(All photographs in this article copyrighted by Anders Petersen. Photographs used with permission from Petersen)
Anders Petersen, b. 1944, is a Swedish photographer, who is best known for his intimate and documentary-based photography projects. He is best known for his project, “Café Lehmitz” in which he photographed prostitutes, transvestites, lovers, drunkards, and drug addicts from 1967-1970. The photographs are very close and personal, and incredibly humanistic and soulful.
I was honored to meet Anders when I taught my street photography workshop at Fotografiska (he taught a workshop at the same time). People I knew who met him described him as very intense and hardcore- and I was a bit nervous meeting him. However upon meeting him, he was an incredibly loving, caring, and down-to-earth-guy. He looked at my work and gave me great words of advice and inspiration.
Although Anders describes himself as a “private documentary photographer” – I love his thoughts, feelings, and philosophy that I feel many of us street photographers can learn from. If you are curious about learning more, read on!
1. Shoot with your heart, not your brain
One of the things I love most about Petersen is his obvious love of photography and the love of the people he is photographing. He also describes how he shoots:
“I am more using my heart and stomach and I go for that, it keeps me going. I don’t use the upper-half so much when I am shooting – it is more after when I am shooting when I am looking at my contact sheets, and then I try to analyze and put things together.”
Therefore I think as street photographers we should use more of our hearts when we are out shooting on the streets, rather than trying to use our brains. For example, we should be looking for emotions such as love (couples hugging), hatred (people arguing), fear (someone reacting to your camera), strength (someone buff perhaps flexing for the camera), or loneliness (someone sitting in an alley alone).
Of course we still want to use our brains when shooting on the streets (having good composition, framing, and proper focus) – but it should come secondary. After all, a photograph that is technically perfect that has no soul isn’t memorable.
Furthermore, Petersen stresses the importance of using our brains when looking at our contact sheets (or the photographs that we shot during the day). We should objectively see if our photographs are good (both emotionally and the form) and then edit and sequence our photographs accordingly.
Another excerpt he says from another interview that stresses the same point (slightly reworded):
My photography is not ‘brain photography’. I put my brain under the pillow when I shoot. I shoot with my heart and with my stomach. And then this is very important for me, that my photographs are intuitive. It goes here and not from here (points to stomach then head). When I am planning a project, then I’m thinking—and when I am developing the film and looking at the contact sheets, then imp thinking and editing and choosing – very very carefully, and that’s when the responsibility is coming in.
2. Create photographs with more questions than answers
During one of his portfolio reviews during his workshop, Petersen gave feedback to the student how he preferred the students photos that asked more questions than having answers.
Therefore to apply this concept to street photography, you don’t always have to tell the whole story with your photograph. Don’t include faces, shoot with backgrounds with no context, or strange happenings. This will make the viewer more curious about your images (rather than quickly look through them). After all, humans like to always tell stories and make sense of images- and when they have to spend more time to pause, look at your photograph, and try to figure out what it is – it will make the photograph stick more with them.
Petersen also applies this concept to why he shoots with black and white instead of color. He states:
“The reason why I go on with black and white photography is I’m used to it. In black and white there are more colors than color photography, because you are not blocked by any colors- so you can use your experiences, your knowledge, and your fantasy, to put colors into black and white. And this is what you do, put in your own colors.”
I found this concept absolutely fascinating – that the viewers of your photographs have to inject their own personal history and experiences to understand your photographs. This makes the viewer more of an active participant of looking at the photograph, rather than just looking at it passively.
Regardless if you decide to shoot street photography in black and white or in color, try to add mystery and suspense to your images. Speak less with your photographs, and let the viewers work to understand them.
3. Use a simple camera
One of the things that I had great difficulty with when starting photography was all the technical challenges of understanding cameras. For example, what F-stop should I use? What shutter speed should I use? What ISO should I use?
