Ditte Haarløv Johnsen, who grew up in Mozambique, is one of Denmark’s best and most interesting female photographers right now. After the African country gained its independence from Portugal, her parents settled in Mozambique, where Ditte’s photographic journey began. She took her first-ever course in photography in Maputo, which she describes as “a groundbreaking experience”.
As a teenager, she moved to Denmark with her father but continued to shoot Maputo during her travels back to Mozambique, where her mother and youngest sister remained. Having gone on an exchange programme from Denmark to Canada to delve deep into the photographic process, she realized that photography was what she wanted to pursue the rest of her life. The camera helped her to always be herself, and thanks to it, Ditte gained access to places she could have otherwise never appeared in.

After twenty years photographing life in Mozambique – its people, the city, the civil war, friends, struggles, addiction, love, togetherness, a sense of belonging and, generally, the everyday life as it was –, Ditte created a photographic archive depicting the history of the country, the relationships between people, how they loved, how they suffered, how they stood together, and how they kept on fighting for a better future. It could just be an image of a kid jumping on a yellow mattress, her mother looking out the window, her gay friend smoking a cigarette, or a black man standing in a Superman costume on top of a building; those pictures have a beguiling attraction in themselves. The moment you look at them, they fill you up with curiosity, wanting to see more and more of what she’s got.

Belonging is maybe one of the most important elements she’s been after throughout her career, whether it’s to a family, a community, a society or culture. “Love is belonging and belonging is loving”, she tells me. Ditte’s vision is all about humans, their life and the miracle of existence. She captures what it means to be human and brings to the front core values of what makes us one through her photographs. “With my camera, I insist on intimacy in pain. When death is all around, life burns bright and strong”, says Ditte. And I think this is one of the most beautiful explanations of one’s own photography.
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You grew up in Mozambique and as a teenager came back to Denmark. How was your childhood there?
I had a great childhood and a very free upbringing. We were living in Mozambique just after it gained its independence in 1975. We went there in 1982, I was five years old. When we got there, there was this spirit of great belief in the future. I started going to the Mozambican kindergarten and, very soon, I found myself standing with all the other kids shouting, ‘long live the president’, ‘long live the party’, ‘long live independence!’
There was this strong feeling of community and togetherness because it was a socialist country, so that was sort of a dogma – ‘as we stand together, we can win our freedom and we can overcome all challenges.’ The backside of it was, of course, the Cold War. Mozambique was socialist, but then there was an Apartheid regime in South Africa, there were the United States, West Germany, and they didn’t like our socialist country because there was a battle for African resources. So they started supporting the guerilla group called Renamo.
How did this affect you or your daily life?
In daily conversations, they were just called bandits. It’s said that they started the civil war, but it was not really a civil war because it was fuelled by Western countries that didn’t want the socialist regime to function. War meant that we couldn’t get anything in the shops, so if we wanted meat, we had to exchange something with somebody who had a goat or a pig. People were very social and needed each other to survive. There was a kind of togetherness in that sense.
There were no cars, so as kids we could just run on the streets and have them all for ourselves; we kind of owned the streets. We could also go to the cinema for free because of the socialist regime. Every Sunday morning, they would show some Russian movie that we didn’t understand, but it was great because we could go there anyway. But because of the war, we couldn’t really get out much.
I guess it was pretty hard to get from one place to another.
In the beginning, we could drive to Swaziland and, sometimes, do some shopping there. My parents had an old Lada and they would always ask me to lie down on the car floor because, in case the bandits fired, they hopefully wouldn’t shoot me. So that’s what you do as a kid: you don’t think much about it but there’s this knowledge that you are not completely safe. Maybe mostly because my friends had families who had suffered from the war with cousins who were kidnapped or killed and stories like that.
Also, I was white and we were just as poor in many ways – my parents were getting the same Mozambican wage and all, it was not like they were white privileged people as it is now. I would say they made a choice to be there and I had more toys even though I had no toys compared to what kids have today (at least, what I see in Denmark). But you know, I had a doll and my friends didn’t have any, so they stole mine and that’s how it was. In that sense, it was a little bit rough.
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Were there any other white people around you besides your parents?
