Inside Selection: Bjorn Haldorsen, graduate of ICP's Documentary and Photojournalism program

Q&A with Bjorn Haldorsen, graduate of the International Center of Photography's Documentary and Photojournalism program

MOMENTO MORI: In this image from Haldorsen’s series on a Brooklyn funeral home, a worker uses a lit match to remove nostril hairs from a deceased woman’s nose.

PDNedu: Please tell us about your background in photography and your studies to date.
Bjorn Haldorsen: I first started taking pictures in high school, but it was when I moved to China in 2008 my love for photography really began. Being in a place so different from Norway, where I grew up, made me want to document my surroundings. By chance, I met some people in the art scene in Shijiazuang, in Hebei province. This led to my first exhibition in a group show called "Light Up." It was held in a basement underneath Shijiazuang’s Chang'an Park in the city. The basement was pitch black and you needed flash lights to see the pictures on the wall. It was a great experience.

After living in China for ten months I studied at Fatamorgana—the Danish School For Art Photography, where my passion for photography quickly grew in the midst of great teachers and talented classmates. The best experience was a workshop with the French photographer Antoine D'Agata.

From Fatamorgana in Denmark I moved to Ghana in Africa where I volunteered at an orphanage. Here I used my camera as a ticket to see and briefly document a Rastafari community, the town’s witch doctor and diamond diggers. All this led up to my study at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.

PDNedu: Why did you make the decision to come to the US to study photography and what was your process for setting this up?
BH: I first heard About ICP when I studied at Fatamorgana in 2009. I wanted to apply but didn't feel ready to make the commitment just yet. After traveling to Africa and Asia I came back to Norway and realized that photography was the profession I wanted to commit to. I contacted previous classmates and my teacher at Fatamorgana for help in making a portfolio to submit to ICP and got accepted. With great help from my mom and dad, who I can't thank enough, a bank loan and private savings I was able to finance my studies and make the best career decision in my life so far.

PDNedu: How did your education in Europe compare with your studies at ICP in New York?
BH: In many ways the education in Denmark was very similar to the one in New York. The ways of teaching are pretty much built by the same building blocks—everything from getting different shooting assignments to how we critiqued pictures to having guest speakers and workshops. Yet, there are a couple of differences—at ICP, no two students have the same schedule. Everyone picks classes according to how they want to proceed with their photography. Another difference is the mandatory classes, digital class for example, where we learned how to process and print our own files.

PDNedu: What was the best aspect about studying at ICP? What was your favorite course?
BH: To be surrounded with great people from all over the world that share the same passion for photography and to be taught by some of the best people in the industry has been great. Also all the inspiration I got from my fellow students and teachers. I want thank Alison Morley, documentary photography and photojournalism program chair, for putting this spectacular program together. Last, but not least, the city was amazing.

I'm split between three favorite ICP courses. One is "Photographing People", a weekend workshop with Eugene Richards. To be taught by one of the living legends in photography is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

The second course is "Where Do You Stand", a workshop with Jeff Jacobsen. This class was ground breaking for me as a photographer and I'm so grateful to have been one of Jacobsen’s students.

The third is "Documentary Videography" with Leeor Kaufman. Through questioning us he made sure that every cut we made in an edit was well thought through.

PDNedu: How long after you arrived in New York did you start working on your project Evergreen?
BH: I started working on "Evergreen" in the beginning of the second trimester, which was in early February.

PDNedu: How did you make the initial contact with the funeral home?
BH: I called around to different funeral homes in Brooklyn. The people at Evergreen funeral home were kind enough to let me come talk with them. After explaining what I wanted to do with my project, that I would show respect and be delicate with this touchy subject, they agreed to let me shoot.

PDNedu: Generally speaking, how much time do you spend researching your subject matter at the beginning of a project?
BH: That all depends on what the subject matter is and how much time I have to shoot. With this project I probably researched a couple of weeks before I called the funeral home. I think it’s important to have a general idea about the subject you’re documenting, but you also learn a lot from being with the people, which is half the fun in shooting to begin with.
How much time did you spend observing and acclimating to the environment at Evergreen Funeral Home before you started shooting? How much time did you spend shooting there in total?
BH: I don't know exactly how long, but I interact with my subjects until they feel comfortable with me. The time is different for each individual and I don't like to start shooting until I feel the time is right. I also take breaks in between shooting to talk and learn. Respect and a genuine interest go a long way.