I would be so concerned with all of the technical settings that it would overwhelm me. When I was shooting on the streets, I would think more about what f-stop I should be shooting at instead of focusing on taking photographs of special moments and connecting with people.
I then realized that I should quit making things so complicated for myself, and just started shooting street photography with “P mode on my Canon 5D (my earlier camera), with my 35mm lens, and at ISO 1600 with autofocus in the center. I wouldn’t worry about the settings and just shoot.
Nowadays I shoot with my Leica and always shoot using zone focusing at f/8. I don’t worry about the settings, and I just click when I see “decisive moments” on the streets.
Petersen talks about why he prefers to use a simple camera (and settings) as well. He shoots mostly with a Contax T3, a simple point&shoot analog camera with a 35mm lens.
I prefer to shoot with an analog camera because I’m kinda stupid and naïve and lazy—so I keep to what I know something about. And I want to have a camera, which is—you know, very simple. An amateur camera. The only thing that means anything for me is the contact with people. Being true to people, and being true to myself. The camera is not so important at all, it is just a tool.
It doesn’t matter what camera you shoot with in street photography (whether it be a DSLR, Micro 4/3rds, Rangefinder, Point&Shoot, iPhone, etc) as long as you are comfortable with your camera settings and don’t have to think when shooting on the streets.
And as Petersen says, keep your camera simple and focus on the people.
Another interesting excerpt in which he discusses the importance of photographing (over cameras and equipment):
The more you talk about photography, the less it is about photography. It’s more about the conditions of life, people and it is more interesting than talking about technicals, lenses and cameras. You are not supposed to be a slave of mechanical tools, they are supposed to help you and be as small and as unimportant as possible not to disturb the communication. That is what I feel when I shoot my pictures.
Also if you are curious more about his simple equipment he talks about his Contax T3 (and the Ricoh Gr1s he often shoots with too):
Moderator: You must be a man that always carries a camera with you…
Petersen: Yes (showing me his camera). Contax T3, 35 mm lens, very good lens, sharp in the corners. I made 2 meters prints and they were sharp in the corners. (The camera is loaded with Kodak TX 400). Always 400 ISO. All my work in the past 12 years has been done with this camera. I have used another one, too. It is Ricoh GR1s, with 28 mm lens, it’s more wide [lens], but I prefer 35 mm lens.
4. Style isn’t something aesthetic
One of the things that one of my friends (and fabulous documentary photographer) Bill Reeves taught me is how “Style isn’t something aesthetic” – rather how you approach photography and the messages & subject matter in your photography. I have written about this in length in a previous article here.
Of course most photographers are recognized with having a certain aesthetic “look” – but Petersen agrees that the common perception of “style” as something aesthetic (isn’t so important):
I try not to define my style. I don’t think I have a special style, but I have a special approach. I like people. You can see the red line from my first pictures in Café Lehmitzv to the last one I am doing now in Soho in London.
I would say that Petersen’s “style” is how he approaches his subjects and interacts with them. You can see through his photographs that the people he photographs trust him, interact with him, and cooperate with him.
If you see this video of him shooting in Turkey, he gets quite close to his subjects, talks with them, and interacts with them quite closely. From my computer screen I can feel the warm and the love he shows his subjects when photographing.
Petersen recently worked on a project in Soho (and published a book) in which he immersed himself in the lives of other people by visiting them in pubs, cafes, and even their homes. The photographs (like his others) are incredibly raw, gritty, and incredibly personal.
I would always be curious how he could approach strangers and get the certain access that he did. Something interesting I wanted to share that I heard from someone when I taught a workshop at Fotografiska in Stockholm a few months ago. Not sure if it is true, but the person told me one of the techniques that Petersen would use when approaching strangers in pubs to photograph:
Petersen would first go into the bar and start hanging out and chatting with people without even showing his camera. He would get to know certain people really well, and would then have an interest to photograph them (but would restrain himself). Then, he would ask them to excuse him, and then he would go off and photograph someone else and then come back. The person who he would previously be talking with would see this and then get jealous, and then ask why Petersen didn’t take a photograph of them. Then Petersen would be able to start photographing them.
