Thilde Jensen • Photographer, Denmark

"The Canaries" and "The Unwanted"

Landscape Stories: What poetry or art influenced the most your beginnings? Where can the roots of your work be found? Which artist has inspired you most?
Thilde Jensen: I grew up in Denmark and for the most formative years of my childhood we lived in Esbjerg, a shipping and fishing community which didn't offer much in terms of art and culture but it did have this great experimental theater run by a bunch of old hippies. Feeling different and struggling with being teased in school, this theater became my refuge. At the theater we did both circus and experimental plays with elements of the Theater of the Absurd. I loved our theater and basically lived there when we were putting on shows. When I was sixteen a friend and I travelled through Europe on interrail doing street theater. I was blowing fire and walking on glass while acting out this miming dance performance that we had put together. Looking back I think this early introduction into experimental theater with the acceptance of the absurd as part of reality was more formative than any later influences. When I moved to Copenhagen later that year and left the theater my interest changed to cinema, especially the movies of Ingmar Bergman. I was drawn to the stark emotional landscapes and the sometimes surreal experiences that his movies portrayed and then of course the visual beauty of Sven Nykvist's cinematography. I remember doing a paper on 3 of Ingmar Bergman's movies, "Persona", "Hour of the Wolf " and "The Seventh Seal ". I must have spent weeks going through each movie almost frame by frame dissecting the images and writing down the dialog so I could analyze them. Because of this deep dive into Ingmar Bergmans cinematic universe, I think that on a subconscious level these movies fused with me and became part of my own visual landscape going forward.

I have always been emotionally sensitive which when I was young was difficult because I would walk into a room of people and immediately pick up on any emotional tension so much so that my body would tense up and I would get an instant headache. Later in life I have learned how to control this sensitivity, what might be called "the artist's curse" and use it as a tool when I photograph. Growing up art and especially visual art was my escape into a world that was accepting of life and its many forms of expression away from our rigid box of normalcy with all of its facades and pretense. The visual artists that probably have influenced me most are painters. I have always felt a deep kinship with the melancholy and darkness of expression of painters such as Edward Munch, Goya and Anselm Kiefer.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2011
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2007
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2012

Landscape Stories: Could you describe your earliest experiences with photography, both as a viewer and an artist? How did you discover photography as your favourite medium for expression?
Thilde Jensen: First, before photography I fell in love with film and went to The European Film college in Denmark. I directed and wrote two short films which were both quite surreal the last one was shoot on 16mm B&W film, a surreal love and murder mystery which had some visual similarities to the surrealist universe of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's "An Andalusian Dog". Some of the scenes of the movie which was called "My Love I Do" were visually quite specular and I realized later that my strength was in creating these visual scenes not in traditional cinematic storytelling. Around that time a friend of mine introduced me to a few photobooks by Diane Arbus and André Kertész and I saw the power of the singular image in telling a story or in creating these visual worlds that I could inhabit. So I decided to take photography classes and learn the technical aspects of photography. As one of my first assignments as a young photo student I ended up photographing in an underground public restroom. It turned out that this restroom was a big shoot up place for junkies and I was able to connect with people there and photograph some of them while they were shooting up. My photographic technique was pretty poor but I managed to take some very grainy, but intense first pictures. I think it was this experience that convinced me that photography was my medium and also that reality was more interesting than fiction. My teachers introduced me to the work of Nan Goldin and William Eggleston and I knew right away that I had to learn to photograph in color.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2012
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2006

Landscape Stories: Could you describe your experience of photographing a place you have never been before?
Thilde Jensen: For my last project "The Unwanted" about homelessness in America I would often enter into environments and places that was new territory for me and at first I always feel a little anxious when entering a new location. I usually try to approach someone on the street right away and introduce myself and it doesn't take long before I have made many new friends. As soon as the camera is out of the bag and I have taken a few warm up pictures things feel easier and now I'm just that girl with a camera who smiles a lot. The next time I come back I'm no longer a stranger to them. In urban areas that are easy to access by car I sometimes drive around first to scope things out. As soon as I feel comfortable in a space I can start working more as a photographer. This includes paying attention to where the light is coming from, at what time of day, backgrounds, compositions, color and probably most important the feel of the place and the people.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2005
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2011

Landscape Stories: How would you describe your photographic voice/language and way of working/creative process? How important is your preparatory work? Are your pictures premeditated or instinctive?
Thilde Jensen: I think it is hard to see your own work objectively but my creative process is deeply anchored in emotion and I am pretty blunt in some regards about what I see and feel. I can't help to create images that come together with a certain beauty. The beauty aspect to my images is something that I have struggled with. When I was young I saw beauty in art as a distraction, an indicator that something was superficial without deeper meaning. I remember finding Viktor Frankl's memoir from the Holocaust, Man's Search For Meaning, at a street book sale and there was a passage where he describes the intense beauty of the sunsets in the concentration camp. Reading this book made a profound impression on me and started to soften my rejection of beauty. I no longer felt I was being manipulated by a materialistic worldview trying to sell me something when something came in a beautiful wrapping.

