A True Amateur - Anders Petersen

Viestarts Gailītis

Anders Petersen (1944) is a world-famous Swedish photographer known for his intimate, often peculiar, portraits of people. His Café Lehmitz, a book of documentary photographs taken in the late 1960s that featured the “moths” of Hamburg – lovers, transvestite prostitutes, and drug addicts – is looked upon as a classic of European photography. Petersen's character gives some insight into how he manages to achieve such a level of intimacy with the subjects of his photographs – his only camera is a pocket-sized model, and the 67-year-old man simultaneously exudes an aura of both teenage passion and monkish piety. Our long evening interview, in the lobby of the Metropole Hotel, is only brought to an end when his companions – an artistically elegant Russian woman and the Latvian photographer, Inta Ruka – remind me that the esteemed photographer hasn't even had his breakfast yet.

What is your reason for coming to Riga?

To give a lecture and show some pictures. But most importantly – I will look the creative portfolios of photographers. It is very interesting, because by looking at others' pictures, you can learn things yourself. (Sips his beer.) It's a nice assignment; I'm happy for the opportunity.

Do you frequently look at pictures by other photographers?

I'd gladly do it more often, because I very much like to do it. I lead creative workshops, and then I can see what people do. I learn from them. They think I'm a teacher, but it's the other way around – I am their student. That's what I feel like when I look at their work. And it's a way to feel young – by looking at what they're doing. It's a new stimulus, a new inspiration.

Do you think that people take pictures differently today?

Yes! If you compare it with when I started – in the late 60's, then there's a big difference. But at the same time, you can, without mistake, identify a person who is passionate about the visual arts. That can always be seen. These people don't change much, regardless of which decade it is. They make use of their brain, heart and senses – and that can be seen throughout the times.

You mean, you can see talent?


Does that mean that there is more to it than just skills?

No, abilities are the foundation. It is a platform. And talent is also a foundation. But the key is having passion for what it is that you do. How high and how far you jump is dependent on zeal; it depends on you. To simultaneously care about yourself and others, and to have clarity about what it is that you wish to express. That is great mastery, and it doesn't happen randomly.

But for you, that jump happened very quickly, right?

What do you mean by that?

Weren't you 17 when you began?

No, I was 17 when I went to Hamburg. And I didn't take any pictures then. I returned to Sweden after six months.

Why did you go to Hamburg?

To learn German.

As an exchange student?

No, to learn in my own way. It was a very successful trip – I learned the German language. And the trip changed my life, because I met so many sincere people. I had left Sweden because I wanted to change my life. I didn't have a lot of experience; I wanted to see something else.

I come from a bourgeois family in which there were many things that I couldn't live with. So, I went away to learn German, and after a few months I returned to Sweden, where I continued to live, until one day I started going to Christer Strömholm's school of photography. A very peculiar Swedish photographer.

What was his peculiarity?

He is one of the most important photographers that I have ever met. Fantastic. He was a teacher to me, and he is also very well-known internationally. Christer Strömholm photographed transvestites and came out with the book Les Amies de la Place Blanche. Its second edition came out last November. He's also published two other books – Poste Restante and In Memory of Himself. A very, very good photographer – he has influenced many people around the world. Including me.

That sounds pretty bold – a book about transvestites in 1960's Sweden.

The photographs were taken in the 60's, but the book didn't come out until 1983. However, in the course of learning under him, I had already seen the pictures. I thought – those are attractive women – but it turned out that they were all men. Quite a surprise.

Was his influence on you so great because you had rebelled against your bourgeois roots?

No, that's not why. It was, rather, due to his character and temperament. I believed in him. Strömholm was a very good teacher. Every morning when I arrived to school, I saw new images – dogs, people, men, attractive women, transvestites. We saw how the teacher worked, and he worked all the time. And that meant a lot. He practically and concretely showed us what he thought.

What was so alluring about his pictures?

What was alluring? You don't know him?


