He was born in Stockholm in 1944. He was educated in photography and cinema. He started photography at a bar named Café Lehmitz in Germany in 1967. He opened his first exhibition consisting of the photos he took in the bar. He published his first book, Gröna Lund, in which he pictured an amusement park in Stockholm, in 1973. He published his book, Café Lehmitz, in 1978. The first volume of his work consisting of pictures of people living in a prison, a nursing home and mental hospital was published in 1984. He lectured about photography in the School of Photography in Sweden and about cinema in Göteborg University in 2003 and 2004. The works of Petersen, who organized workshops in Europe, Asia and America, are exhibited all over the world. Petersen was elected the ‘Photographer of the year’ by International Photography Festival in Arles in 2003. His exhibition dubbed Exaltation of Humanity, received ‘Special Prize of the Jury’ in the International Photography Festival in Lianzhou, China in 2007. It was also given Dr. Erich Salomon Award by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie in Germany in 2008. Arles Contemporary Book Award went to J.H. Engström and Anders Petersen’s collaborative book From Back Home in 2009. The artist was a jury at BMW Prize in 2010. He has published more than 20 books.
I Put my Brain Aside When I Shoot
My photography is simple. It comes from my heart. I put my brain aside when I shoot. I don’t believe in objectivity in photography. Pictures are not good or bad in themselves; they are either more or less persuasive. A bad picture can be extremely persuasive. Our task as photographers is not only to record what is in front of the camera – our photographs have to show the traits of our personalities and temperaments. That is what makes a photograph more persuasive.
It is as if when you look at that tiny window of the camera, you also look back and watch yourself. A strong photograph is a product of a dialogue between the photographer and what is being photographed. This does not mean busying your mind with yourself; this means to lose yourself in the situation. This is both the strong and the weak side of my photography; occasionally I lose myself more than necessary. The trick is in trying to keep one foot inside the situation and one outside. Most of the time, I fail in doing this.
My platform is back to basic and primitive; We are members of a great family, with different cultures and traditions, with many different believes and religions. It’s up to me as a photographer (and as a man) to pay respect to that fact and try to understand the differences between people. But much more important, is to understand that we are brothers and sisters; that we are relatives to each other. I don’t look for the differences in people. I look for things we are sharing, which brings us together.
A photographer is a photographer together with his friends. During my short stay in Istanbul my friends reminded me of this fact several times. Without the help of people like Silva Bingaz, who generously invited us to hospitals, weddings and a home for old people, Halil Koyutürk, Erhan Akbulut, Yusuf Sevinçli, Gökşin Varan, Serkan Taycan, Burcu Göknar, Aylin Ünal, Süren Bingaz and my most talented and patient photographer-guide Mühenna Kahveci and the photo editor on Zaman Selahattin Sevi, I wouldn’t be able to shoot the picture of time in Istanbul.
I take photos because i love people
I worked on ethnic-religious groups in Turkey. I take photos of people. Photography is meeting people; getting to know them and approaching them. Actually a photo isn’t a photo; music isn’t music and art isn’t art. Here a camera has a meaning. I use my camera as an entrance card. I use it as a ticket to get into jails, mental hospitals, I mean as a ticket to get into somewhere. I feel myself privileged. It gives me the opportunity to meet with many gorgeous people and to learn something from them.
We aren't alone, as we are a family
I produce my photos in order to be more humanitarian. I never consider myself alone. I am not alone. You may see photography as a family tree. There is someone on each branch of this tree. I can define myself there. I can see my roots on that branch. Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm (1918-2002) is a photographer who died at the age of 84. He opened a school of photography in ’60s and he raised nearly 1500 photographers in this school. The name of the school was “Christer Strömholm School of Photography”, I mean, many renowned Swedish photographers were raised at this school. To me he is the greatest international photographer. Ed Van Der Elsken is a Dutch photographer. Boris Mikhailov is a Ukrainian photographer from former Soviet Union. Now he isliving in Berlin. And of course there are Daido Moriyama from Japan, Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol, Lisette Model, Diana Arbus, Nan Goldin, Michael Ackerman from America. There are some photographers from France that I feel myself close such as Antoine D’Agata and Henri Cartier Bresson. There is Alberto Garcia from Spain. These people are my parts on my family tree. Do you know why I mentioned all these? Photographers may feel themselves bad and lonely while they were working outside. These photographers must have felt in the same way. I mean we are a family and we are not alone.
