A few weeks ago, we attended Scandinavia’s biggest photography event, Copenhagen Photo Festival. People from Denmark and abroad had the chance to see and participate in various exhibitions, events, workshops, city walks, an auction and artist talks. Local and international media has been covering happenings throughout the city for ten days, introducing works of established and emerging photographers to the world. In order to know better what was going on in Copenhagen from June 6 to 16, we discuss xenophobia, the glamorization of plastic surgery, media influence, beauty ideals, staged self-portraits, personal projects, Japan, Mozambique, radicalism, Islamophobia and many other interesting topics with photographers Espen Rasmussen, Ditte Haarløv Johnsen, Chris Calmer, and Olivia Rohde.

Espen Rasmussen
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It is very interesting to know how the White Rage project, a series documenting far-right extremists, came about. Can you tell us more?
The idea for this project came when I was documenting the refugee crises in Europe in 2015. I followed four young Syrian men fleeing from Syria to Germany. I followed them during their whole flight, from Turkey to Greece, the Balkans and Germany, where it ended after several months. In the beginning, I saw how Europe was opening up for the refugees, welcoming them and helping. But at the end of the project, the mood had changed in many places. Instead of discussing how to help the refugees, it was about how to stop them.
Governments built fences and populist parties were gaining power in different countries. This was when I realized that the right-wing was on the rise, and I started the research for the White Rage project. During the beginning of this project, other things have happened as well: a coup in Turkey, Marine Le Penn rising in France, the United Kingdom out of the European Union, and in the United States, Trump as president.
Why do you think it is important for the society to know about the views and life of those you photograph?
As a journalist, I think it is very important to show all aspects of our society, even if we don’t like what we see. I guess it is much worse to ignore the rise of the right-wing than to show what's really going on. If we don’t document this and tell the public about it, it will be much more difficult to debate and fight it. To have fruitful discussions, we need to investigate and create a basis for debate and knowledge. And letting the right-wing people speak is a way to tell society about their ideas, why they hate and let people make up their minds about what they read.
How do you manage to engage right-wing representatives in a visual and verbal conversation?
There are two things that have been important to get people talking and taking part in this project: they need to trust you and you need to let them talk. So I, together with the writer Ronny Berg, spent a lot of time communicating with different right-wing people and groups – through Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp, e-mail, and phone. Most of them hate the media, so we needed to get their trust. We had to travel to many places to meet them, then return back home before we could return again and do the reporting. And because they were able to talk, many of them agreed to meet me. I also used a large format camera with film for the portraits, which actually helped when I wanted to photograph people. Many of the extreme right-wing people are also nostalgists, and when they learned that I used an old camera, they wanted to be photographed.
From your personal observation, why do you think people get this easily radicalized and beguiled with extremist ideas?
I think there are many reasons for this. In many places, you have unemployment, and many are frustrated and blame immigrants, for example. I also see that many, especially men, lack purpose in their life and a place to belong. Right-wing groups are very often based on close ties between the members, activities, and friendships. This often attracts men that feel they are outside of society. Then, you have people who have experienced some kind of trauma in their life and they again blame Jews, immigrants, the media and the politicians.
A general mistrust in society, and especially in the political establishment, attracts people to the right-wing ideas and groups as well. Many blame immigrants, often Muslims, for crimes committed in their countries, and this creates hate and right-wing ideas. Many of the people I met also strongly believe in conspiracy theories. They use the Internet to confirm a lot of their ideas – and you will always find support for any kind of idea on the Internet –, which again leads them towards nationalism and extremism. You also find a lot of social media campaigns that target young people with extreme right-wing ideas on different kinds of platforms.
From the images, it is clear that Islamophobia and anti-immigration views are getting pretty powerful in your own country, Norway. What do you think the reasons are and how do the rest of the society and the government react to it?
There are some people in Norway who blame immigrants and Muslims for almost everything that is wrong in our country. We also have few groups like Stop the Islamification of Norway, for example. They don’t have many members, neither other similar groups, but what we do see in Norway is that there are many anti-immigration voices on the Internet. They don’t come out in public but in comments, articles, etc. The government reacts to this in different ways. But as long as there is freedom of speech in Norway, these groups and people are allowed to demonstrate and be loud about their opinions. I think this is the correct strategy. It is much better to see them and be able to confront them than not know anything until they suddenly rise from the darkness.