I think that what is fantastic in Strömholm's pictures is tension; attack – a focused attack on anything that he wanted to capture. In addition, he's also very symbolic and poetic. I remember that one of the first pictures of his that I saw – it could have even been the very first picture of his that I saw – was a cemetery in Paris. It seems he had gone there in the morning. It had snowed during the night, and Strömholm saw footprints in the snow – from tombstone to tombstone. Tip-tip-tip... He noticed them – you understand? And photographed them. When I saw it, I thought, this is a nice way to show that the dead communicate. They meet each other at night. And Strömholm was there to discover it. It was very wonderful, such a poetic picture...

Did it motivate you to turn to photography?

No, I was already taking pictures then. I turned to photography because I painted and I was also a journalist; more precisely, I tried to be a journalist and write. I tried to think up short stories and then publish them in magazines, but I was lacking something. It was a very lonely job. I sat in my room and wrote, and life went on outside – at least that's how I saw it. At the same time, I frequently happened to meet with some photographers – they took pictures and enjoyed life by being together with other people. That fascinated me – to be social, to communicate – that was a big adventure. And at the same time, to try to create something from that which you see in front of yourself. So that it becomes as personal as possible. You understand what I mean? 

You had a creative instinct, and you wanted to combine it with socializing?

Yes, exactly; to me, photography is, in large part, an adventure – the meeting of people. You know that photography is not about photography, the same way that music is not about music, or writing being about writing. To me, photography is about meeting people and getting to know them. That means that you have to be curious.

Did you look for people with whom you'd feel comfortable?

Yes, I look for people with whom I can identify in many ways. Not in all ways, but many.

In Hamburg, these were the social outcasts, right? These are the people with whom you identify?


Why is that?

Because I always felt like an outsider myself – since childhood. I try to “connect” with these people through what I do – even today. I have always been interested in what is behind the surface. The surface itself doesn't interest me much. If I go to take pictures of a theater, I'm interested not only in what is happening onstage, but also what is going on backstage. The outer layers envelop us all the time. That is normal, but what is really exciting is what is going on behind the big walls – for instance, what is going on in a prison that's behind a seven-meter fence. What is going on in there? What is life like in there? What does halted – imprisoned – time mean? What is imprisoned sexuality? That's why I went to the prison and spent three years there. And that's why I went to the psychiatric hospital.

You went in and out of the prison, of course – you didn't stay there the whole time, did you?

Yes, I went in and out – I wasn't allowed to spend the night there. I had to sleep outside, in my car. I did that for three years. But they did let me sleep in the psychiatric hospital. While there, I came to understand that at the beginning, I had taken very, very bad pictures. The first six months, I only took dramatic pictures – people fighting, raping – mostly fighting, though. That was terrible, because that is totally not what they are like. They are regular people, just sick. 

How did you feel coming out of this environment, and into the superficial and comfortable world of art galleries?

I felt completely comfortable (laughs). I am what I am. That's the way it is – if you want to show what you do, you must accept the corresponding environment. I don't take my pictures so that I can hide them under the table – I want to show them to people. 

Are your photographs always received in the way that you see them? Or are there people who just want to make money off of them, or want to be in the shadow of your fame?

No doubt there are people like that, but that's not that important to me. It is important for me to see other people, meet the people that I take pictures of and to learn something from it all, as well as show my pictures. I learn a great deal from being out on the streets. And now I'm working on diaries of cities. It's a project for which I travel to various cities and take photographs. I don't go just inside anymore. My walls are in my head. When I will have traveled to these cities – Rome, Paris, St. Petersburg, London and others – I will put together an album.

Who are the outsiders? You mentioned prisoners, transvestites and psychiatric patients. But today, these categories could be supplemented with a lot of other people who have fallen outside of the social safety net.

Of course. But there are outsiders in every level of society – the middle class, the working class, even in the highest levels of society. I simply look for people with whom I can communicate; learn something from them; take images. And then I look at these captured scenes and how they connect to other pictures that I've taken.

How do you capture, in an image, the differences that these people possess?