So to sum up, don’t worry too much about the aesthetics of your street photographs – rather focus on your approach and the subjects that you photograph.
Are you trying to document the beauty of life? Then perhaps you should shoot subjects that are happy and “pretty” – like jolly couples, smiling children, and people having a good time. After choosing your subject matter, shooting in color might work better (because the medium of color might better suit “happy photos”). Similarly, if you want to create raw and gritty photographs, you should focus on subject matter such as people in pain, outsiders of society, and rough textures. Then following suit, black and white may be a better medium to display what you are trying to say through the photographs.
More detail about his thoughts on his photography and style:
“That is a red line from my first work until what I am doing today, you are right. But I don’t know really what to say about it. It’s not really a style, for me it is an approach. It is more distinct for me, it doesn’t work that much with anecdotes and atmospheres. It works more with light and shadows. I’m interested in a distinct, sharp attack. That is not explaining anything, that has no answers, but has many questions. And the more questions and longings I can find in one cut, the better. If you are curious and patient enough, it brings a lot. You can open the door and the camera is like a key. I am not so much for brain photography, idea-based photography, even though we always need some idea, some fundament to stand on it. I am more of that style of photographer, who is more intuitive, using my stomach and heart. I want my cut to be organic, I want an organic result. This is important for me.”
5. Be a maniac
Street photography is hard. Damn hard. You can shoot street photography for an entire year and only get one memorable image. After all, it is one of the most difficult forms of photography (in my opinion). When you are out shooting on the streets, there are so many variables and factors you need to put in. You have to consider the composition, the subject, how to approach them, the light, the settings on your camera, the position of your body, and so forth. And to have a perfect marriage of form and content? It rarely happens.
Therefore to make great street photographs, you need to be obsessive – perhaps a bit of a maniac too. You need to constantly be on the streets–shooting whenever you can. It is a bit of a numbers game in the sense that the more time you spend on the streets, the more likely you will get that one shot.
At age 68, Petersen is prolific and constantly creating new work. He talks a bit in this interview about the importance of being maniacal:
“I am a maniac. I really continue asking questions mostly about myself. Sounds egotistic and probably it is. I am asking myself – who am I and why. And then I am looking for people and other beings to whom I identity myself – women, men, dogs, cats… I think it’s all about identification with people that I belong to.”
It is common for artists and photographers to constantly ask themselves why they are doing what they do – and to re-evaluate themselves. I think it is important to do because it helps give you focus on why you photograph.
At times we also can lose passion and focus – and ask ourselves why we photograph? But at times like this, Petersen says he continues to push on:
“On the other hand, I am not sure at all, so I keep going. In a way it’s ok not to be sure and it’s ok not being so brave. I’m quite afraid of everything. I think I’m a type of photographer with longing for companionship, friends, communications, trying to understand myself and other people.”
So try to figure out why you photograph (if you aren’t sure why, give a second to think about it). And don’t worry if you don’t have an exact answer, it is a question all of us have (but try to challenge yourself).
We all hit brick walls to in terms of trying to innovate and create new images and projects. When in doubt, just hit the streets. It might take you a bit of time to start warming up to shooting, but then once you get into the flow, you will ask yourself why you thought it was so hard.
6. Get close to people
As humans we are social beings. We understand ourselves through interacting and getting to know other people. We identify ourselves compared to others as well. Therefore when we are photographing our subjects, the photographs we create aren’t objective images of the world. Rather, they are subjective interpretations of how we see others.
Petersen talks about the importance of getting close to people, and relating with them:
“I think I understand myself through other people, more and more. And I understand another thing… I know it’s a basic fact, that we are all humans after all. It’s a big family. But on the other hand, it is true… If you go back to basics, you are relative to all other people in the world and it doesn’t matter whether you are in Japan, Paris or Riga.