Ditte Haarløv Johnsen
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I’d like to congratulate you for being part of Self-Staged exhibition. Can you give us more insight? How were the photographs selected and what was the idea behind the show?
On a curatorial side, the idea was to let the old tradition of staging a portrait meet the new tradition of staging selfies. This was done by choosing thirty-two acknowledged photographers working within a broad field of portraiture and by asking them to stage a self-portrait. The photographers were given freedom in terms of what they delivered for the exhibition. For many, there was a big challenge involved in posing in front of the camera, being the ones that are normally most comfortable hiding behind it. It was then up to the curators to make the pictures create a visual storyline in terms of how the show was presented. The space of the old Royal Theatre also worked with the theme – self-staged.
I was totally blown away when I saw your photograph. It's definitely something controversial and at the same time, mind-blowing. When was it taken and how would you describe it?
I’m normally not very good at describing my pictures. That’s why I take them so that they can speak for me. But I can describe the situation I lived in when it was taken. It was around four years ago. All my life I had been longing to have a family to belong to, but I had also been too busy travelling around the world and doing my projects to really settle down. In my late thirties, I fell deeply in love with a man and we had a son soon after.
The dream come true turned into something entirely different from what I had imagined. The baby boy screamed non-stop for eight months. And he never slept. The only time he didn’t scream was when he was breastfed. Those were the hardest months of my life. My boyfriend and I were so worn out, and yet we tried our best to take care of the little one and at the same time not forget why we had a child in the first place. That’s what’s happening in the picture. To me, there’s some humour involved in the shot, which I like. It’s like, ‘Here we are. Our daily life with a screaming baby is totally messed up. We don’t have time for ourselves nor each other, so let’s just enjoy Maputo here and now.’
At the exhibition, you told me you are going back to Mozambique. Will you be continuing your photo series there or do you have something else on your mind? For those who don’t know much about your ties with Mozambique and the Maputo Diary photo series, can you talk a bit about that as well?
I’m going back to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. I’ll stay there for three weeks. I haven't been there since I was pregnant with my son, which was more than five years ago. Before, I used to go there every year or two. Maputo is where I grew up, and it’s also where I took my first photography course in 1998. Back then, I met a group of young gay men. We became friends and I started photographing them. They called themselves ‘The Sisters’. That meeting was the beginning of the series Maputo Diary.
Since then, the series has grown to be also about other friends and my own intimate family (my mother and sister lived in Maputo until recently). In this way, Maputo Diary has become a monument of twenty years of life in the city. Many have died along the way and some are still alive. I don’t know who or what I find when I go back. But my aim is to take the last pictures for the series so that I can finally tie it all together in a book, and from there, maybe start a new story – which I have still to find.
I am looking forward to our interview in August, but before then, I want to ask how you choose who to photograph? People look like shooting stars in your photographs.
Thanks for the compliment! Actually, I’m finding old negatives these days that are not so pretty and thinking I might include them in the book. There’s a certain dynamic in my ‘wrong’ pictures that I’m excited about. Nevertheless, in terms of who I choose to photograph, I was always more drawn to people that have a little than people that have a lot. Maybe because when I grew up in Mozambique, there was war and we all had very little, and that made us come together.
Many of the people in my pictures are somehow living in the margins of society. They endure such hardships and yet they keep on moving on and believing in a brighter tomorrow. The way I see them is as true heroes. There’s often not much attention given to the marginalized people in media, and if there is attention, it will often be generalized. I see it as my responsibility to give the people I photograph a space to shine in and show their human faces so that in the end it might bring us all a little closer.

Chris Calmer
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How did Copenhagen Photo Festival go for you? Can you tell us about your exhibition Trans-Formation – Real is How You Feel?
The photographs for the exhibition were taken at a plastic surgery clinic in Copenhagen. I wanted to document a cosmetic surgery procedure for the project. In the exhibition, I reference cosmetic surgery advertising as well as old Western ‘wanted’ posters in the lettering and post-production. The images were scanned multiple times, printed on satin fabric and embroidered. I wanted them to be over-the-top and almost too much. The goal was to reflect on over-exaggeration and obsession. It was great being part of the festival, especially at Carlsberg Byens Galleri and Kunst Salon, curated by Marie Anine Møller. She curated an amazing exhibition I was happy being part of. It's always great to be offered a platform where you can showcase something you spent a lot of time on.
What's your personal motivation in photography and what is it that inspires you the most?
Lately, I’m very inspired by couture. I just did my first Haute Couture shoot and it has definitely motivated me to keep shooting high fashion. It's incredible to shoot pieces whose creation required so much time, some just for the craftsmanship. As some of the couture pieces can't be easily worn, they become more like a piece of art that's part of history. When you shoot couture, it's already an art form; you can do a lot with having that in an image because it's already a creation in itself. I’m always thinking about things I could do that would challenge me. I believe that's the only way you can grow as an artist, wanting to learn and by maintaining the mentality that you don’t know anything while still knowing that you are worth as a creative producer.
What do you think about the glamorization of plastic surgery in the media?
It’s very problematic how we as a society, especially younger generations, praise and idolize people who present themselves as being perfect in the media. These influential people- often with the biggest social platforms – rarely have anything on the line or anything else to offer publicly than their looks. It's very uninspiring. I think the way cosmetic surgery is glamorized is that it's very focused on the physical aspect. The quick change, meanwhile completely disregarding the effects it could have on your psyche.
What does beauty mean to you and how do you perceive it?
It’s hard to answer this question without giving the same cop-out answer. For me, beauty is seeing my friends succeeding with grace in something they have been working on for a long time – personal as well as professional. It gives you an internal validation that reflects on the outside to people around you. I think that's the most beautiful.
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Olivia Rohde
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What’s your project Vague about and how do you think Japan is different from the way the Western world perceives it?
In Japan, I found myself in a state of cultural shock – a combination of extreme fascination and a yearning for the familiar. The word ‘familiar’ is important here, a keyword to what the project Vague challenges. A tendency amongst Western identity is the need to define other cultures and put them into boxes. This way, we feel safe. In Japan, the familiar is hidden away in the eye of a Westerner and our safe assumptions are reduced to guessing. The imagery in my photographs are inconclusive and encourage wonder in the eye of the beholder.
The people who are portrayed in the images represent the lack of a conclusive definition. I believe that humans have a split identity – both as individuals and as a group. And what I experienced in Japan supports my statement. The viewers are free to gage these ambiguous images and let the thoughts, ideas, and interpretations flow without necessarily coming to a conclusion. Perhaps this way, we can create a universal language without the need to define it.
Going through your webpage, I saw you have worked with various fashion brands, commercials, etc. But Vague is something more intimate and personal. Can you share your experience with both commercial and personal work?
Vague is definitely my most intimate and personal project, and it is truly a milestone for me to have come to this point of my career. For me, it's very important to find a balance in my work. When I started as a photography student, I loved that everything was so experimental and new. Today, I live off my photographs so, of course, there is a lot of work not necessarily focusing on the creatives within photography. That's why I always try to have my own projects on the side.
In my personal projects, I often use analogue because I admire the slow process. In commercial work, the deadline is always ‘tomorrow’, so when it comes to my personal work, it is all about taking my time, being intuitive and never compromising. Luckily for me though, a lot of my work revolves around the creative way of doing photography. My clients are often aware of my ability to create pictures that have a more quirky vibe and fortunately, social media has allowed quirkiness in branding.
Are you planning to go back to Japan or maybe you have some other plans you’d like to talk about?
I am definitely going back to Japan. Hopefully at the beginning of 2020. I'm planning on staying for two weeks by myself to travel around. Later, my husband will join. Before then, in July, I am going to Iceland with my family. I am really looking forward to it, as it's going to be the most amazing experience because of nature. It was truly fascinating and overwhelming when I first visited the country two years ago. I am not that skilled to do ‘nature photography’ because of the setting there and because the pictures don't add up, but I just bought an analogue camera that should be amazing in its production, so hopefully, I can create a more authentic vibe.
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