When I later became severely ill from Environmental Illness the world and my being in it became intensely painful but the natural beauty surrounding me, especially the beauty of light also intensified. At that point I started to use natural light in my images whenever possible and I now understand that sometimes the most beautiful experiences occur when we are in the darkest places. I have since come to accept the beauty of my visual language as a necessary contrast to the often difficult and painful scenarios my images deals with.

My process for different projects has been quite diverse. For "The Canaries" project about Environmental Illness I travelled around visiting people in their homes or camps. Since many of the pictures were taken inside, I would set up some flashes and then we would work in collaboration almost as if it was a therapy session to reenact a scene from their story. Hopefully it would come alive and a picture would emerge. For "The Canaries" I was the insider so I knew the story I was trying to tell. I was simply looking for the pieces that would help me tell this difficult story about pain and illness that is caused by invisible elements in the environments like toxic chemical vapors from perfume, cleaning products, pesticides or chemicals outgassing from building materials or electromagnetic radiation from phones, cell towers, Wifi and more. Sometimes I would draw small sketches to visualize a picture ahead of time but these ideas often didn't make for a great picture. When I was traveling around for "The Canaries" project I was sleeping out of my car and would stay with people for a few days so I had some time to observe their daily routines and some people I ended up visiting multiple times. A lot of times I would see something that someone was doing and ask them to repeat that and that became the picture and a few times the situation would just unfold right in front of me. Like the picture of Craig in his car on the phone in the early morning.

My approach for "The Unwanted" project has been very different, I was photographing for the most part outside in the street, not knowing where the story would take me. I knew I wanted the pictures to feel authentic, capturing the restless energy of life in the street combined with the patience and fine detail of my old medium format film camera. It became clear early on that trying to pose someone didn't work, so I had to learn a new way of photographing. Almost as in a dance, waiting for the brief private pauses between words, being led by the movement and emotion of the people I encountered. As a photographer I am interested in our experience of reality and have always gravitated towards the realities which lies outside of normalcy where I feel the most at home. It was important for me not to romanticize or over aestheticize the experience of the homeless people I meet. Instead, I tried to function almost as an unfiltered mirror reflecting what I saw as a harsh and often unbearable existence full of trauma and neglect.

For the first 2 years of The "Unwanted" project I photographed in Syracuse NY not too far from where I live. I would spend time with the homeless there whenever I had money for film and the weather allowed. Some of the people like James, I got to know quite well and followed for years. I also photographed a lot in Las Vegas and that was a much more intense process because I would be there for shorter durations of time and would then have to photograph every single day. I have never photographed like that before and it was extremely exhausting. Each morning I would get up at 5am to be ready to photograph at sunrise. I had no idea who I was going to photograph but by the end of the day I had blown through many rolls of film and felt overwhelmed by all the people and impressions that I had encountered and connected with. A week into my stays in Vegas I would get to the point were I almost couldn't take in all of the sad encounters and harsh realities of being in the street and I would just want to go home. I knew that this was exactly the emotional place I needed to be in to take the really hard pictures of being homeless.

I photograph from a place of extreme empathy. My ability to feel other people as I mentioned earlier has always been heightened and I use that now when I pick up the camera. For me to be able to take a picture of someone or something I first have to feel them otherwise I can't really see what I'm photographing and the pictures end up being uninteresting.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2012
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2006

Landscape Stories: 2-10% of the human population worldwide has developed a disabling condition referred to as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) or Environmental Illness (EI). EI is a condition in which the immune and central nervous systems go into extreme reactions when exposed to small amounts of daily chemicals like perfume, cleaning products, car exhaust, printed matter, construction materials or pesticides. "The Canaries", your first book, started from your personal biography. Can you talk about that a bit more?
Thilde Jensen: I lived in New York City when I got severely sick with what I later learned was Environmental Illness or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Suddenly the urban landscape that I used to so easily inhabit turned into a toxic minefield and I soon was forced to leave the city to live in a tent in the woods. Later I lived 2 winters in Arizona sleeping mostly outside under open sky. For 7 years I used a respirator whenever entering the man made world. I couldn't use a computer and had a wooden phone where air tubes transported the sound so that there was no electronics in the phone handle next to my head. This was an extremely hard time for me and a year into the Illness I started documenting my own life. At first picking up the camera again was just a way to cope with the surreal nightmare my life had turned into and the deep isolation and loneliness that I felt but slowly as I meet more people suffering as I, it grew into "The Canaries" project. 7 years later I was fortunate to recover to some extent so that I now again can be in the world without a mask and use a computer. Not to say that I'm not sensitive anymore but I have found ways to navigate the world so that I don't get so sick.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2011
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2004

