Photographic taboos

Right! I reckon that picture got your attention. I’ll get back to it shortly.

I would be the first to admit that the best known examples of my photography can probably be considered pretty strange to outsiders. That’s not really a mistake, nor is it a sign of a blown fuse at the back of my head somewhere. I do love happy and fun pictures, and my private collection of holiday pictures, family reunions and scouting trips is tangible evidence that I can use the camera for more normal pictures and that my own world is filled with fun, colour and romance. The slightly sinister and bizarre has however become an ingrained part of my world of images, and I sometimes find it almost too easy to get a landscape or celebration photo to take on a little more obscure twist.

The world is full of thousands of stunningly brilliant photographers. Among whom a great many whose skill I deeply admire and respect and which I can in no way imitate. And why should I? Then there would be more people doing the same thing and, quite frankly, this makes no sense at all.

The reason my image production turned toward the darker side of life was initially just a series of coincidences. Only later did it become based on reason, when I discovered that there was indeed a need and a demand for such images for articles, brochures and so on. Because nobody else makes them. At least not to the extent I do. And if you don’t want to be just another random photographer among thousands of at least equally good photographers, then you have to offer something unique. That’s the main reason that I am still in business creating stock photos today.

Perhaps it is not entirely true about it being a coincidence, because there are two factors which have played an important part. One is that I dare. Because I really do not care what others think about what I do. If some think that I’m way out, a “pompous fool” or “sick in the head” then they obviously don’t know me, so I’m so indifferent that you can’t even imagine how indifferent I am. The second factor is that I like to provoke. Not only for the sake of provocation. If that were the case I could just say stupid things regardless of whether they fit or not. No, more like provocation to challenge some people’s somewhat staid opinion of what is right and wrong – because I think that is interesting to explore.

The photo above is a really good example of the latter.

Everywhere this has been exhibited it has led to vigorous comment. The great majority positive and appreciative, but also some negative. And it is the negative that interests me most, because I think it’s intriguing to explore the kind of mechanisms that cause people to react so strongly to such an image. For that is exactly what it is: An image – no more, no less. And it is patently obvious that it is staged and not taken a split second before the youngster left this world. This produced reactions like for example being told that I am “sick in the head” and “should be thrown in jail” and I “make a mockery of death”. Pretty serious inferences when all I did was illustrate something that actually happens all too often. In reality.

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There could be many reasons. People might be reminded of tragic experiences in the family. Perhaps it is rooted in religion. It might also be that they belong to the type of people who believe that graphic depiction of violence and death drives certain people to carry out such deeds, and therefore their protests are misguided concern. Then obviously there is a very small minority who do not understand that it is fabricated and even ask how it went for the boy. Whatever the reason, I find it very strange when people react negatively. Do they not read newspapers? Or is it simply that they’re tired of reading these reports in newspapers? But why do they not tackle the problem instead of attacking the photographer who portrays it?

I have wondered for years and I can’t claim to have discovered the Philosopher’s stone yet. All those who over the years have reacted negatively to any of my pictures have, where possible, received a personal response from me. A reply where I am probably surprisingly hospitable and grateful for their time and opinions, and which probably takes the wind out of their sails. Then I ask whether their reaction is due to what the picture depicts, or the fact that I’ve created the image. The answer is almost always the former, but then I have not yet received any sensible response when I ask why I should not be able to create an image of something which is part of our reality, in the same way as birds in trees or cows in a meadow.

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To illustrate, let me tell you about the guy who thought I deserved to be thrown into jail for the picture at the beginning of this article. He was American – surprise! 😉 When I explained to him that it was in fact simply theatre in single images, and basically no different than for example film, his answer was that all filmmakers should also be thrown into jail. The discussion ended there …
My only conclusion to date is simply that there is a classification of images that for some people just are taboo. Something you do not touch – without there being any rational explanation for the reasons why. Nothing other than that “it is wrong.” But, realistically, is it not remaining silent about reality that is wrong?

I make it sound as if it is just a few individuals who have strayed. A small group of people with a blinkered view of reality. Unfortunately this is not the case. It is very much culturally based. I do not have the knowledge to embark on either anthropological aspects or speculations about group dynamics and political correctness. However, I can clearly see that the picture at the top of the article is unsaleable on American soil. Or rather: there is no American photo agency that would offer it for sale. Despite this, it has sold well one way or the other and graces the cover of at least one psychology manual.

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The adjacent picture is another example of something that is too audacious for some photo agencies. For a short while, I discovered that my products had begun to tend towards what agencies would accept. When this dawned on me, and it had transformed my pictures into a more generic and bland category, I stopped it immediately, and divided my products into pictures for photo agencies and images for direct sale.

I think it’s exciting to photograph subjects which are unusual. A long-term on-going project is to portray the 25 most common mental disorders, behavioural disorders and phobias with 20 photos each. This will broaden my collection of unique themes considerably, but I am hardly doing it because of wretched greed. Nor to make fun of those serious issues. It is because somehow it makes sense for me to do so. It is a challenge at the creativity level and gives me the opportunity to consider problems and issues that interest me.

I am well aware that my current series with titles like “Moments from the Morgue”, “School shooting” and “Suicidal children” make some people choke on their insipid cup of coffee. When I create these pictures with children and young people, they choke yet again, since it significantly increases the impact. So be it. If the titles were “Birds,” “Sunset” and “Happy People”, I would not have very many customers, because there are many others who do things like that way better than I can. And I would have been bored to death. So I can choose to make what customers will buy or make what already exists in the thousands.

To me there are no taboos in photography. I respect that some people don’t want to look at my images, so be it. But I will never allow it to limit me. I want photos with impact – real or staged, studio or street, color or monochrome. Bring it on.

Finally let me point out that the kids in the images wasn’t harmed in any way. They are still very happy and healthy young people that actually think the photos are quite cool. And so do I.

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3 Comments

  1. Very good points Mr. Andersen. Just because people do not want to discuss such taboo subjects does not mean we should not photograph them. If they do not want to see these types of images, they should look away.

    Well done!

  2. The market will be served, and obviously no one is hurt here.

    The suicide photo you posted does elicit a reaction from me, but not so much because it is a depiction of suicide – because I’m a shooters and guns are a big part of my life. I have spent so much time drilling the four rules of gun handling into my family’s heads that this is very shocking to my sensibilities 😉

  3. Controversial of not, your images are beautiful. I like the obtuse and left of centre material you photograph and you do it so well.
    Thank you for sharing them with me.
    Hugs, Mal

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