Mads Nissen

With the assistance of the international military coalition the rebels have now taken over the city of Ajdabiya. Shortly after the fall of Ajdabiya. Burned out tanks belonging to the Pro-Gardaffi forces destroyed by the international military coalition. Rebels fighters and locals are celebrating the victory. Man stands on a burning tank belonging to pro-Gardaffi forces.

Mads Nissen interviewed by Martine Kolstad

As a 19 year old boy you were determined to become a photographer but you weren’t interested in landscapes or sunsets, what drove you to pursue that path?

It was in the crowded streets of Mérida during a nine-month stay in Venezuela. I had bought an old camera from a friend but found myself not interested in the landscape or sunset. Instead, I was interested in the people, the poverty and the cracks in the surroundings. One day, one moment actually, when I was browsing around like that, the realisation came to me that by taking pictures, I could combine the three major interests that I had since early on in my life. A social awareness, a curiosity and a personal need for self-expression.

Photography could be a tool for me to give attention to the injustice, imbalance and important changes that I felt was happening in the world around me. At the same time, taking pictures was a perfect alibi for getting close to strangers, and with empathy try to experience the world from their perspective. Lastly, I always had a strong need to express myself creatively. Unlike my family, I never had talent for drawing or music, but being a photographer allowed me to connect with my emotions and make my own interpretation of what I experienced.

In 2007 you graduated from The Danish School of Journalism with a degree in photojournalism, then you went straight to China to live in Shanghai for two years. What drew you so directly to China straight after your graduation? Was this a personal choice or work related?

Everyone was complaining about “the crisis in the industry”, talking about “the good old days” and “to be realistic about your dreams”.

Well, I am too young to remember “the good old days” and I’m too much of a dreamer to forget about my dreams. China was the most interesting place at that time so that’s where I decided to go. If you don’t know China you won’t understand much of the dynamics in the world today. In Shanghai I did (as now) a mix of assignments and personal projects.

Rebels now seems to control Tabrouk. On 17/02/2011 they attacked the central police station. According to the rebels five people died (incl. one policeman) during the attack on the police station, and in total between 150-200 civilians have been killed during the uprising angainst Colonel Qaddafi in this area alone.

You say now that your main focus is on contemporary issues and dilemmas such as overpopulation, poverty, human rights violations and man’s often-destructive relationship with nature. Why do these issues and dilemmas speak to you more than others?  What would you say is your politic in your work?

The more I work the more I realise that the only stories that matter to me will matter to others. Only those stories will be worth all the hardship. As explained earlier, my background and motivation is rooted in a social awareness. I spent my teenage years as an activist, but as I picked up photography it became very clear to me that I’m much better at asking the questions than giving the answers. Like in AMAZONAS where I try to question the clichés that are usually told about the place. I find that talking about the complexities and the contradictions to be much more honest and interesting.

In an earlier interview you talk about your nine-month stay in Venezuela, did your stay there have any impact on your on-going project Amazon that you have been working on since 2006? In 2013 you published a book about it. How did this project come to life?

During my stay in Venezuela (1998-1999) I ended up spending a couple of months in Puerto Ayacucho on the edge to Amazonas. The town was very different then and it’s complete weirdness really attracted me. Amazonas always stayed with me, so when I did my bachelor project in 2006 it was very natural for me to go back and try to capture the feeling that drew me originally. The book was published in the summer of 2013 together with a huge exhibition and I was totally drained of energy. Tired and burnt out, I was by no terms looking for a new long-term project, quite the opposite, honestly. But just a few weeks later I found myself in St. Petersburg (I was in Russia to teach in a workshop), witnessing this homophobic attack. That incident hurt me so deeply and in a split of a second I got all the energy back. I had to react. I had to do something

Ecuador, Parque Nacional Yasun’ - Zona Intangible, Bameno Ð pueblo ind’gena Waorani. A Waorani woman and man in front of a blanket picturing a lion.

What is your usual process from start to finish? And how do you choose your stories/subjects?