There was another white girl; she was Portuguese living on the fifth floor and she had more toys, so I stole something from her. There was the knowledge of skin colour, of being different, of being privileged in some sense. Even though there was a sense of togetherness, there was also this schism of both belonging and being a little bit on the outside. But I had a great childhood! I wouldn’t live it any differently because, when you are a child, it’s also what you take for granted.
If I tell you what I wished was different… Maybe my parents being more present and there for me. But that’s not about Mozambique; it’s about intimate family relationships. I feel very grateful for having grown up right there at that time of history because it was a special time. The Cold War, the freedom of the African countries and that strong movement still reside in me, and that knowledge of what can actually be accomplished when people stand together. That’s guiding my life, that’s what I believe in, that’s my religion.
I think I have to mention that apart from the civil war, Apartheid also played a strong role in growing up; I knew what was going on on the other side. My parents had friends from the ANC who would be kidnapped and suddenly, the next time you heard from them, they would be on Robben Island – where Mandela also was. There were car bombings – what you now call terrorism; for the Apartheid regime, it was killing people who were political. So, I grew up knowing that the world is a very complex place where political beliefs and freedom still need to be fought for. Not everybody is free.
I imagine it should have been hard returning to Denmark from Mozambique. How did you start a new life in ‘your’ country?
I was lucky. I was back for a brief period when I was 8 to 10 years old. In that sense, I lived a small process of reintegration, which helped me a lot because, when I came back as a teenager, it was hell. I knew a few people from before and I also had my grandparents, who meant a lot to me, so there was this sense of belonging with them. But my teenage years were totally out of sync.
In what sense? You didn’t connect with your peers?
I mean, it’s already hard being a teenager, but going to school here made it even harder. All I cared about was the injustice of the world and the third world countries – or whatever you call them now –, how they were all forgotten and how nobody cared about all the injustice going on. In the meantime, all the Danish teenagers I would go to school with just wanted to party and have a good time. I became this very serious and also very lonely teenager. I kind of just didn’t know how to fit in, so those years were not happy at all. Also, because my parents divorced, my mother stayed in Mozambique and I was living with my father, and that made it more lonely.
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Your vibrant photo series Maputo Diary is your way of seeing life in Mozambique. How would you describe Maputo and growing up as a white kid in Africa?
Well, the series began in 1998 when I took the very first photography course in my life at the photo school in Maputo. That’s where I learned to shoot black and white, develop film in the darkroom, all the processing, printing, seeing people, etc. In the beginning, I always had this strong sense of belonging but, at the same time, being a little bit on the outside. Also, being the white kid intensified when I became a teenager.
I’ve talked about my early childhood, but while being a teenager, things started to change because the war carried on. It had been going on for ten years by then, and like in many other socialist countries, the regime started filling their pockets with money. It was still the same party governing, so they became richer, people became poorer, and many refugees started coming from the countryside. There were several street kids who lost their parents in the war and poverty was growing. But when I was a teenager, my father got a job at the Danish Embassy, so then we were like a diplomatic family and lived in a house in a posher part of the city.
In what ways did your father’s new job change your everyday life? If you worked for the Embassy, I assume you weren’t that poor anymore…
It was still the war. If you saw it today… However, it was still being different and being more white. The camera sort of allowed me to belong again because then I could go and knock on the doors of people who lived in other parts of the town – poorer but also more original and real. I had a reason to be there, which was the camera. In 1998, of course, the visual sphere was not as polluted by cameras as it is today because it was before the digital age; to have a camera and take pictures was something special, and for me, it meant the start.
My mother was living in Mozambique, so the reason I went there in 1998 was to visit her. I was actually going to Canada because of an exchange programme with the university in Copenhagen where I was studying – like the good girl and daughter who was going to be an academic like her parents. That’s what was expected of me. I did that but I wasn’t happy being there. I didn’t like Denmark, so I chose a programme to go on an exchange and see something different from what I already knew about the world.
Was it as useful as you expected? Did you discover something new about the world?
By chance, I ended up in a university where I could study photography full-time! So I came from that one course I did in Maputo as a kid, which was a groundbreaking experience, to Canada, where I could go in-depth into the process I had started in Maputo. I just totally let myself be swallowed up by photography.
