Mette Sandbye is Professor of Photography Studies and Head of the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen as well as art critic at the weekly newspaper Weekendavisen. She was the editor of the first Danish history of photography (Dansk Fotografihistorie, 2004), and she has published numerous books and articles on contemporary art photography and photography as part of visual culture. Her latest book is Digital Snaps. The New Face of Photography(2014), edited with Jonas Larsen.
Image captions
(Cover) Kent Klich, Abu Taha Sadia Rejek, 40, killed in Rafa Gaza 02-08-2014, from Black Friday, 2015
(01) Kent Klich, Gaza Photo Album, 2009
(02) Kent Klich, Name- Iyad Jamil Alwajah Location- At Tuffah, northern Gaza Strip, from Gaza Photo Album, 2009
(03) Kent Klich, Killing time, 2013
(04-05) Ismar Cirkinagic, from the series Negatives Beyond the Green, 2014
(06) Tina Enghoff, from the series Migrant Documents, 2011-2012
(07) Tina Enghoff, Migrant Documents, 2013
(08-09) Charlotte Haslund-Christensen, from the series Who’s Next?, 2013
(10-11) Trine Søndergaard, Strude, 2008-09
(12) Lina Hashim, from the series Unlawful Meetings, 2011-14
(13-14) Lina Hashim, from the series No Wind With Hijab, 2012-13

The Happy Marriage of Concept and Content
New Conceptual Danish Strategies of Socially Engaged Documentary

In Denmark, photography has historically been regarded as “a middlebrow art”, if we compare it with France, Germany and the US, but also with other Scandinavian countries such as Finland. In Finland, an active cultural policy has supported photography with institutions, grants, book publishing programs and so on for many decades now.

A lot has happened to photography in Denmark along the last twenty years. Photography is now fully integrated into the art scene: many top galleries, as well as the major art museums, are regularly showing photography, and the number of good lens-based artists is constantly rising. However, the photographic genre which has been the hardest to accept by institutions and galleries, as well as to include in the cultural funding system, is documentary photography. But something has changed within the last decade or so, on the global scene as well as in Denmark. In this essay I will present a strong Danish current of new conceptual strategies of socially and politically engaged documentary, or what I call “the happy marriage of concept and content”.

To try to fully explain the background behind this rather new tendency would be too big a task for a short essay. I will thus focus in pointing three important changes out. The first one is the general crisis of reportage photography in printed news media, which are struggling under the pressure and speed of TV images, internet publishing, digital manipulation possibilities, the amount and spread of amateur news images on social media, etc. Some argue that this is why we see photographers turn to new experimental and more conceptual forms targeted at the art world.

But it takes two to tango, and my second argument is that these strategies have also received an invitation from the art world. One can talk of a general political turn in the art world, post 9/11, post financial crisis and a general feeling of recession, where the artists as well as the institutions have taken the courage to embrace global and political problems related to migration and refugees, climate disasters, terror and war. In Denmark, the most prestigious museum of modern and contemporary art, Louisiana, has recently presented major shows with Richard Mosse’s art/documentary depictions of the civil war in Congo (The Enclave) and with Jacob Holdt’s legendary American Pictures, depicting poverty and racism in the US from the 1970s to today in a rough snapshot docu-style. Until the 1990s, Holdt’s work was only shown as slide talks in schools or community houses, but suddenly he started being fully integrated in the art world through major museum as well as commercial art gallery exhibitions.

In third place, one could argue that the sheer amount of pictures, as well as the speed of photographic information, has radically increased along the last ten years, so we might also talk of a longing for slower, more primitive or other forms of still photography – using the white cube as a space for reflection, slowness, and afterthought. Some of these new strategies have been named “Forensic Photography” by Paul Lowe, “Aftermath” or “Late Photography” by David Campany, or “Archival” or “Atlas strategies” by thinkers such as Sven Spieker and Georges Didi-Huberman.

In what follows, I will present a handful of Danish photographers that make use of a mixture of documentary, archival, forensic and conceptual strategies, as well as a variety of photographic forms, in a general articulation of some of the most urgent global political problems.

Kent Klich (born 1952) is Swedish but lives in Denmark. He has worked on the Israel-Gaza war since the so-called Operation Cast Lead, where the Israeli army heavily bombed Gaza from December 27th 2008 to January 18th 2009. 1400 Palestinians died during the operation, including 318 children. 50.000 people had to leave their homes. Klich has published three photo books about this conflict from 2008 to the so-called Black Friday, August 1st 2014, when Israel bombed the city Rafah and killed more than 130 men, women and children, mostly civilians. In Gaza Photo Album (2009), Killing Time (2013) and Black Friday (2015), Klich uses the whole span of photographic representation forms: classical b/w reportage; large format color images of devastated landscapes or interiors of ruined private homes, hastily deserted by their residents; appropriated family photographs; private mobile snapshots and videos documenting everyday life, recorded by young civilians who were killed; aerial photographs of the landscapes before and after the bombings. He also includes maps as well as reports from Amnesty International and Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, and lists with names and age of the dead ones. All together, these various formats add up to a highly engaging and nuanced social reportage of a conflict that seems to have no ending.

Ismar Cirkinagic (born 1973) is of Bosnian origin, but he fled to Denmark escaping from the civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992. In his series Negatives Beyond the Green (2014) he returned to his native areas to photograph the now empty and very beautiful landscapes where ethnic cleansing and executions took place in the early 1990s, and where mass graves were later found and opened. The series consists of beautiful large format color landscapes, as well as close-ups of ordinary objects such as clothes and shoes found in the mass graves. Indeed, this can be called “Late Photography”, showing no atrocities in the picture. At the same time, by adopting highly aesthetical means, he documents an atrocious chapter in recent European history and indirectly points to the many ethnic conflicts and genocides we still experience today.

In her project Migrant Documents (2011-2012, published in book form in 2013), Tina Enghoff (born 1957) departs from the tradition of documentary photography. Not unlike Klich, she works with a variety of photographic formats. The series is about illegal African immigrants in Denmark. In a plain b/w sequence, she photographs the small bundles of private belongings, left high in the trees of a specific Copenhagen park by the immigrants during daytime. In a conceptually very tight, almost deadpan recording series of color images, she depicts the closets with carefully bundled sleeping mats and blankets in a Christian church night shelter. Again, she documents the blood tests at a private health clinic where illegal immigrants can be treated outside the official Danish health system. She even includes photos taken by the immigrants themselves at a workshop where she asked them to photograph Copenhagen and turned the images into postcards. These immigrants have no legal documents, and in her work we never see their faces. But in a subtle way, Enghoff’s collection of indices of their everyday life in Copenhagen make us see them as individuals with bodily and emotional needs, like every other human being.

Charlotte Haslund-Christensen’s (born 1963) project Who’s Next? from 2013 takes off from the fact that being a gay or transgender person is illegal in 78 countries. Danish legislation has allowed homosexuality since 1930, but homosexuality was first removed from the official health agency's list of mental illnesses in 1981.Transgenderness is still on the list of psychiatric diagnoses. The project consists of staged “mug shots” of Danish so-called LGBT persons photographed with the official equipment of the Copenhagen police. Integrated in the work is a poem by the German priest Martin Niemöller, who in the early 1940s protested against political apathy during the rise of Nazism: “First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me”.

Finally, I will present two artists who also work with portrait photography within a political-documentary framing, namely religion. In Strude (2008-09), inspired by classical painted portraiture, Trine Søndergaard (born 1972) portrays young girls dressed in traditional folk costumes at the annual folklore festival at the small island Fanø. The title of the series is taken from the word for the specific “mask” women wear in order to protect themselves from sun and wind on this sandy island. Strude was conceived in a period where the most nationalistic and xenophobic party, The Danish People’s Party, was arguing for the legal prohibition of the niqab. In her series, Søndergaard showed that “niqabs” were also part of a long Danish tradition, thus demonstrating that there is nothing to fear.

Lina Hashim (born 1978) is a Muslim herself. Her parents are from Iraq, and she was born in Kuwait, but her parents fled to Denmark, where she lives today. In No Wind With Hijab (2012-13), she photographed Muslim women’s unveiled hair from behind, allowing us to see a beauty rarely shown to anybody at all. In Unlawful Meetings (2011-14), she spied on young Muslim lovers, who met secretly in public areas or in cars, and documented (faceless) their forbidden meetings using night vision cameras, smartphones or digital cameras equipped with long range telephoto lenses. Hashim’s work does not have an overtly political message but it puts religion under discussion, and both series convey bodily intimacy in a subtle and even ambiguous way.