White Sea Black Sea - Interview with Jens Olof Lasthein

White Sea Black Sea 
A visual journey along the eastern borders of the European Union

Jens Olof Lasthein uses a wide angle, panoramic view, disrupted to such an extent that perspective is lost. He could be considered a landscape photographer in technique except that for over two decades his ‘fish eye’ records people and their stories at the cutting edges of socio-political transformations from far-eastern Europe and from Asia.

A scene by the river in late afternoon. A skeletal-curving-industrial bridge outlines the skyline in the background. Foreground: a man in a check shirt is gently holding with his hands, the hand of a smiling women. This scene is central, dramatic and intensely focuses the viewer’s attention foremost and beyond all others persons in the photograph. The drama is so apparent in that a woman holding a child stares intently, perhaps with both jealousy and with anxiety at the man who is holding the woman’s hand in his hands. In the left of the photograph, an introspective looking man casually dressed, leans against a tree. The entire scene is reminiscent of family albums snapshots. However, Lasthein is actually depicting a group of friends in the outskirts of Kallingrad who celebrate the recent death of their comrade with a bottle of vodka on the riverside.

Grigoriopol / Jens Olof Lasthein

Karol Liver: Jens, do you consider yourself  Swedish or Danish? Do you consider yourself to be a traveler or a photographer? Are you an artist, or perhaps you more see yourself as a mere professional?

Jens Olof Lasthein: Well it's half and half actually, and this applies to everything you asked. Let me fill in a little background detail. I was born in Sweden and spent most of my childhood in Denmark. Before I got interested in photography, I did many different jobs, for instance working in a shipyard and being a bus driver. In my free time, I hitchhiked around Eastern Europe. I was always interested in various photographic genres and began to draw while I was still a child. My father gave me a present of a small camera and I began taking pictures. At the age of twenty-four I knew that I wanted to be a photographer. I pursued the documentary genre and was accepted into a photography course in Stockholm. That was in 1992. After finishing there I collaborated with a few magazines, did portrait commissions, and because I was restless by nature I focused exclusively and importantly for me on my own projects. I definitely wanted to revisit the Eastern Borderlands and its peoples using my camera for the first time in this location. So “Black Sea White Sea” is my latest album documenting six years of journeys from the White Sea to Odessa and to the Black Sea.

Arkhangelsk / Jens Olof Lasthein
Was travelling or photography your first passion and how did both impulses influence each other?

As a teenager, I thought of the camera as a way of recording the surrounding world. I was more into painting. My dad was an Arts tutor, so I had access to his tools. My family was very supportive of my passion for painting. In fact, my daughter often jokes with me saying: “Dad, you should be a painter!”  Before I seriously got into photography I was traveling, and in the 80s as a hitchhiker I visited Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. I loved all those countries and their people. Travel inspired me and also I discovered the magic of the camera as a powerful tool of artistic expression. While I always had a camera with me, I was not fully conscious of its potential. Then at a particular moment I realised that the camera permitted me to get close to people. In fact, it was the camera which gave me the freedom to achieve this closeness.

Was there a conscious political dimension to your photography at this time? Crucially, did you wish to depict the east for the west, photographically? 

On no. 1984 was a personal breakthrough for one reason. I simply fell in love with those people and their places. The contrast was striking – it was still my Europe but I felt geographically bounded to this part of the world, and at the same time it was so different from Western Europe. It was quite unbelievable - something radically different from the political and cultural perspective that was so close to the Western World. While behind the Iron Curtain people functioned differently, in fact they still do – they are involved in different values. This was the most attractive aspect for me I think in Western societies that people are much more alienated.

Sofiyovka / Jens Olof Lasthein
So, this is about the most ordinary people functioning in very different political landscapes. But this has changed since you went there for the first time?

It's wonderful to see how people adapt to new circumstances without losing their roots. We live in constant flux, starting from the material and finishing at the socio-political realities. Architecture, the way we dress: everything changes. Of course, in some places change is slower and there is a big difference between social class. But I was still inspired by ordinary people and their place in society. I feel totally conversant with ordinary people and their ordinary stories and for me the images of a photographer are personal yet inherently expressive. I photograph people as honest and trustworthy. These people were cut off from Western materialism while remaining closer to their life which embodied mutual communal support, and it was they who reached out to me rather than I choosing them as the subject matter for photographs.

Chernyakhovsk / Jens Olof Lasthein
Without being intrusive, were you playing the role of family photographer? What is your preparation for taking such photographs?

I prefer a direct approach in photography. Hidden behind the camera, I'm in a privileged position. I introduce myself through the shutter of the camera. I rarely ask permission to photograph. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you can miss the shot because you are a fraction of a second late. The street is like an ocean wave. Sometimes I wait a minute, sometimes 30 minutes. Sometimes I run away and return to the same place next week.

How do you choose locations?

I need to feel associated with the place. It's difficult to explain. When I feel atmosphere my curiosity is aroused, however my presence sparks the attention of people and this is how the game opens.

Mishgiria  / Jens Olof Lasthein
You use the panoramic format a lot which straddles two genres: portraiture and reportage. Why this particular technique?

Foremost, I am interested in people but not in the tradition of classical portrait photography with its limiting dimensions. The panoramic format permits the merging of many aspects which reveal background features that are multi-dimensional, multi-layered and therefore closer to reality and more alive.

Has photography been downgraded to the level of everyone's passion and therefore looses credibility? You know digital cameras, phone-cameras? And what do you think defines a photographer? 

I'm in favour of the democratisation of photography. Everyone has a right to take photographs. Everyone can enter a gallery and say: “I can do it.”  Photographic tools are available everywhere but it is consciousness that determines your role as a photographer. It is never the other way round and this situation never changes. If you are not a conscious photographer you will never realize your potential. I don’t like competition between photographers who have fully achieved their art.  For me, I am extremely comfortable with my position in photography.

What are you planning now? What is your next destination? 

My journeys are time consuming. The project in Yugoslavia took seven years. Eastern Borderlands took six years. I get focused around one place at a time. My journalist friend and I collaborate on projects. We usually source something of mutual interest.

Thank you!

Tiraspol / Jens Olof Lasthein

Jens Olof Lasthein (b.1964)
After school, he travelled widely in Asia and eastern Europe. He worked in a shipyard and as a bus driver before studying photography at Nordens Fotoskola (The Nordic Photo School) in Stockholm (1989–1992). He has worked as freelance photographer, living in Stockholm, working primarily with
reportages and portraits for magazines and newspapers as well as self initiated projects.

He has had over 40 solo exhibitions in Europe and Asia.

Moments in Between, 2000, Journal. Awarded the ETC Photo Award 2001. Shortlisted for ”Best photobook of the year 2001” in Sweden. Selected by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger for The Photobook:
A History, vol II, 2006.
White Sea Black Sea, 2008, Swedish edition Bokförlaget Max Ström, English edition Dewi Lewis
Publishing. Shortlisted for the Swedish Photobook Prize 2008 and for the European Central Bank Photo Award 2008.

www: http://lasthein.se

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