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And how did the Maputo Diary series begin?
The first pictures were taken in 1998, but the real Maputo Diary started in 2000 when I went back to the city – I always did so once or twice a year. There, I met this group of young gay men, ‘the sisters’, walking in the street, and that was something I had never seen before out open in Maputo. So, I had to turn into this courageous photographer and ask them if I could take a picture of them. That’s something I’ve always been very shy to do, so the camera helped me to push my own boundaries.
I did that and just hung out with them for two weeks or something. Not very long but long enough to feel that there was a story and that I could take some pictures. When I returned to Denmark after Canada, I didn’t go back to the university because of photography and got a job as an assistant photographer. I had an exhibition at the Fotografisk Centre with the sisters, and after having worked for the photographer for a year, I managed to raise money to go back to Maputo, continue photographing and finish the series.
It’s a beautiful story. Were these the first pictures you took of the Maputo Diary series?
I didn’t know that was the beginning of Maputo Diary back then, but when I went there for the second time, I started photographing other things besides the sisters. I went more in-depth into their lives and also photographed their families. They became sort of my extended family and friends. I was supposed to be there for three months, but I stayed for – I think – almost half a year. I had a Mozambican boyfriend who was also a photographer and was HIV positive.
At that time, HIV was really big down there, so I always had this feeling of being very close to death and very close to life at the same time. It was an intense period of my life, so I wasn’t thinking about what I was photographing; I was just photographing and also filming. I felt there were more stories to be told. Only after I came back to Denmark, I started looking at the pictures and realized it was much bigger, so I called it Maputo Diary.
I like the name.
I am actually trying to find a new one because I think it’s more than a diary now as it’s also very much about the people, the country and that special time. It’s not just my story, it’s also theirs. It has been going on for twenty years, and during this time, lots of things have changed there. Even though it’s the same party in power and some things don’t change, the mindset of the people along with the technical revolution are changing the country’s landscape.
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I’d like to know more about it. In what ways?
Poverty is growing to extreme dimensions and there’s a lack of value of human life, which comes from the political leaders, who don’t value the people they govern. In the end, it goes down to one-to-one relationships resulting in much bigger crimes. The sense of security is almost non-existent for people. It all comes from political and human decline, but at least, now one can say that there is a sort of awareness that the leaders are corrupt and they should be changed. But there’s just been an election, and the same party that has been ruling since the independence won by far –75% of votes or something.
The opposition is not very strong, and during the elections, people have been murdered for being in opposition parties. Of course, this is not set out open, but you see people getting killed who don’t belong to the ruling party and who are speaking out. That’s something I also want to talk about in Maputo Diary – the decline of respect for human life that comes from African leaders but which also comes from the West, which is buying all the natural resources of the country.
When I spoke to Jan Grarup, a war photographer who’s spent almost all his life in the continent, he also told me about the vital role Western countries play in the destabilization of African governments to be able to use their natural resources while creating war and chaos…
Suddenly, it turned out that Mozambique has this huge secret debt and Credit Suisse was part of issuing the secret state loan of two billion US dollars. So, it’s not like African leaders are acting alone, the Western world has very strong interests and benefits in keeping the country destabilized so that they can pull out all the natural resources that have been discovered recently such as oil, natural gas, diamonds, big forests, etc.
Hundred-year-old trees were cut down just like that to be sold, so there’s no consciousness or respect for humans’ or nature’s worth. And that’s very sad, a complete contrast to what I came to grow up with, which was great respect for humanity, solidarity, the feeling of being responsible for one another and coming together for freedom. When I go back there now, I feel nobody remembers or cares anymore, and that’s a little bit strange.
Apart from Maputo Diary, you have shot some very interesting photos during your residencies in Strasbourg and San Sebastian. Can you talk about your work in France and Spain?
After I had my first son five years ago, it was hard for me to do my art. Firstly because he screamed non-stop for eight months; secondly, because my relationship with my boyfriend had been very rough, and thirdly, because I had another son two years later, so it was difficult to find the mental headspace that I needed to create. Being invited to residencies was a great opportunity because they’re these sort of lonely spaces that pull you away from your daily life and help you to see things a little bit from the outside.