I don't capture it. Unfortunately, I'm not that adept, and I don't even expressly try to do it. I only try to show what unifies us, not what makes us different. That is a platform – to not show the differences, but rather the similarities. Riga, Japan or Stockholm – that doesn't mean anything. We are the members of a family. With this sort of approach, you meet people everywhere in the world. And you have to believe it here (points to his heart), not just here (points to his head), because to accept something with your mind is easy. If you believe the heart, then the door is open.

So, it is basically the love of humankind?

Yes, absolutely. 

At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned that today's photographers work differently than when you were young. Do you mean technically, or in terms of their approach and mentality?

Of course, there are different challenges today because there is this secret digital world. And I don't belong to the generation that can work in the digital era. I'm an analog photographer. I have only an analog camera (pulls a smallish analog Contax camera out of his pocket). When I work “for real”, I take three of these along – two are in reserve.

You always have just these small cameras?

Yes, always.

And never any big ones?

No, never.

Is that because you take candid shots?

Not just because of that. I don't want to look like an obstacle – a professional and famous photographer. I just want to be an amateur.

So, you are an amateur?

Absolutely! I am a typical, professional amateur (laughs). I'm a professional because I support myself with my profession. I'm not a professional photographer because I'm (gestures a circle around his head)... a bit stupid – possibly. It's good to approach people with a small camera like this, because you're not approaching them as a photographer, but as a person. I don't hide behind the camera; I am more direct.

I'm guessing that you're not happy about Kodak going bankrupt.

Yes, I'm very sorry. There's Kodak film in my camera right now.

Maybe there's hope that they won't destroy the photographic film factory?

Perhaps they, or the new owners, will preserve it – I do hope so! (Sighs hopefully.) These days, it's becoming very expensive to buy analog film. And the paper, the developing...

Do you use 400 film?

Yes, TRI-X 400.

One notices that you don't always take pictures in the safest of places. With this sort of experience, have you ever attempted photographing conflict situations?

War photography? No, never. Unfortunately. That is, I don't regret it myself, because I don't really like it all that much. I want to be close to people, not walking around with a telescopic lens, taking mind-boggling pictures. I look for people, I look for communication and a good conversation. I'm not a professional. 

You're not interested in the technical aspects of photography?

No, I'm not. 

But you develop your pictures yourself?

Yes, I do everything in my own laboratory – develop the film, make the pictures. You could say I work in the old style. I'm not especially modern (laughs). But I really don't want to take disconcerting pictures. I want to show what unifies us. I don't look for conflict. 

I asked about war photography because – if you have this love of all mankind – then one way that a photographer can demonstrate that, is by going into conflict zones and showing the world the suffering of the victims.

Yes, that is one way of doing it, but I think that there are already many very good photographers working with war photography. 

Having photographed outsiders, you've probably been in quite a few tense situations, haven't you?

Of course.

Have you ever been beaten up?

No, but I've been robbed many times. 13 times, if I'm not mistaken – and in various parts of the world.

Was that always work-related – because you were taking photographs late at night?

Yes. And also, too early in the morning – at five or six (laughs).

Why do you choose these times of the day?

Because that is the time of the wolf. Many things happen then. There's a fever in the atmosphere.

To work under these conditions, diplomatic skills are probably a necessity.

No, you just have to show who you are. You don't have to be diplomatic. You have to be honest – with all of your shortcomings and strengths. And you have to talk to people; you can't be too shy.

…or frightened...

No, there is absolutely no problem in being afraid. We are all frightened. But you don't have to be afraid of the fact that you are frightened. They are also frightened. We are all frightened.

They're just interested in getting the camera because they need the money, right?

Yes, exactly; they need the money.

Have your subjects changed throughout time?

They stay the same. It is just their outside that has changed. It is all about normal, simple people with whom I can identify, no matter where I am in the world. Only these days, I don't take that many pictures in Stockholm anymore. I don't know why. 

But modern-day Stockholm is a tension-filled city, and those sorts of places interest you, do they not?