I have too many ideas, but never enough time. I like to choose what-ever touches me the most personally, but sometimes it’s also a combination of economy, editors and basic journalistic criteria. But passion is the key.

People talk about and admire your intimate approach, there is so much emotion and personality in your images. You seem to always get really close with your subjects and to your stories. Do you have any key points to share? What is important to you as a storyteller?

Empathy and intimacy is everything. In my opinion there’s too many pictures out there – I see so much work from so many photographers, of so many people, in so many situations – but most often I find it very hard to really connect with the story and the people in the pictures.

The level of intimacy in the images reveals how much the photographer really cared about the people in the pictures. How involved he is. How much he tried to feel the situation and not just document it. But most importantly, I think that intimacy is what makes the viewer really connect and Engage.

Ecuador, Parque Nacional Yasun’ - Zona Intangible, Bameno Ð pueblo ind’gena Waorani. A monkey who is tight with a robe, is hugging a domestic cat. On the dirt floor of a hut.

I have to ask about the award winning photograph of Jon and Alex from your homophobia in Russia project. It is beautiful how you explain that this is purely about love and desire, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. I can see that reflect back on your image. It is simple and it is only human, just two people in love. When you looked at the image the day after, did you feel that this was the missing piece in your work?  Did you get a special feel about it?

Thank you. At the point when I met Jon and Alex I had already worked on the story for about a year, on and off. I had already documented a lot of hatred, violence and injustice, but while looking at the images with my wife we felt that something was missing. Because in the end it’s not about politics, Russia or religion. It’s just about love – and that love I had to show. Not just document, but show in a way which we can all relate to even though we are not Russian or LGBT. I took hundreds of images that night, many of which I still like, but I decided to go with this one because of it’s complexity. Like I talked about with the AMAZONAS work – to me this picture is not just pure passion or pure danger – instead it tells a more complex and challenging story. Some people might not get that, but for others that openness will draw them to make their own interpretations and reflections from the image.

Kirill Fedorov, age 21, is bleeding from his face after national-conservative extremists have surrounded, beaten and kicked on him and and his friends attending a Gay Pride Rally in St. Petersburg. The group of friends try to stick close together and seek cover behind the police, as stones and eggs that are being thrown at them. The rally was declared illegal under the law banning 'gay propaganda' and Kirill Fedorov and the other LGBT-activists were all later arrested and presented to court. On 30 June 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an ambiguous bill banning the 'propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors'. The so-called anti-gay law has been met with widespread condemnation from human rights and LGBT groups.

Coming from Denmark, a country who has a relatively easy attitude on homosexuality, to Russia where from the looks of your images, the environment is pretty hostile and aggressive, did you meet a lot obstacles on the way? From 2013 when you started until now?

When photography is strongest you are able to pass on the emotion you had in the decisive moment, into the image, and then further on to the viewer on the other side. So if I take pictures from a safe distance, the viewers will never fell the pain and claustrophobia of the LGBT-activists when they are being surrounded and beaten. Or the fear of being kidnapped by militant homophobes when leaving a rally. As a hetro-sexual man coming from Denmark I will never fully understand their situation – it’s like the song “common people” with Pulp – but at least I can try. Try damn hard.

Jon, 21, and Alex, 25.

Out of 5692 press photographers and 97,912 images your image won the World Press Photo of the year 2015. It is an image with incredible affection that speaks purely of love. I read that it has the potential to become iconic, how do you feel about that?

As a WPP winning image it stands out not only because of the topic, but also it’s intimacy and it’s dark aesthetics. But really, I am not by any means competing with other photographers – especially not the great colleagues who covered the atrocities during the Vietnam-war or on Tianamen square.  I am competing against ignorance, indifference and a lack of humanity. So, what I care about is when people come to me, with tears in their eyes, and I truly understand that this picture is no longer just mine

November 2010. Cecilie M. Hansen has arrived in Kathmandu. In the warmth of a glowing heating lamp she is trying to get closer to the now 19 months old girl who has never been cared for by a particular adult, only hospital staff. Cecilie has decided to name the girl Victoria Ð for victory.

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