressed in most countries.
Grarups photography is in classical B&W and his skills are clearly equal to the best in the field. Like James Nachtwey, just to mention the most obvious. Just like Nachtwey, Grarups primary focus is on the innocent victims of war and conflict. He wants to bear witness on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and are too often neglected by the rest of the world. And just like Nachtwey he has a fabulous sense of timing and composition. Critics might find some of his pictures to esthetically pleasing, considering the subject. Personally, I find it’s a legitimate way to get attention to the stories, Grarup want to tell us.
I have the greatest respect for people like Grarup, who put their physical health – and, I would guess, their mental health too – in jeopardy, to bring these stories to our attention. I fully agree that newspapers and other media must strive to make a difference, by bringing these horrors to the public attention. But collected in a book of more than 200 pages, it is almost too much. So much death and destruction and so little hope. Personally I can only cope with this book a few pages at a time. Then I have to put it down to remind myself, that there is also another world out there after all.