That's where I live, that's where my home is, that's where I prepare for my trips, that's where I work with my material and that's where my lab is – where I develop my film.

Sweden used to seem perfect – at least to those looking from the viewpoint of the USSR. Christmas cards, Karlsson, Astrid Lindgren – who should, by the way, be made a saint.

I agree. She is fantastic.

Later on, Olof Palme was assassinated, and modern-day Stockholm can be quite despairing with its drug addicts and problems with integration. A tension-filled city.

Undeniably, Stockholm has several faces.

Do you see yourself more as a journalist or an artist?

Neither one nor the other. I said that I tried to be like that – I tried to write and paint. I had a few exhibitions, but I felt too lonely in those roles.

Judging by your photographs, you go inside people's flats.

Yes, of course. I meet them on the street and tell them that I'd like to take their picture. 

You must be quite convincing to get strangers to pose for you in the nude.

Every situation is both special and different.

Do you also take pictures of the bohemian world?

No, just simple people. I meet them on the street, in parks, squares or bars. Often, I take snapshots without their knowledge. But about eighty percent of the pictures are done during sessions.

Why are many of the people in your pictures nude or partly nude? What do you find engaging in their nudity?

I can't say exactly why, but I don't say “no” if I'm given the opportunity to photograph people in the nude. But that is only a small part of my photographs.

For instance, the corpulent woman in her underwear, photographed from behind – did she want you to take her picture?

She didn't want me to take her picture from the front because she thought she was too fat. Then I offered to take her picture from behind. I don't remember exactly why she took her clothes off in front of the camera... Yes, I remember! She thought that she was too fat, and she wanted to express that by showing herself in her underclothes.

Could it be said that sometimes the people that you take pictures of are unprotected?

Unequivocally. That means that I must take responsibility. One way is to write down their address and phone number, and then send them the pictures in which they can be seen. So that they know exactly which pictures they are in.

Do people sometimes volunteer themselves to be photographed?

Yes, frequently. 

But, judging from the way people in your photographs look, at least superficially, it doesn't look as if they have much interest in the art world.

Actually, quite a lot of them know that I am a photographer. I have a business card that says “Anders Petersen, photographer” (shows it to me). If I just say that I'm a photographer, they don't believe me. When I give them my business card and they Google me, they see who I am.

Nevertheless, some of them look like outsiders to such a degree that they probably don't even use Google.

That's true, not all of them know what kind of photographer I am. But I offer to give them a picture, if they allow me to photograph them. 

Do you find their outer image – that of an outsider – alluring?

No, it is their personality. I don't judge specially on what they look like on the outside, although often times that is what makes me notice them. However, when I begin speaking to a person like this, their personality and temperament are revealed.

Judging by the photographs, you don't look for beauty – at least not outer beauty...

No. Why would I do that?

When you go visit the people whom you are about to photograph, do you also drink together?

No, you have to be careful with drinking. Then you don't know what you're doing. I have my limits – I don't want people to be drunk when I'm photographing them. I want them to be sober. And there aren't any drunk people in my pictures. 

I can see from your pictures that you like animals.

Yes, in all their forms! But I don't have any of my own because I travel too much. But I'd like to have both cats and dogs. I love animals.

Even mosquitoes, as we can see in one of your pictures [in which there are thousands of mosquitoes stuck to a window pane].

I liked the symbolism of that image – mosquitoes rushing to the light.

You don't exactly show the world in bright colors. Some people might say that your pictures are ugly. But, as you already said, you don't look for the beautiful.

You could say that, and I do know it. But I also don't look for the ugly.

What do you see in your pictures?

I see people, regular people – like myself. People with passions, yearnings, dreams, wounds. Some of them are struggling. But (mostly) they are dreaming. I don't have any photographs without yearning. That is my foundation.

You could also take a picture of a businessman who is dreaming about a bigger house. But you don't do that.

Yes, you're right! (Chuckles.) But – even if there is someone who dreams of that, I'm not interested in what he's dreaming about. I'm interested in the dreamer inside, his heart. I don't use my brain when I'm working. I put my heart to work. Later, when I'm developing my pictures in my lab in Stockholm, I try to use my brain to combine the pictures with one another. 