PDNedu: Is your documentation of the funeral home complete or do you plan to go back and shoot more there in the future?
BH: Since I no longer live in New York the project is done for now, however I’d like to continue shooting there as soon as I return. I want to expand the project and document the embalming process.

PDNedu: What do you view as the most important elements in the pictures you make? What is the most important thing that you want to communicate with your work?
BH: I think one of the most important elements of my photography is that I shoot differently than what I’ve seen before. I'm still in the process of developing my own personal style. I hope to show things we’ve seen before with new eyes. Representing the subject from a different point of view, casting a slightly different light than what we’re used to and putting things in a new relationship with the surroundings. I try to include a sort of unfilled space in my framing, which the viewer can charge with his or her own feelings and sensations.

PDNedu: In addition to making still images for the Evergreen project you also shot video. Was there any difference in the way your subjects responded to you shooting motion footage as opposed to stills?
BH: As my documentary videography teacher said "in documentary filmmaking your subjects are acting as themselves." As soon as you bring a video camera into a situation people are more aware of what they say and how they act. This also goes for shooting stills, but it is even more relevant when you shoot video. It’s your responsibility to do your subject right in the editing process. Here you have to "make" them as close to reality as you can.

PDNedu: Did shooting the video footage offer you any unexpected insights or give you new/different angles to consider in shooting stills for this project?
BH: When you shoot video and sound you have to be more observant of what people say and how they act. This is something I'm more aware of now when I shoot stills.
What, if anything, did you learn from the portfolio review process during ICP’s career day?
BH: It was a very hectic and interesting day. I think being polite and respectful is key. You are there to get your work critiqued. Some people might not understand exactly what you’re trying to do, but it's only their opinion. You have to take what you feel like you can learn from to grow. I felt I got a taste of how life really is in the photo industry.

PDNedu: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you might want to do differently in a future portfolio review, either in your presentation or your interactions with reviewers?
BH: Overall, I felt that I had a good presentation and interaction with the reviewers I met. Of course some interviews went better than others, but I guess that’s just how it is. I think it's important to be yourself and always research the contacts you’ll meet.

PDNedu: What has it been like to return to Europe? Did your time in New York City make you view anything differently there?
BH: To return from New York with all this new knowledge makes me see everything at home with fresh eyes. I'm constantly thinking of projects I want to do and how I want to shoot them. I'm more curious to know what’s happening around me than ever before. Now I want to make a portrait of my home and country in the way I see it. It has been good to come home to see family and friends, but I've been anxious to start shooting new projects, so I've done research and kept the camera warm since my return.
Now that you’re back in Europe, is there anything in particular you’ll miss about living in New York or the New York photo scene? Is there any aspect of your time in the states that you’ll be happy to put behind you?
BH: I’ll miss all the great people I met most of all—New York would not be what it is for me without them. The photo scene and the city in itself are amazing and it’s a great place to get inspired. But I think it was the right time for me to leave. There are already so many great photographers in New York, so I want to take what I've learned and focus on where I come from. I know New York will always be there and I hope to come back when I have more to offer.
Are there any particular photographers you look to as mentors in your work and career? If so, please name them and talk about why they’re important to you.
BH: There have been so many great photographers/teachers, but there are two people I look to as mentors. Serge Levy, my ICP seminar teacher for two out of three semesters is one person I hope to work with again. He pushed me into following my intuition and helped me develop my "eye." Jeff Jacobsen is the other person I look to as a mentor. Not only did he teach a workshop where I had a great breakthrough, he has been giving me feedback ever since. I truly appreciate all his help and hope to continue our working relationship.

PDNedu: What things do you have in store for the future? Where do you hope to be and what do you hope to be working on five years from now?
BH: I moved to Copenhagen, Denmark in August, where I’m working to get some experience in both the fine art scene and photojournalism. I want to work in both fields, since they are so mixed together. Until that happens I will work on personal projects in Denmark and Norway.

In five years I hope to work in a magazine where I can make stories I care about and get paid to do it. I also hope to have started with publishing a book about the mystery of death. I want to work my way through different aspects of death and see how different cultures treat it.

To learn more about Haldorsen and his work, visit his Web site.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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