I first went to San Sebastian and then to Strasbourg. In Strasbourg, I was invited by a gallery, which was a very nice experience. It was nice because I could define what I wanted to exhibit. I didn’t know much about France but I had seen all these pictures of the Paris suburbs burning, this whole thing of immigration, and also I knew about those conflicts with second and third-generation immigrants who were never really allowed to be a part of society and who have been marginalized. That conflict is still going on and I thought it would be interesting to look into.
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What did you find exactly when you explored it?
It turned out that there was a suburb in Strasbourg where the problems were the same. There was a sort of copy-paste effect, and I was very lucky to find the cultural centre and some very engaged people working there with the community of this suburb. Without them, I couldn’t have done the work. They put me in contact with the biggest Romani community in France and also with people around there. After one week, I knew where to go and who to talk to.
So you had the information, but what challenges did you face as an external person with a camera getting into their private lives?
The biggest challenge was getting the signatures – according to French laws, I had to ask everyone I photographed to sign a paper stating that it was okay to be photographed and giving their consent to be exhibited. So, they had to sign the paper, which was a little bit hardcore as for me it’s all about relationships.
But it was also important because many photographers would go to the suburbs, take their pictures, and then just walk out and not care. The people living there are so used to being treated like animals in a zoo that, in that sense, making sure they were ok being photographed and exhibited allowed me to approach them in a closer way. Also, part of the project was to make a street exhibition in the middle of the suburb with huge pictures of the people I met so they could see themselves and be proud. That was great!
Amazing! What about San Sebastian, the residence in Spain that came before Strasbourg?
San Sebastian was fantastic because I was pregnant with my youngest son while the oldest was around two years old. Those years were, in many ways, hard but also beautiful. There was a lot to be happy about since I had a child, but my creative life was on a total standstill and I was longing to get back to work. Being invited to a residency as part of a group of photographers was great. We were all living in an apartment together and were free to photograph whatever we wanted, but we all went out and did things in our own way.
For me, it was just about being in the city and walk around, but it was not an easy task because it’s a very posh, rich city. There’s San Sebastian Film Festival, there’s a lot about surfing and it’s full of tourists, so I just didn’t feel comfortable. But then, I started walking around the edges of the city and discovered this beautiful river flowing through. I followed the river and got to a suburban area where I met people and photographed them. It was a very relieving feeling to photograph with a little bit of a loose hand without being too concerned with framing as I normally am.
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Your photography revolves around people. Why is it so important for you to photograph humans? What do they tell you about themselves that we should know too?
That’s a good question. For me, I think it’s about human connection. It’s like being in a sort of very primitive psychological place or stage where I get a lot out from connecting with other people. It makes me feel more alive when I meet people who live lives different from mine. I think the most beautiful thing is to find that common humanity we share. So, it’s a personal thing, but also, it’s part of the reason why I can tell myself that what I’m doing matters.
In the world we live in, I think it’s important to meet across our differences. I feel that’s what I can do with my pictures: to talk into the things that we share. If you think about it, we share basic things: we all can love, we all have lost somebody, there’s something we’re always longing for, a place to belong. Sadness, happiness, longing, belonging… the core feelings of being human. Meeting people and feeling that I can belong is what feeds me. That’s my thing, always longing to belong somewhere.
How do you catch those decisive moments that reveal the feelings and state of mind of those you photograph? Do you always have your camera with you? Do you get to know everyone you photograph?
It’s very different. I know some people very well, but for example, in Strasbourg, I didn’t get a chance to know anyone very well. Generally, I always work within a feeling of connection, so if I don’t feel connected to humans, I can’t photograph them. It’s as simple as that. But when I work within that feeling of connection, it sort of comes out itself. Of course, it’s not that all the pictures I take are good and reveal the feelings of the person I portray, but I know when there is the true moment.
I always take a couple of films with me wherever I go as I still work analogue. I sometimes feel a picture may have something, but after revealing it, I get very depressed. But when the real moment is there, I just know. My photography is simply about the feeling of connection. Then, you know that people are showing their true selves because you are somehow connected to them, so they’re not trying to hide. There’s no reason for that.
