Danish photographer Jens Juul tells us the inside story on his Sony award-winning project – ‘Six Degrees of Separation’
Jens Juul’s photographs extend a familiar idea – that each of us are connected to anyone else in the world via a maximum six steps – and the project becomes an exploration of the idea of the Stranger. His inky, black and white portraits, ask “how do we connect to another human being?” Great photography is one way we do that because the photographer’s skill in creating an image enables us to empathise.
Juul’s project mainly consists of portraits of strangers and he keeps that strangeness in the image – the figures, shapes and faces that emerge out of the dark. What makes this project so appealing is that explores the wonderful strangeness of other human beings as much as it about connection.
Juul’s winning project is also a lesson in how to win awards – have a big idea, then execute with skill.
What is your professional background Jens?
I was trained as a portrait painter, then I did graphics, graphic design. I only started doing photography four years ago.
So you’ve been doing commercial work in graphic design?
More like artistic design
For catalogues, galleries…?
I’ve done some logos too. Then I got this idea around the Six Degrees of Separation where everyone is connected, as a theme for doing work. You start by meeting somebody in a street or a restaurant.
How did you choose?
If you have a dinner with a friend and he sends you to somebody, I have a contact, I ask “can I take a photo of you?” If you agree I set the conditions, we do it in your place, your home, spend a couple of hours at least. Then I get a photo. You interview them, they make you a cup of tea. I’m a tourist in their homes.
This is like travel photography then, you’re a tourist in people’s lives?
That’s quite a long time, 2 or 3 hours for someone to allow you into their life?
If you are going to shoot pictures that are very personal you have to know them a little, who they are. How can I tell my story about you, the way you sit, or maybe you have a scar, things I can make a story out of. You need to get people to warm up a little. That’s two-thirds of it, to get a chemistry going.
In terms of the process, you are shooting these as a series, what kind of technical decisions are you making to keep the similarity, in terms of issues like lighting?
All the pictures are taken indoor, I always work with flash, black-and-white, photography was born black-and-white. I started doing colour photography but it becomes very banal. When you have to get close to a person like the this, with colour you get too close, it gets too much. In black-and-white you don’t get distracted by details that have little or no importance.
Some of this feels quite Diane Arbus, dramatic, intense, an unfamiliar slice of portraiture, have you any particular inspirations?
The meeting with the person is the inspiration. When I was doing portrait painting I had to arrange and plan, do a lot of things before you can start to paint. With photography you can work in the now, be very expressive.
With this picture, we had the appointment two days later but, I came early – no manners! When I came she was in the middle of dyeing her hair and she was sitting having a fag. I just took up the camera. It’s a snapshot. I took four or five pictures. That’s what I love about the power of photography, you are able to capture the moment.
How long has the project been running?
It started two years ago and it’s still running.
I’d love to do an exhibition and a book.
How many subjects have you shot so far?
This is a real slice of Copenhagen?
All kinds of people, all ages, rich and poor, all kinds.