It was at a talk with Anders Petersen that my understanding of photography changed. Petersen is a Swedish photographer known for his intimate black-and-white photographs, and his landmark book Cafe Lehmitz is a must for anyone serious about photography. He was at FotoIstanbul, a month-long photography festival in Istanbul, to talk about some of his work from different cities where he spent time, met people and photographed them at home or elsewhere. The work, at times abstract and concrete, sexual and not so, was affecting in its rawness and its honesty. Petersen has no compunction about asking to photograph someone in intimate settings, and occasionally people ask him to do so. To hear him talk is to listen to a man deeply moved by the people he photographs, and at one point in the session, he said, “We always talk about strong photographers, but we don’t talk about being weak… weak enough to feel the secrets and the magic in life.”
Petersen spends years on his projects. Cafe Lehmitz was the result of three years spent in a beer hall in Hamburg’s red light district. Other projects of his took similar amounts of time. In many ways, he becomes a part of the place he’s photographing, whether it’s a beer hall, a city, an old people’s home or anywhere else. Petersen opens himself up to these experiences, and the photographs coalesce naturally. He allows himself to be weak, to be vulnerable, and by giving of himself in that way, he can forge a stronger connection with those around him.
Photographs that fail often do because they lack any emotional depth, which often has to do with the photographer’s ability to bring that out in their subject and how they’re photographing. Petersen’s line about weakness is tremendously instructive because in opening ourselves up to what we’re experiencing we become better able to capture the emotion visually. I’ve written previously about being invisible in photography, how earning the trust of who you’re photographing can help you to disappear in a certain sense, and as a result, you’ll get better photographs. I realize now that there’s an imbalance in that logic. It’s not about drawing someone out while you hide behind the camera in order to let the photographs guide the experience. Rather the experience should guide the photographs.
There’s more to photography than just the photographs. This was a common refrain throughout several of the talks I attended – Petersen’s, Josef Koudelka’s and Stanley Greene’s. A photograph is a distilled representation of an experience. It isn’t always clear what led to an image’s creation unless the photographer tells us the story behind it, and with Petersen’s talk in particular, his photographs were the result of experiences in which he was fully present and weak, “weak enough to feel the secrets and magic in life.”
It isn’t easy. Opening oneself up takes time, and for some, I imagine, it’s uncomfortable prospect. In my practice, there has occasionally been a distance between me and what I’m photographing, and it’s one that can’t necessarily be remedied by moving closer as common interpretations of Capa’s quote would have you believe. The emotional distance can be the hardest gap to bridge, but in opening yourself up, in allowing yourself to be weak in the presence of others, you stand a good chance of getting closer than you could otherwise.