Landscape Stories: On your book, we can see a couple of selfportraits taken in private. How do you think photography can help in the exploration of the individual and in the comprehension of the society? How important is this process to the exploration of yourself, to discovery of your intimate emotions and to focus on your future behaviours? How photography is helpful to?
Thilde Jensen: I am generally not keen on being in front of the camera but with "The Canaries" I suddenly had become part of the story and was alone most of the time so I started doing self portraits. I found that turning the camera on myself was hard not only because of the practical issues of not being able to be both in front and behind the camera at the same time, having to use long cable releases. Only 2 of the many self portraits I took ended up in the book and it is still really hard for me to look at the one of me in my tent because it was such a painful and desperate time of my life. Sharing my loneliness and vulnerability with the world in that way was uncomfortable at first but it seemed important especially since I was asking other people to share their most intimate struggles too. It seemed fair that I was not just hiding behind the camera as the observer but was part of the story too. I did find that the process of taking self portraits was filled with sadness because it forced me to really get to the core of the emotional and physical pain that my life had become but at the same time it was also liberating because I was able to express my situation in an image give it a visual form. I think the creative process can be very healing not only for the artist but for society at large. Creativity is like a force of nature continually flowing and moving always finding new paths, able to move past any obstacle. Rigidity seem to be the cause of most human conflict. I think a lot of people live in fear of uncertainty and change and they hang onto a very limited rigid perspective. As artists and photographers I think we can help show that reality really is a fluid constellation that we constantly redefine and shape. Our world today has such a fast visual culture where images are everywhere both in good and bad ways. I think as photographers we can help add nuance and layers of complexity to this new visual era that we live in and I think the battle over how we see our reality is more important than ever.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2004
© Thilde Jensen – From The Canaries, 2004

Landscape Stories: You travelled in the desert of the American Southwest, where many with Environmental Illness live as refugees from a chemical and electrical world. How do you choose the places you photograph? How do you think, in some way, this places influenced your work? How do these concerns affect the way you work?
Thilde Jensen: The American Southwest has become a refuge for many people suffering with severe Environmental Illness because the desert still offers remote, desolate locations where one can get away from dangers of neighbors chemical pollution and cell phone towers. Some of these areas have almost become communities of environmentally sensitive people. It was obvious that this was where a big part of the story was going to be found for "The Canaries" project. I have always found the desert to be a very alien environment in many ways it is a very harsh environment but it also holds this strong cosmic beauty and presence that is humbling. I spent many nights sleeping on the ground under open sky looking up at the stars feeling connected with this vast universe above me and I think that all of this influenced the pictures and how the design of the book came together. Many of the pictures in "The Canaries" book are set in the desert and I do think that the environment almost becomes a character of its own adding a bit of post apocalyptic and western pioneer feel to it all. I drove across country twice for "The Canaries" project and the journey became part of the story as it is part of the story for many trying to find a place that doesn't make them sick.
When I started "The Unwanted" project in Syracuse NY where a lot of the homeless live under or around one of the old rundown elevated highway that runs through downtown this became part of the story too almost like monuments of a fallen empire.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2015
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2014
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2017

Landscape Stories: Could you tell us something more about the creation of the book "The Canaries"? Do you mind quickly explaining for our readers why you chose to make this book, and what you hope to accomplish with it?
Thilde Jensen: It wasn't long into "The Canaries" project that I started to think that this needed to be a book. Gallery shows are of course a great way to experience photographs up close but they are temporary and unless you are a big name showing at a big venue chances are that not too many people will get to see your work. The photobook has the advantage of lasting many, many years and with that it can act as a historical document as well as a work of art. I have shipped "The Canaries" book all over the world and I love the intimacy of sitting with a great book of pictures in the comfort of my home. For "The Canaries" series I was dealing with a personal story that was largely untold and I thought that here I had the opportunity and obligation to communicate an important story to the world. I hoped that the book and my images would help bring awareness to the toxic world that we have created and the many people suffering because of it but I knew that the forces I was up against like the corporate chemical and pharmaceutical industry are too powerful for me to create any significant change. Instead what kept me going was the idea that at least future generations would be able to look back and know that we were here so that our story wouldn't be written out of history.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2017
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2016