I must say, it's amazing how close you can get to your subjects.

I wouldn't say that. Most likely, they see me as somebody who is interested in them and curious. And, of course, it is important to everyone that they be significant to somebody else. And possibly, sometimes – not always – in one out of a thousand times, I can take on this role.

Of course, it is easier to draw near to someone who...

Doesn't have many friends? Yes, that's the way it is.

But don't you think that you could be using them?

No, quite the opposite.

Returning to animals – why do you like photographing animals?

I like the wildness, the primitive approach. I also like that in people. I like the organic in people. It is believable.

Has there been too much civility in your life?

Absolutely too much. Why do you think I went to Hamburg when I was 17?

I don't know, I wasn't even born then. What was the image of Hamburg when you were 17?

(Chuckles) What do you think it was?

The Reeperbahn?

Of course. And back then, the Reeperbahn was something impressive; but not anymore. Back then, that street was primarily outside of what was socially acceptable. It belonged to society, but society was ashamed of it. I wanted to see what it was all about. And I had a wonderful time there.

Whom did you meet there?

I met people who lived on the street, people from many of the world's countries – Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy. We were a big group – everybody was into something; some were musicians. The Beatles had just had their first taste of recognition at [the Hamburg club] Grosse Freiheit. That was a special time. And what all of my companions had in common was a direct and honorable form of communication. They weren't the best of God's children, since they profited from society: narcotics, prostitution – of both women and men.

Compared to them, you were probably a very good boy.

I was very shy. I still am shy. I learned a lot there; I fell in love there. I learned to live more honestly there, because where I came from, there were a lot of lies and posturing. In Hamburg, I was accepted the way I was – with all of my weaknesses and shortcomings. People accepted that, if you didn't hide it. And that was a great relief to me, and I became very attached to them.

But you left them.


You became famous, but they stayed on the streets?

No, no; they all died. 

Because of their way of life?

Yes, from drugs.

Did you also use?

Yes, very seriously – Preludin, which was like an amphetamine, but you could get it really easily in pharmacies as a weight-loss medication. But I left after six months.

Don't you have the feeling that, in a way, just like dropping journalism, you simply slid by all of these people, and didn't take part in their lives?

I took part for half a year, and that was enough for me. And I learned very much.

Why do you need this knowledge?

To find the real truth.

So, in a sense, you feed off of other people?

No, I don't do that. I try to learn from other people, and I try to express in my work what it is that I have learned. But I don't believe that knowledge is that essential. I think that what is essential, is to continue to ask questions. And most of my pictures are about questions. They don't contain answers.

But will the questions come to an end one day?

Yes, they will end. But not yet, because I'm still alive.

We all probably know at least one older person who has become tired of everything – including the asking of questions.

I'll show you my mother (shows a picture of an elderly woman). She died in 2008, at the age of ninety. She had lost her ability to communicate, although she recognized me till the very end.

Tell me, are there people who want to pay you to take their picture?

Yes, many. I used to that – in the 70s, but not anymore, because my time is limited.

You say that what you want most is to be in contact with people, but doesn't photography, no matter how discrete it may be, create a certain barrier?

O course. And it is dependent on you, how close you get to people. My problem is that I usually step into a concrete social situation with both feet. I'm trying to learn how to balance with one foot inside of the respective situation, and the other foot outside of it, so that I could achieve a good visual result. So, you could say that my problem is that I get too close to the people whom I'm taking pictures of. I start forming feelings for them.

So the camera, in your case, is that which allows you to be in balance – to not get too close to the people that you're photographing.

Yes, at least for me. But on the other hand, the camera is functioning like a key. No one would let me into a prison or a psychiatric hospital if I didn't have a camera.

You could commit a crime, or loose your mind, just to get in.

Yes, like that German writer – Günther Wallraff. In his book, he writes about a homeless shelter called Pik As. I've spent many nights there. An interesting place.