Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 | T: lamono
Maja Daniels is a Swedish photographer who moved to Paris when she was 19 years old, leaving behind her origins, looking for engaging stories with social tinges to fulfill her curiosity. Her work, focused on human relations in contemporary environments, aims to give hints about the world we live in today. Sociology is her framework, and in each one of her projects we can find a piece of herself, of her identity, hand in hand with her subjects’, thanks to the lasting relations she manages to establish with them. Her images of Christiania captivated us and showed us a different concept of ‘home’, an atypical lifestyle, and though this community has changed since the year 2009, in which Maja captured them, the archive will always be available for future generations, thanks to the work of this photographer and sociologist who admits the importance ‘home’ has upon the identity of each one. T: Felipe Duarte
Your photographic series and projects document stories, i.e. Drawing the Line – Abrahams Path in Palestine, River Valley Vernacular or the Christiania archive; do you consider yourself a documentary photographer or this would narrow your practice? My inspiration to make work comes from real life; real events and encounters. My work often involves research and I use sociological methods, but I am just as much driven by feelings, fantasies, chance encounters and unexpected surprises. I draw my inspiration from everyday life, fascinating stories or a motivation to comment on, and criticize how the world works today. Creating stories is my way to have a chance to get involved with, react to, and comment on a specific topic, but also to be able to view certain realities differently and to question them. I could never be a fly on the wall. My work is about creating lasting relationships, to affect and be affected as the work evolves. I don’t think of myself as a documentary photographer and I don’t see the point of having to label myself, or the work I do that way. I think of my work as a personal and engaged kind of storytelling where I am allowed to move and be moved. My work also includes sound, moving imagery, archives and found footage materials. I combine these mediums in the same way that I use sociology in order to tell a story.
In order to depict truthfully these social aspects, such as the political situation in Palestine, the reality within an Alzheimer geriatric institution, or the existence of an independent community within a country, a great deal of trust must be gained from the subjects and community; how do you manage to achieve this and get the people to open themselves up to you? I tend to work on projects over many years, where relationships can evolve naturally over time and where I get the chance to respond to my own new impressions and experiences as part of the work as well. I am not just looking to retell someone else’s experience; I would like to live something too, in order to build a different kind of understanding and progress as a human being. To work like this means that the story will always change over time and I like that. It gives me the possibility to digest and to reflect on where the work is going before it ends. Also, I find photography in itself to be a rather aggressive act, so I try to find ways to collaborate with my subjects. I feel much more comfortable if, by photographing, I can create something as part of the process that is meaningful to the subject as well to myself. Photographing other people comes with a certain responsibility, but I don’t think that it is possible for the subject to ever feel fully represented within the work. The work that I do is anchored in their story, but it is just as much about myself as it is about the person in front of the camera. I try to make this tension very clear to my subjects, and I think the more we talk about it, the easier it will be, for both subjects and viewers, to understand the process.
As you’ve said in past interviews, developing and even starting your projects usually takes time, for example, it took you one year to get all the permissions needed for shooting Into Oblivion, and more than a year for Mady and Monette to allow you follow and photograph them. Does this frustrates you or, on the other hand, allows you to develop the project further? As I have described above, time is important when I work. Most of my work depends on gaining access to a specific place or to develop a relationship with a specific person or community. To make the effort of showing people that I am willing to spend time with what they are living is important in order to build a genuine relationship, and in the process I get to do research and learn more about the big picture, that then helps me decide on what to focus visually.
Many times, thanks to photographs, we can notice things that slid unperceived the moment the picture was being taken, making, as you have said, photography an important tool for sociological research. Which do you think is the best way to analyze a series of images? There are two ways to look at this. What photography can do for sociology, or what sociology can do for photography. For the work that I make, I tend to think more about what photography can do for sociology. Mainly, sociology gives me the courage to engage with stories, talking about the world, since it encourages the complexity within situations and helps me contextualize and understand what I see and what I am part of. However, I find that academia on its own can be rather limiting, since it has a narrow audience and it only exists within a specific context, but photography can open up sociological topics to a broader and more diverse audience. And, since the medium of photography allows for an interesting tension between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, I feel more comfortable communicating with images, since I don’t want to try to tell truths or pin down people or events to numbers and theories. I want to engage with the ‘real’ world in a more personal and creative way. In terms of what sociology can do for photography, there are many ways to analyze images, which open up possibilities to debate stereotypes and generalized attitudes in the world, especially if the photograph is enriched by an engaging and relevant context. These aspects are also part of the work I make and they can add value and depth. Often we are too caught up with what we are living that it’s hard to really see what’s going on around us. A photograph can allow us to stop and think.
Focusing on the Christiania images, what was the main thing that draw your attention into this community? Coming from Sweden, I found it fascinating to discover such a developed and organized sense of defiance existing in Scandinavia, the heart of northern Europe, known for being home to very obedient societies. Growing up in Sweden, I found the way we often blindly accept rules and regulations frustrating. When I moved to Paris at 19 years old I made friends with quite a few Danes who introduced me to Christiania, an alternative society so close to home, and I grew interested to look at it a bit more closely.
Christiania was created when a group of people came together to occupy a bit of land in the middle of Copenhagen as a way to protest against the notion of having to ‘buy one’s right to a home’
In Christiania, some illegal activities take place, such as the commerce of drugs. How can a community like this provide security and safety to its visitors and residents? My intention was never to paint a picture of Christiania as the perfect society. I just found it to be a striking example of a group of people who had decided they did not want to conform to some of society’s norms, related to capitalism and ownership, and this made me curious. I am not a spokesperson for the place and do not have any opinions of how they should go about providing safety and security to visitors and residents.
Since your project took place, the situation has changed, and now the residents bought the lands they once occupied; do you think this changes the whole ideal the community once stood up for? Christiania was created when a group of people came together to occupy a bit of land in the middle of Copenhagen as a way to protest against the notion of having to ‘buy one’s right to a home’. When, in 2011, the community was forced to buy the land of the government, this initial struggle came to an end in some respects, since the residents now effectively comply with the societal norms of land ownership. However, more than 700 residents formed a trust (or housing association) to make the purchase, and have since continued to push the area forward as an alternative society with common ownership.
In many of your projects, the concept of home is examined, for example in Christiania it is presented in a very alternative way, and in Into Oblivion, ‘home’ is this geriatric hospital for the elderly. In sociological terms, what is the importance of the notion of ‘home’ for you? Heredity, often relating to identity construction and human relations, plays an important part in all the work I make, and the notion of ‘home’ is, of course, a big part of everyone’s idea of themselves. So far, I have focused on telling other people’s stories, but in the last years I have increasingly felt the urge to move closer to home and to include myself more in the stories that I decide to tell. With my most recent and ongoing work, River Valley Vernacular, I am returning ‘home’, to Sweden, after ten years of working and living abroad. In the work I am looking at the importance that a small, threatened language; Elfdalian (my grand-parents native tongue) can have for a small rural community, where negotiations and tensions between modern lifestyles and tradition represent an important but often invisible contemporary struggle that is taking place far away from the big cities. This attempt to move my practice closer to home is a natural and very important development for me and for the future of my work. Making this work in Sweden has allowed me to bridge the gap that I have created in the past between my origins and artistic practice.
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