Jan Møller Hansen has touched the hearts of uncountable viewers with his social documentary photography. Through his camera lens, we get an insight in how different lives can be. You will find more photos by the end of the article.
Briefly tell us about yourself, your hobbies and other jobs.
I am from Denmark, 50 years old and a senior diplomat. I have been posted for four years to Hanoi in Vietnam (2000-2004) and for five years to Dhaka in Bangladesh (2007-12). Presently, I am based in Kathmandu, Nepal, working as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Denmark.
I have also worked for four years in Nepal from 1991 to 1994 as a Development Worker on projects implemented by CARE Nepal. I have a good knowledge of Nepal and its people. I also speak the main language Nepali. Skills that I use in my photography work in Nepal. Besides I have worked in most Asian countries and in many countries in Africa on short-term assignments. I love working with diplomacy and international development assistance – it gives an insight into the many complex dilemmas and challenges that the world is facing today.
Besides of my passion for photography I also love traveling. I have visited nearly 70 countries, and I am always excited to explore new places and cultures. Adventure motorcycling and sea kayaking are other free time passions of mine. When we have the opportunity, I often travel with my wife on our BMW GS Adventure motorcycle around Northern Scandinavia, Iceland or other countries in Europe. Sea kayaking is also a fantastic way of being close to nature.
How has your history and life experiences affected your photography?
I have always liked photographing. I cannot remember when I first started photographing, but when I backpacked around Asia 30 years ago for half a year I carried a simple Canon camera and I came home with a lot of film rolls to be developed. I have had many different cameras over the years, but I never really knew what a good camera and a good lens really could do. When I was living in Dhaka in Bangladesh something happened though. I think that my passion for photography gradually developed from the inner and at some point it just surfaced, and I made a decision to pursue photography in a more serious manner. With a new camera and lenses I went straight into the slums of the mega-city Dhaka, and when I came home and saw what I had in the box I just knew that I had to continue.
I have realized that photography is a very strong way of staying connected with reality and to learn about all facets of our complex and fascinating world. Through photography you can explore anything you like. It is only you as a photographer that might be the limiting factor. Photography as an art and a means of communication has no limits. I cannot explain it, but photography has become part of my identity and a way of personal expression. Photography gives me purpose.
Sometimes I also speculate myself why I am so attracted to photography, and what drives me to do it. I know that it has partly something to do with my job as a diplomat and development practitioner. In my work I am faced with many dilemmas and challenges, and I do experience and witness a lot of injustice and inequality. It is part of my job to fight injustice and inequality among people and to contribute to the betterment of poor people’s lives. In Bangladesh I never came to terms with how people are being treated. The views and perceptions that I often was confronted with did not match with what I saw and experienced. That forced me towards photography as a means of expression. It was like an inner revolt.
Through photography I feel closer to people and what is happening around me. It has also become my way of showing respect for people and who they are. Photography has brought me in contact with people that I would otherwise never have met. Photography helps me in understanding the world, its diversity and complexity. Photography also shapes me as a person. I have come to understand that photography helps me in shaping my values and norms.
What first attracted you to photography?
Photography gave me purpose. It made me come closer to people and their reality. I am also fascinated by the fact that through photography one can freeze a moment that will never reappear, and by doing so it might give you great insight and understanding of a person or an issue in question. Photography can strengthen your consciousness and open your eyes into a world that you might not knew existed. Not only the external world but also your own world is being explored when you photograph. Photography can create awareness and influence people and their views of the world. Photography can be a very powerful instrument in creating awareness and attention.
Through photography you can “see” and fell something that you might not be able to discover and physically see with your own eyes while being in the situation. With photography you might also be able to look into the soul of a person. You might be able to catch feelings or thoughts. I find that very fascinating.
Photography has also become a great excuse for bringing myself in challenging and exciting situations. It gives me a kind of legitimacy to do things that I otherwise would never have done. Only then can you truly learn and experience. But I don’t do real crazy or stupid things. I am conscious of what I am doing and of how I engage with people. Photographing must be handled with care and respect, not just for your subjects, but also for yourself. Photography can be very challenging and affects you as photographer – whether you like or not. It shapes you as a person. There might be something with the images and the situations that you have been in as a photographer that can stay with you forever. As a photographer you can never really separate yourself completely from the situation or subject you are capturing.
Describe your overall photographic vision.
I just want to portray people as they are. If I can open the eyes of others to a world that they did not know exist, and thereby create awareness and attention to an important issue then I have achieved my photographic vision.
Why are you so drawn by documentary photography?
I think that it is the told or untold story that goes with the image(s) that is important in documentary photography. Documentary photography shapes our understanding of the world and its complexities. It often raises questions that make the viewer think and reflect. That is important. It can be one single photo or a series of photos taken during a few seconds or over many years. Documentary photography can undercover all aspects, often hidden ones, from any society. It only depends on how you work.
What is more important to you, the story behind an image or the technical perfection?
I am not a re-toucher or technical freak. But both post processing and technical capabilities are still too important for me to ignore. If I can afford it and I believe it is worthwhile, then I don’t like to compromise on equipment. But it is the feelings, the emotions and what lies behind what your eye physically can see that is most important to me. A good photo is one with soul and one that stimulates your feelings, emotions and thoughts as a viewer. The story and the image are both important – none of them can stand alone. It doesn’t necessary have anything to do with the technical perfection of the photo. There are many photos, which technically are far from perfect, but which captured a moment, a feeling or a situation that will never be forgotten. I am very impressed though with the imagination, creativity and with what others can do with advanced processing in Photoshop and other programs. It is truly amazing, but that’s not how I work myself. But I do of course spend considerable time with post editing work flows. I have however never really attended formal photography classes or trainings.
What generally is your relationship to your subject matter beyond being an observer?