I love your Teenage Mothers series too. How did you come up with the idea of photographing and asking the girls to write texts about motherhood?
Teenage Mothers was my first step toward filmmaking. I’m always very interested in the human being I’m photographing and also am hungry to hear their story. I was still in school in Canada when I made this project, so I was trying out my visual language and discovered that I could use a medium-format camera to construct these images. I asked the girls to sit on their bed. They are all pretty but I didn’t want them to smile and told them to be neutral or give me a serious look.
When I went through all these pictures, I thought they looked too sad. But that’s not true, they were not sad! Most of them were extremely happy and grateful for their children and that’s why I thought I needed to give them a voice. So, I didn’t become Ditte who shows how serious life is or how sad it is to be a teenage mother but gave them the possibility to reveal themselves through writing. I’m really happy I did that because the actual way they write tells so much you don’t even have to read what they write. It’s just to see their handwriting, the way words are leaned one way or another or how much they wrote or how dense.
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Talking about filmmaking, I would like to ask you about your film Days of Hope and the importance of showing people the hardships of refugees through art.
Days of Hope is about the refugees from Africa, mostly West Africa, or people you couldn’t even call refugees but maybe just migrants, people who were looking for a better life because the life they were living was shit and hopeless for themselves and their families. These are people who carry heavy luggage on their shoulders and look for a better life, which is definitely not in Mauritania. Mauritania was sort of a jumping trampoline, a way to reach the European border. You could take a little fishing boat to the Canary Islands and be there within twenty-four hours. But that was before I went there.
How was it like when you went there?
When I finally got there, the route had changed. I filmed one guy who wants to go to Europe. Then, I filmed in Italy when people had just arrived, and then I filmed some refugees in Denmark who had been living here for a long time already and were pretty hopeless. Showing people these hardships is important because it’s the world we are living in and it’s not going to stop just because we build higher walls or detention centres in Nigeria and other places in the desert where people can get killed more easily. It’s just going to get even more dangerous and more people are going to die if we continue treating them the way we are now, which is closing the borders of Europe. That’s very inhuman.
I believe that we are all connected and need to take responsibility for one another. Denmark has a system that’s been refined through ages and you can’t just open up the borders, but as a society, we have to find a way. If it was up to me, I would open up all borders in all countries. And if Denmark or other European countries want to close their borders, then I would say African countries should do the same and not allow Westerners in to take out all of their natural resources.
But I think we are very far away from realizing what the world we are living in is really about. Denmark is a very closed society and Europe has the tendency of closing itself too. But the world is only going to get more globalized and we’ll grow more dependent on each other, especially with the climate crisis coming up. People from the Southern hemisphere will start coming up and we shouldn’t pretend we’re innocent; we’ve been polluting the world but haven’t helped to make it stop.
You are currently working on a book. Can you share more about it?
The book is a very big project because it’s the work of the last twenty years. I have piles of pictures on the floor and now I am trying to find the best way to organize them. I have up to two thousand good pictures, which is a privilege but also confusing. I never really knew what Maputo Diary is about. Is it about me or about people? Is it about the country or about the world? Maybe about the cold war or the civil war? Or maybe about belonging and love?
I also ask myself what kind of book I can make. I mean, I can make it huge or little, or even divide it into many different volumes. But I want to finish that story for myself and for the people I’ve photographed, those who’re still alive and those who’ve already passed away. I then want to make a sort of momentum to my journey as a photographer – compare what I was in the beginning and what I am now.
I think it’s very beautiful and it can be so many things.
It’s also about a young girl becoming a woman and dealing with the issues of belonging along the way. It’s a huge project! It feels like my life project in a way, but of course, there’s also a lot of fear in something like that because when the book is ready, I will look at it and ask myself, ‘Is that it? Did I spend twenty years just for this?’ But it’s an important process no matter what comes out of it because I am dealing with my past and who I am.
I think I also worked a lot, met lots of people along the way, have been to many places, have taken many pictures and I just need to deal with it somehow. Take a step back and see these places, feel them a little bit instead of running and working non-stop. It feels good to give it some time now and not be so busy producing but just tying some knots and moving further with a different perspective.
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