The Swedish photographer JH Engström (short for Jan Henrik) is a man with a story. Born in Sweden, raised in Paris and today based in the countryside of the northern Sweden, he documents people he meet and places he sees with a distinctive subjective approach. Engtröms international breakthrough came in 2004 with his book Trying to Dance. Since it was released, he has won prizes, released a bunch more photo books, and collaborated with people like Anders Petersen and his partner, Margot Wallard. JH puts in years and soul into each and every project to explore private and public rooms of emotions and existence. We decided to have a little chat with the man responsible for these striking images.
You spend a lot of your childhood and adolescence in Paris, in what way has it affected your creative and artistic development? Would you still be a photographer if not growing up in Paris?
JH Engström: That’s of course a hypothetical question….but I know that living there as a kid changed my perspectives and also made me look at the world in a more ambiguous way than if I would have stayed and only grew up in the Swedish countryside. This created a dynamism, which created questions, which created a need to express myself…
You have collected pictures from Paris from 1991-2012, almost over two decades, did you know from the beginning that it was going to end up in a book?
JH Engström: No. When I did these photographs I did them because I had an urge to formulate myself visually on a daily basis of the life I was living. It was also a kind of declaration of love to Paris to take make those images. They came out of necessity. It was much later the idea of putting them together and show them came.
In former interviews you have often talked about that Paris has changed a lot, but also that cities like Oslo and Stockholm are changing even faster, with everything being commercialized and homogenized. How do you feel about this transformation?
JH Engström: I don’t like it. But I can’t change it. This it obviously the way it goes. But compared to for example Stockholm Paris is still a place where there is dynamism and a big mixes of cultures, ethnic backgrounds, religions etc. etc… For me this is the true definition of a big city. I also believe this mix of people from all over is a necessary key to real development, on all levels – on a human level, economic level and intellectual level. To lead a politic that makes it too homogeneous kills the human capacity and potential. It is a short-term way of doing things.
Your pictures have a quite rough and dark look. What do you want to explore and express with this style? Is it a reflection of your own life?
JH Engström: I don’t really agree on that… Some of my photographs are like that. Others are lighter. I think also that if you really look at things there are some dark things going on…. For me it is impossible to look away from. It always goes from dark to light and light to dark. All the time.
Your first book called Shelter, is showing pictures of poor and damaged women living in a shelter – what made you choose this environment? Do you have any personal connection to this place?
JH Engström: In 1991 there was a psychiatric reform in Sweden. This changed the conditions for a lot of people. As a result of this more people found them self on the streets. The change was quite dramatic. This made me indignant. Another reason was more egoistic and that was a curiosity regarding such an extreme existential situation, which it means to be without home and everything that comes with that.
You document the birth of your children in your book Wells, how did it feel documenting and publishing such personal images?
JH Engström: I only believe in personal photography. Or private photography. What is the point in expressing something that is not part of you in one way or another…?
Why do you think people are so shocked over these images? Especially the picture of the placenta?
JH Engström: I’m not sure if people are really shocked. I hope it takes more to shock people. Or at least it should. I mean this is what is happening every day all over the world – children are born. And plus it is a beautiful thing.
You are known for spending years and putting your soul into each project – do you ever feel finished with a project?
JH Engström: To me it is important to finish things. Otherwise I would go crazy. It is a way to move on for me. So yes, when a work is made in to a book or exhibition there is this feeling of finalization. But on the other hand I never feel finished and that is also what drives me.
Your photos are mixed black and white and color. What do you prefer and in what way can the choice of color change the picture? Do you have any example where that’s the case?
JH Engström: I don’t prefer any of them. I prefer to play with the energies and dynamics that occur when you mix them.
Interview by Mimmi Ohlsson
Photos by JH Engström.