I am trying to look for what is making you feel closer to other people. I am not looking for what is drawing us apart – I want to be close. I don’t look for differences despite I know we have different cultures, religion, but anyway we are all the same. And that is the basic, kind of a primitive platform, my way of photographing people.
I also feel that with physical proximity comes emotional proximity. That is why when I switched from using a telephoto stalker-like lens when shooting street photography (to using a wide-angle prime lens), I was forced to get physically closer to my subjects (which made me feel emotionally closer to them). I would get close so I could feel their presence, I could hear their conversations, and at times even get close enough to see the color of their eyes. I enjoy getting close to people and taking their photographs, and often having conversations with them afterwards and building personal connections.
Of course one of the difficulties of street photography is being able to build some sort of personal connection with your subjects. After all, we generally just see a person, snap the photo, maybe smile or wave, and then move on.
Perhaps next time when shooting on the streets, try to take some time to know more personally about the people you photograph. People have incredible stories to tell, and in my experience– sometimes the scariest people can be the nicest people.
7. Photography is a self-portrait of yourself
Consider every photograph you take to be a self-portrait of yourself. After all, as a photographer you are simply a subject-selector. As street photographers we happen to select our type of photography to be of candid images of people in public. This is what makes us different from let’s say– landscape photographers who like to shoot trees in the wilderness. The photographs we decide to say tell a lot about ourselves (are we more positive and drawn to the good parts of life? Or are we more negative and drawn to the darker sides of life?) And what types of people are we drawn to?
Petersen talks about in his “private documentary” work his images are a self-portrait of who he is. He starts off by talking about his recent project in Soho:
I am trying to document my emotions through this lovely city, and especially Soho. It has a lot of energy. Good vitamins. And of course there is a lot of nightlife going on here, so of course you see many drunk people– but that’s very okay with me. And when I go in the streets here in Soho, I try to find a combination with myself and what I see in the streets. So I’m approaching a kind of self-portrait, when I am selecting and choosing people, of course but the structures of Soho.
He expands more on this idea how subjectivity reigns over objectivity in his work and better defines “private documentary”:
I think documentary photography is so very important. But, I can say I have my roots in documentary photography. I like Ed Van der Elsken like Christer Stromholm and so on. But now it is more about private documentary. A sort of essay. Of course it is more about me. I want to point out that I am private- that it doesn’t exist – any objective truth. Everything is subjective, and I want to point it out by saying so, by using the word ‘private documentary’.
Petersen also talks about what he wants to accomplish through his photography in a real and raw way, rather than in a conceptual and formal way:
Photography is not really about photography- it is about longings, dreams, nightmares, and wants, and memories- and I try to catch that. But I’m looking for a primitive way. I want it to be a very back-to-basic, and not “art photography”- not at all. I want it to be amatueuristic- I want it to be as true as I can do it, you know? Organic almost. Can you use the word “animalistic“?
When you shoot on the streets, don’t worry too much about the philosophy of why you shoot or any other conceptual ideas. Leave the “brain work” when you are in front of a computer typing out your bio. When you are on the streets, let your instincts lead you. But be aware of what draws you to street photography. Is it faces of people on the street? The light hitting off buildings? The still life type of image of forgotten things on the street?
What kind of subjects do you select when shooting street photography?
8. Focus on content, not form
One of the famous quotes by Garry Winogrand is “Every photograph is a battle of form versus content. The good ones are on the border of failure.” As I wrote in my previous article on Winogrand, an effective street photograph is a combination of strong form and content. But what is more important? Petersen shares some of his ideas:
“My way of approaching photography is more – I don’t care so much about the form. Perhaps I did it in the beginning, a long time ago. But now, I just want it to be as straight and simple and as true as possible.“
I have similar feelings in street photography – that the content is more important than form (although both are very important). I feel that street photography is less about aesthetics, and more about capturing the rhythm, jazz, and emotion of people on the streets. Of course you want good compositions, but what good is having a perfect composition if your photograph doesn’t say anything that people can relate or connect with?