Landscape Stories: Do you have a method of working which you follow for each series, or does it vary for each different project?
Thilde Jensen: If by method you are thinking my more conceptual thinking and approach to a new project then it has been about the same for the last few projects. Something spikes my initial interest in a subject. Sometimes an image from one project leads to the next but usually it comes from something I can't stop thinking about. It involves a lot of research and numerous lists with ideas, clues, subjects, groups or locations ect ideas that I want to explore and it just grows from there. In the beginning the concept is often very broad moving in all directions at once and then somehow in the chaos of it all, the story or structure of the project emerges.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2016
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2016

Landscape Stories: Referring to your work "The Unwanted", how much importance do you attach to the emotional approach of this particolar group of people locked away from society's gaze? Homelessness in America recall us isolation and vulnerability and people's life disenfranchised, neither voters nor consumers. What do you find extraordinary in the stories of these men and women?
Thilde Jensen: I think the one thing that kept me coming back to "The Unwanted" project was the often raw naked humanity that I encountered with the homeless in the street. I found a honesty about the human struggle, many of their life story having been these epic endless struggles. Life stories full of trauma and neglect yet there was a real appreciation for human connection without all the facades and power games that otherwise often are in play when we interact. Knowing from my own life that everything can easily be turned upside down it is not hard for me to see how you can end up in the street, that this could have been me. I think that many people in America think that the homeless are to blame for their condition, but I don't see it that way. I came to this story haven grown up nurtured by the humanitarian values of Denmark's Social Democracy and have long been concerned about the social cost of America's capitalist system. Homelessness to me represents one very tangible consequence of the growing divide between rich and poor.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2015
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2015

Landscape Stories: How much does the final image come from you or from the person you're photographing? Do you think that it is important to interact and communicate verbally with your photographic subjects before shooting?
Thilde Jensen: I generally don't like to take pictures of people without their permission and for "The Unwanted" that seemed even more important. I know a lot of great street photography has been created by shooting from the hip but that is just not my style. That said sometimes you see a picture and you know that if you ask first the moment will be gone so if I feel brave I take the picture and ask permission later but it always makes me feel uncomfortable doing it like that. For me the photographic moment is often a collaboration between the person I photograph, me and the camera. What it comes down to is giving someone your full attention, really seeing them and then trying to translate that into an image.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2014
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2016

Landscape Stories: The use of light is a very important thing. Does the light help to create this particulary story? How did your personal research change over time, and why did you decide to document this particular aspect of contemporary America? How does a photographer gain the trust of his/her subjects in this kind of situations?
Thilde Jensen: That is a lot of questions in one. Over the years I have fallen in love with the beauty of light especially the golden hour when the sun is closer to the horizon. Since "The Unwanted" series for the most part are pictures taken outside in the street I was able to use natural light which I much prefer, though it does limit where and when I was able to photograph, especially when working in color and using film. Light is essential to life and to photography and I find that it more than anything else sets the mood for a picture and that was important for "The Unwanted" series. Being homeless means being outside most of the time or all the time if you sleep in the street so it seemed right for light and weather to be part of the story. The shelters kick people out at 7am every morning and for the people sleeping outside in the street 7 am is often the time the cops or a storefront will ask them to clear the sidewalk and the soup kitchens serve food around 7am so a lot of waking up and starting to move happens to be at sunrise when the light often is very cinematic. As far as gaining someone's trust what works for me is being genuine and willing to share with other people, being a good listener and most importantly caring.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2017
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2017

Landscape Stories: What books about photography would you recommend? Which books you feel close or influential in relation to yours "The Canaries" and "The Unwanted"?
Thilde Jensen: John Gossage's book "The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler" comes to mind. John is a good friend of mine and has taught me most of what I know about the art of making photobooks. John of course is a master when it comes to photobooks and by now has a long list of terrific books behind him and keeps adding new ones every year. Another favorite, "Ravens" by Masahisa Fukase and then of course "Guide" by William Eggleston which in many ways was important for the way that "The Canaries" book came together. When I first started "The Unwanted" I had just come across Danish photographer Krass Clement's book "Drum" which for the most part is shot over a few hours at a small pub in Ireland. The book is almost one long sequence of images of these old men drinking, where one man seems to be pushed out, left to himself. I was really inspired by this and had thought that "The Unwanted" would have a few longer sequences like that to provide more complex and dimensional portraits but I never was able to create long sequences that worked well but some remnant of that idea has made it into "The Unwanted" book.

© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2016
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2017
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2017
© Thilde Jensen – From The Unwanted, 2016

Landscape Stories: What's your plans for the near future? What's in store for you in 2019, photographically or otherwise?
Thilde Jensen: I am putting the final touches on "The Unwanted" book right now which is set to go on press in Denmark early June so that is my main focus. Later this year I hope to be able to really dive into my next project called Tomorrow which will be about our future.

The Unwanted photobook will be published this September 2019.

Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena