Swedish artist JENNY KÄLLMAN tells LIZZIE LLOYD for the Magazine HONORE
about her interest in the mechanics of photography, prisons,
crime and punishment as metaphors for the image, and her method of seeing from a drone’s distanced vantage.
You work predominantly with black and white photography. What is it that draws you to this medium and restricted colour palette?
It is not a conscious decision: it’s just a [form of] expression I’ve been working on over
the last ten years. One reason could be that when I was photographing in public spaces
and in nature I often found the green colour tones too dominant, too speci.c. .
There is something _lmic about your images and the way that you talk about them: a sense of passing time…
When I started with photography I got my inspiration mainly from .lms. I feel close to
the .lms of Michael Haneke, for example..But I think my pictures try to capture something
(a scene, a state of mind) where the important thing, the thing the viewer wants
to know something about, either happened before the picture was taken or will happen
afterwards. Of course, there is a certain tension in this, a riddle, which also touches on
our perceptions of time and chronology, the order in which events take place. Film also
works in a similar way, making use of suspense and delays..
Your photographs appear to be becoming more and more abstract, moving away from landscapes to something more internalised. Would you agree?
Possibly. Lately, I have not been primarily interested in what a photograph depicts but
more what photography does. One of my works, “His Song”, is a video installation,
a .lm I made [that turned] a prison cell into a camera obscura. A prisoner performed
a song that he had written himself in front of the camera. He was not only imprisoned in
his cell, but also in an image. I saw a connection between what a camera is and the cell,
a room where light only enters in controlled forms.
So you’re playing on the idea of capturing an image, in the way that a criminal is captured?
Yes, we use the same expression in Swedish, bilden fångar något: literally, “the picture captures
something”. The associations of the camera and the prison cell are di.erent, though.
We see the camera as a tool for surveillance, as a machine for gathering proof, whereas the
photographer is seen as a thief who steals something in secret without being seen..
Going back to your interest in “what photography does,” does this explain why motifs of light, shadow, and re.ection appear so often in your photographs?
Yes, the mirror catches what the eye cannot see. And light and shadow is photography.
I am genuinely interested in photography, in [the mechanics of] what it is.
Despite this, and despite your work being at some level about the process of photography itself, it isn’t at all dry or theoretical. That’s something that is really
hard to pull o.. I wonder if you manage this partly because your images hold so much back, not revealing everything all at once.
Maybe. I like multi-layered or ambivalent expressions in art, but that’s not the same
thing as consciously hiding something..
This layering of fragments and multiple, semi-abstract surfaces or textures causes a blooming of a particular and ambiguous atmosphere. This is then
punctured by the interjection of, for example, the word “Checkpoint”, which gives the viewer a very speci.c way in to understanding your image. There is
something about the psychological tension that all these re.ective and fragmented surfaces create in your images.
“Checkpoint” is made from double exposures. The word “checkpoint” turned up really
by chance, and later on came to add meaning to the picture. I tend to think of the whole
series of images I made in a somewhat larger format in the winter of 2015/16 as somewhat
diˇerent from the previous. As I had previously been working mostly with some sort
of surrealism of the everyday—or commonplace, let’s call it that—I became drawn to
science .ction. It was always as if these six to seven pictures were coming from a diˇerent
place than the one where we are now: maybe the future or some other, completely new
location. But to return to the title: On the one hand, “Checkpoint” is also an extremely
charged, [potentially negative] word but it can also have a quite simple or banal meaning..
There is a lot of word play going on in your use of text and titles. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
Even a simple title, a title which only describes what is there in the picture, can be viewed
as a key or a path or something that can lead the viewer inside the picture.
“Back and Front” from the Lounge series is a good example. The word “lounge” is used
in opposition to the word “prison”: a lounge is something with lots of space and air and
luxury. It is also a place you pick and choose of your own volition. “Back and Front”
is based on something I saw in the prison I visited and then later staged. A person in
a hoodie, a piece of clothing inside of which you can hide but which also allows you
a certain vantage point: you can see without being seen. The mirrors won’t disclose who
you are until your face is shown. But still, you don’t get a clear sense of who the person
in the picture is, where he is or what he’s up to, because his smile is so hard to decipher.
So a sense of surveillance, of watching people is creeping back in here, isn’t it?
YES, I THINK MY WAY OF MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS IS MORE SURVEILLANCE-LIKE,
DEFINITELY MORE DISTANT. At the [art] school I went to, there was always a lot of talk
about the presence of the photographer, and how important that is. I recall being opposed
to this and in some way tried to imagine myself as an absent photographer or as
a surveillance camera or even a drone. I want to reach out as far from my own personal
identity as possible and replace it with something diˇerent.
I wonder if this sense of being watched without permission contributes to a sense of claustrophobia. Nina Øverli has described your use of abstraction as
one that manages “to convey a sense of entrapment, of loops of thought caught up in a circular movement of repetition, and of endless games constructed to
challenge and undo these traps”. Do you think it is your use of abstraction that causes this, or something else?
In photography you have to use abstraction in order to convey this, because the viewer
will automatically look for information in an image which he or she believes is some
form of realism or truth. In a photograph you have, in a sense, to trick the viewer
to stop seeing the picture as a photograph that they are looking at and start seeing it as
a conscious work of art. Also, I think that our thoughts are always more abstract in
nature than any photograph can be.
Do you think we, as humans, are uncomfortable with this sense of the inevitably abstract nature of thought and memory?
I think it is more about the role that photography still has today, of relaying
information. It is not supposed to be an abstract [form of] expression. The viewer tends
to want information about where the picture is taken, what is happening in the picture
etc. You never ask those kinds of questions of, say, painting or sculpture. I guess it says
a lot about photography and its role and position in art in general._
One way you reference abstraction is by including close-ups of window panes obscured with condensation. These allude to a kind of airless closeness, don’t they?
I was lying on the ˇoor when I photographed these. I was watching them [for a long
time], photographing them against the light and seeing how the light fell on them in different
ways according to the reˇections I created by directing mirrors at di.erent angles.
[The whole process made me feel] quite airless myself.
You do this with portraits too, don’t you?.Obscuring them with re.ections and what appear to be .ashlights, as in Signal Vision?
Yes, I tried to imagine the mobile phone as a face, almost like an additional individual.
It causes the setting to become dislocated, losing its meaning. The light is reˇected
towards the viewer appearing as a signal or a separate solid entity. But the image can
be seen in many di.erent ways. This is how David Risley describes it: “What should be
a self-portrait in Signalvision is a photograph of a teenage girl. The overly familiar selfabsorption
of the teenage image-maker is dislocated and the photographer disappears,
leaving the viewer in her place. We become the mirror.”_
So are there particular places that you use as settings for your works?. And if so, what appeals to you about them?
IN GENERAL, I’M INTERESTED IN PLACES LIKE PRISONS, SCHOOLS, SECTS:
COMMUNITIES IN MINIATURE.
Very interesting. Why “communities in miniature”?
I think it goes back to my childhood in the 70s, which was a very special time when the
nuclear family was split up and di.erent family structures were formed, based on ideas
about the collective, not the individual. In essence this was a political change. But I also
think that small, extremely localised communities of whatever kind can exert a certain
fascination on a voyeur (a photographer) who can look at everything that takes place
inside of these communities from the outside._
But more recently this has changed, hasn’t it? You have begun undermining your photographs’ sense of place.
Yes, in a text on my latest exhibition in Copenhagen, David Risley described my work
as “no longer ‘moments’ or ‘places’, they are events and spaces”. I think that is apt. Right
now, place does not matter to me at all.
So perhaps a sense of movement has begun to supplant that sense of place in your photographs?
Movement in my photographs can be understood as that which has already been, already
taken place; it is past, and no longer available to the viewer to see. But movement can
also be that which will happen afterwards.
After the image has been taken?
YES, I WANT TO CREATE THE FEELING THAT WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT IS PICTURED
NOW, BUT IT IS THE STUFF THAT YOU DON’T SEE, THAT YOU CAN’T SEE THAT
REALLY MATTERS. The photograph becomes like a crime committed in front of your
eyes, and you see it, but nobody believes you and you do not have any proof.
And we’re back again to the idea of the camera as a metaphor for the prison cell. Are you interested in crime and punishment on a philosophical, moral level?
Yes, I am. To incarcerate someone feels like a very un-modern punishment. The question
of punishment seems altogether pretty absurd: [the notion] that society can simply move
in and steal a person’s time, maybe for life. I also think about the billion-dollar prison
industry in the US. That is not, of course, to condone murder, rape, [or] other criminal
acts; [it’s] just that I .nd that there is something medieval about it all. Somebody takes
somebody else’s life, and is put away for life. A tooth for a tooth. Maybe in the future we
will .nd a means of preventing crimes from being committed. Before then of course, it is
di.cult to see how we can do away with prisons._
It has also a lot to do with the way in which we perceive society. Michel Foucault writes
in Discipline and Punish that society needs, for its own sake, to make the criminal look
like a pathological subject. Society is clean when the prisoner can be perceived as something
dirty or sick. When the prisoner is made out to be a criminal he is dehumanized,
perceived as a category rather than as a single individual who has committed a crime._
How does this interest relate to your images speci
“One and Four” is from a series of images about water torture. I’d seen drawings of different
methods, which for some reason made me think of the way children test things,
for fun. I have memories from summer camp where I spent time as a child and where we
used to “play” torture games. I wanted to contrast an innocent world with the ugly world
of human torture. Both adults and children manipulate situations and come up with
di.erent, sophisticated ways and techniques to do this. They might seem harmless, but
when pushed too far, and in the hands of the wrong people, they can lead to things like
waterboarding, which to many still is considered to be ok as a method of “interrogation”
since it doesn’t leave any visible traces._
Perhaps it all comes down to this sense of the invisibility of traces, which builds up a dark narrative tension and foreboding. It says a lot about human
nature, doesn’t it?. The way we are always on the lookout for visible traces?. But we miss so much. _
Yes, exactly—I think the police and the artist have many things in common in terms of
the way they work.