Shoot with your heart, not your brain.
9. Photography is about solutions, not problems
One of the challenges I faced in the past (and still face today) is feeling confident when shooting on the streets. I used to want to keep my camera as hidden as possible, because I saw it as a “dead giveaway” that I was taking photographs of people. I wanted to be invisible and un-seen by anybody else. I hated my camera and the sound of the shutter, because it would cause people to know I took their photograph, and draw unwanted attention to me.
Nowadays I have a different philosophy and approach. Of course at times I want to be more discrete, but generally because I shoot quite close (around 1.2 meters mostly) it is pretty obvious that I take photographs of people, and I generally look at people and wave at them afterwards. I want the people to know that I took their photograph, because I saw something so interesting and unique about them.
I was also introduced to the idea of the camera offering more solutions than problems via David Hurn, who said that having a camera gave you an excuse to take photographs of people- and was almost like an entrance ticket to having a reason to photograph. Petersen echoes the same thoughts:
“Photography offers a lot of opportunities. For me, the camera is like an entrance to the private lives of other people. And if you are curious like me, it is a fantastic tool.”
Therefore don’t hate the fact that your camera is visible and easily seen. Champion it, and use it as a tool and show it proudly that you are a photographer, and your job is to get to know more about society and other people through your lens. The camera is your excuse and your ticket into the lives of others, whether in the streets or off the streets.
So the next time people ask you why you took their photograph, it is more than enough to respond by saying, “I took your photograph because I am a photographer”.
10. Maintain an “innocent eye”
One of the most difficult things is to appreciate the place where you live and shoot street photography. I have lived in Los Angeles for around 6 years now, and there are times that I can be bored of the place. I have been to many places that all start looking the same – and it is difficult for me to see the world in a different way.
However I remember when I first started photographing, everything was so new, so novel, and so exciting. How can we keep our enthusiasm from when we first started and apply it to our photography now? Anders has a suggestion on how to take an amateur-approach and maintain your “innocent eye” in an interview:
Moderator: Isn’t it true that with the age and experience you become also more conscious and aware of what you are doing and it makes it harder to photograph, to maintain that innocent eye?
Petersen: You are so right, so right… My dream is that if you go out in the streets where you were born you see the streets like for the first time in your life even though you have been living there for 60 years. That is my dream, but of course it’s not like that. So, what you have to do is to be aware mentally of all those experiences, and knowledge is a rather heavy rucksack and it’s not good for being creative. So, what you can do is in a mental way you have to go down to zero, to clean yourself as much as possible, I know it’s impossible.
Anders suggests the idea of preventing your experiences from weighing you down, and trying to rinse your mind and go back to “zero”. He also admits that it isn’t something that is easy, but possible.
Petersen continues by sharing his experiences when he was photographing in a prison for 3 years, and how one of his encounters with a criminal helped give him some insight on how to continue his passion:
When I was working in prison for 3 years, there was a very famous criminal Jaki. After a while I got into his cell and asked him, why are you so famous, how it comes you are so good. Because everybody was talking about him. And he said, it is simple, you have to imagine a life like a pyramid and you have to reach the top of it. And it’s not just about being criminal, it’s also much about photography.
At the bottom of the pyramid there’s safety, you have your family, friends, women, people you love, but you can’t do any masterpieces there, you have to be clear. In order to go to the top of the pyramid, you have to get rid of them. And it is very much a mental process, as Jaki said it was like peeling yourself from it. And when you come to the top, it’s like a fever. Once you are there, the only thing that matters is what you have to do, and nothing else matters. Then you are dangerous and then you attack.
When I heard it from this criminal, I thought this is also true about photography. How to catch momentum… you have to be very fast, ruthless when you crop the situation you are in. You are not supposed to be into the situation with both your feet, but one foot outside, in order to attain the best result of the situation.
In this excerpt Petersen describes that the battle that us photographers face is not with other people, but the mental battle we have to have with ourselves. We need to peel away our levels of safety and push forward, in order for us to achieve greatness and be cotent with our own work.
So with your street photography, some of the mental battles we need to face is spending enough time to go out and shoot, being able to re-visualize our homes as somewhere interesting to photograph, and to be consistent and push forward. Once again, it is a never-ending battle that all photographers face, but that is why I feel it is important to have a community (like this one) where we can continue to support one another to improve in achieving our personal vision in photography.
Anders Petersen isn’t a street photographer, but I think that us as street photographers can learn much from his approach and philosophy in photography. His photography is straight from the heart and the soul, and less from the brain (which he reserves afterwards when he is editing and sequencing his projects).
Remember to be cognizant of why we are out shooting street photography. Are we out there just trying to create images in which we juggle with visual gymnastics or create images with soul and purpose?
Make sure to check out some of Anders’ books below, and perhaps sign up for one of his upcoming workshops as well!
Quotes by Anders Petersen
- “Be wary of nicely formulated principles and truths. Useless feelings of guilt and sins of the past. Or while we’re at it, a photograph resembling pretty adjectives. On the other hand, I like private diaries and family albums.”
- “To me, it’s encounters that matter, pictures are much less important.”
- “I can’t describe reality; at the most, I can try to capture things that seem to be valid, the way I see them.”
- “You have to focus on what you are doing, not just as a photographer, but as a human being.”
- “Cutting is a good way to describe [my way of shooting]. I cut… that’s what it feels like, because it’s so fast. Then I peel away layers.”
- “I don’t believe in reality really, it’s a bluff. But I believe in a kind of reality that exists because of all the longing, dreams, secrets, nightmares, mostly longings. I think no picture is without longing. This allows you to use what you are afraid of, as a trampoline; to channel your energy into your creativity; go inside and open up like a sharp knife, like a doctor operating.”
Photography in Turkey
This great video shows Anders in action, shooting in Turkey. Note how he interacts with his subjects by laughing with them, smiling with them, and the rapport he builds with them while photographing.
An except from the video here.
The pictures taken for the project titled ‘Time in Turkey’ to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Zaman Daily Newspaper are being published in the Saturday supplement of Zaman, Cumaertesi. The third part of the publication continues with Anders Petersen. Also you can see his pictures and watch the interview on timeinturkey.org
Interview with The Photographers Gallery (about Soho)
The description from the Vimeo page:
Anders Petersen has been working in London’s Soho for several weeks, as part of his Soho Projects residency commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery. Immersing himself in its bars, cafes, homes and hotels – creating a very personal portrait of one of city’s most vibrant areas.
In this video Petersen talks about his time in London, his working processes, and previous projects including the seminal Cafe Lehmitz.
Anders Petersen (b.1944), one of Sweden’s most noted photographers, is known for his influential, intimate and personal documentary-style black-and-white photography.
Find out more here.
Buy the book here.
Du Mich Auch
Buy the book here.
Recommended photographers by Anders Petersen
When Anders was teaching his workshop right nextdoor at Fotografiska, I took a snapshot of some of the photographers he recommended and was inspired by:
- Christer Stromholm
- Ed Van Der Elsken
- Lisette Model
- Diane Arbus
- Nan Goldin
- Boris Mikhailov
- Daido Moriyama
- Antoine D’Agata
- Michael Ackerman
- Jacob Aue Sobol
Interviews with Anders Petersen
- Interview with Anders Petersen (FK Magazine)
- Get the Hello Out of There (Vice Magazine)
- Interview with Anders Petersen (Gomma Magazine)
What are your feelings about Ander’s work and anything you would like to dispute/add? Share your thoughts in the comments below!