That is a very good question and one that sometimes troubles me. It is very difficult just being an observer. But if you have the capabilities of disappearing while shooting you have great skills as a photographer. I have quite a lot of interaction with the persons that I photograph both before and after. It varies a lot though and depends entirely on the situation. I have places and people that I continue to return to. They know me and I know them. I am also attracted by people who are different from myself, and who represents a story. Maybe a personal story that goes beyond the person itself and puts contextual issues into question. I very rarely feel uneasy when photographing irrespective of who it might be or what they are doing. When the moment appears I believe that I am somehow separated from the subject. It is also not my nature to judge the person in front of me. But through photography I develop admiration and sympathy for the people I photograph.
Only once I have felt uneasy while photographing. It happened to be a Danish Nazi couple that I bumped into during a gay pride in Copenhagen some years ago. That what too close to comfort, and gave me an uneasy feeling. It was my own country and society, and something that I had never imaged could be real.
Sometimes I have photographed people and afterwards felt completely helpless. This continues to trouble me. There are people that I will never forget, and people that I would like to revisit and photograph again in different situations. Sometimes photography never ends.
What is your most important advice to a beginner in street or documentary photography and how do you get started?
Challenge yourself and look for the unusual. Think out of the box. Be prepared for hard but also very rewarding work. Hang in and don’t give up even though you from time to time might be discouraged or dissatisfied with your work. In photography you never know what happens, and very often you are up for big surprises. Live with uncertainty and the great surprises that photography might bring. The more you photograph, the more challenging it becomes. There are also no easy shortcuts in photography, and it might never end. As a photographer you must know yourself, otherwise it can go wrong. Always use your empathy and read situations and people while engaging and photographing. Sometimes you might end up in unpleasant situations if you are not careful or misread situations. But accept that it will happen from time to time.
There are also great tutorials on the Internet and books that one can study and learn from while practicing in real situations. I always work alone not have too much disturbance from others, but I enjoy meeting other photographers to learn and get inspiration. Seeking inspiration from others and building your network are also important.
Who are your favorite photographers and more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
It is difficult to tell. There are so many fantastic and mind blowing photographers. Nearly every day I see someone who has done fantastic work.
My first photography book was “American Pictures” by the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt. I bought his book during my school days, and it is about people he met while hitchhiking through America in the mid 70s. I met him on the street some years ago while photographing in Copenhagen. He came walking with his simple camera and was exactly the same engaged and committed person as he has always been. I admire that.
When I was in Ukraine in 2013 to photograph around Chernobyl I met Igor Kostin in his home in Kiev. Igor Kostin is one of my heroes, because he did what he did. He photographed and documented one of the most significant and disturbing events in our lifetime. He is a great personality. For me it not only the images, but also the person behind that matters.
If I want to enjoy an afternoon with a pot of tea, I might grab one of the books by Sebastiao Salgado. He is a master in his own league. There is also Helmut Newton, who just turned fashion up side down. His photos are amazing. It also goes with Annie Leibovitz, who has an extraordinary capability to capture celebrities in all kind of postures. Then there is James Nachtwey, who has done work on human struggle like no one else.
While I lived in Bangladesh I also got inspiration from Bangladeshi photographers and the photography environment there. For some time I was studying the photos of Shariful Alam Kiron and other local photographers. I got to know Shariful, and a few times we went around to photograph together in Dhaka city. He was also a source of inspiration for me.
Just recently I have become aware of Darcy Padilla, because she won a World Press Photo Award. Through her photos you get really close. Fantastic work. There is also Mads Nissen from Denmark. His recent image of two homosexuals in Sct. Petersburg is an image with silence and atmosphere and a significant moment between two people. The image also addresses an issue of great importance in today’s society, not at least in Russia and other countries. I once talked to Mads Nissen when I had submitted some photos for an exhibition in Copenhagen, which I was not selected for. He gave me the critic that I needed. Not very easy though, but I think that I understood what he was talking about. He has great skills with the camera too.
There are just so many fantastic photographers that it is mind blowing. I also find it very challenging to be confronted with the degree of creativity and insight into human nature that many photographers represent. After some years though it came as a relief when I realized that many good photographers are not necessary formally trained but also self-taught like myself.
Is there is any specific photo taken by another photographer that has inspired you a big deal and why?
I cannot pinpoint one photo that stands out, simply because there are too many to choose among. It would not be right just to choose one single photo. It would be unfair to all the other great images.
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
I must admit that I sometimes envy the guys that are employed and paid to photograph. The ones that are send to places that have the world’s attention at a given point in time. But I am not a photo journalist with a lot of connections to the media, but rather a person that in a quiet way photograph just because I cannot stop. I often find the themes and subjects in my own neighbourhood. But yes, I do have specific goals. I want to experiment more, and I do have some new themes in mind while continuing pursuing the ones that I have already picked-up on by now. I am also working on putting together my first single photo exhibition and making a photo book from Nepal.
Describe your favorite photograph taken by you and why it is special to you?
It must this photo of Shamsul, whom I met while living in Dhaka in Bangladesh. I will never forget him. Shamsul was sitting on the floor praying to Allah when I came into the room. His way of being and how he told me his story touched me deeply. I clearly remember the afternoon when I came home after having met Shamsul. I have often thought of going back to meet him in his home.
Is there anything else you wish to add and what do you think about 1X as a home base for your work?
1X.com is a great platform for photography. I sometimes wonder what happens to all these great images that passes through the front page of 1X.com. 1X.com must by now have collected an incredible volume of outstanding images of all kinds. I am also impressed about the people that are so personally engaged and behind 1X.com and its many members. It’s great. I might be a bit different from many other members at 1X.com, because I am not a master in Photoshop. But I admire their creativity and skills and like to be part of the community.
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