I think before and after i take a photo, not while i am taking
Photography gives me confidence. It is trying something and moving away from my intellectual side and approaching something with my heart. I am talking about returning to basis. Therefore, I close my intellectual perspective. I think beforehand. I don’t think while I am shooting a photo. Afterwards I think about it again. When I have a look at contact prints and when I am _selecting the photos something starts to preoccupy my mind. I take one photo from there and one photo from here and I try to combine them and to build something on this basis. While shooting a photo, I try to use my heart, soul, and instincts rather than my brain. I prefer photos that put forward emotional side rather than intellectual side as I was _selecting and sequencing the photos I took. I am trying to get to know myself and to establish a relationship between me and the person or object that I am shooting. In a way I am taking a portrait of myself with all its faults and merits. Therefore, I am a very bad photojournalist. I can only express myself. I don’t receive any work orders. I fund my project and afterwards I make money by this project.
I am not curios about answer but questions
Since I rely on my feelings in my attitudes 1 plus 1 makes 3. I applaud backgrounds. In recent system we applaud knowledge. Beside intellectual background in my burden basket, I am trying to figure out life by behaving childish and silly. I want to approach a photo by alienating myself from information and knowledgesociety. I am curious just about questions not answers. I want to behave a little bit insane. I am trying to be faithful and I believe in people. I believe that everybody on the world is relative of each other. That isn’t made up. I believe in this way. This approach towards people opens new doors into anywhere. Then a person may feel at home in Sweden, Japan or Marseille. If you can see people in this way, you feel at home anywhere you go. That is a fact that facilitates taking photos for a photographer. It is a benefit of believing and trusting people.
‘I put my mind under the pillow when I take photos’How do you decide your projects?
-I choose my subjects by curiosity, by need, egoism, and by my own free will. I do my own projects to avoid limitations.
What is the main idea that makes a photography project strong?
-I think the approach is the platform. It is the ABCs of photography.
What are the differences between press and documentary photography?
-There are many in photography. It is all about being believable or unbelievable. It is not about good or bad pictures. It is about being as true as possible. So what’s believable? I think it comes when you feel the temperament of the personality behind the camera.
Can you describe your style?
-I try not to define my style and I do not think I have a special style, but I have a special approach: I like people. And you can easily see that red line in my first pictures at Café Lehmitz till the last ones I am doing now in Soho, London.
Is your way close to documentary photography?
-I have my ways. My shooting has its roots in the documentary tradition, which is something else. If you need any classification you can call it “private documentary” because it is a kind of subjective approach.
What is “private documentary photography?”
-It is more personal. When I use that title in photography, it is all about me. I want to point out that I am private, that no objective truth exists, and that everything is subjective -- a personal reflection of your emotions, knowledge and experiences.
Some photographers work freelance and some are staff photographers. What are the differences between the two?
-A staff photographer has his salary and sometimes he is doing very nice work, sometimes extremely boring. A freelance photographer does not have as much freedom as they say. He has to earn money, first of all; he has to pay the rent, the milk, and the material… No one helps him but himself.
Can you explain these differences in terms of productivity?
-I think a freelance photographer can be more productive than a staff photographer because he is forced to produce more work. But my friends do not look at it as a job. It is a way of living; they do not separate it, they sleep with the camera.
Do you feel any responsibility when taking pictures?
-First of all, I have a responsibility to myself. Because if I didn’t, I couldn’t be responsible to somebody else. I have to be aware of that when I am out shooting.
Do you feel responsible to the readers or viewers?
-When I am out working and photographing, the main thing is myself and the people in front of the camera. I do not think about the readers or whatever… never. We need to find a balance, and that’s all.
How do you edit your pictures?
-By using the contact sheets very carefully. I put my mind under the pillow when I shoot. I shoot with my heart and stomach. It is important for me that my photographs are intuitive. It is when I am developing the film and looking at the contact sheets that I am editing and choosing very carefully. That is also when the responsibility comes in.
You are also one of those photographers who represent the black and white photography tradition. Why do you still keep this?
-Sometimes there are more colors in black and white than there are in color pictures. This is because you are not blocked by any color, so you can use your private experiences, and fantasies.
Why do you prefer to shoot with analog cameras?
-I prefer the analog approach because I am a little stupid, naïve and lazy. I keep on doing what I know. I want to have a camera that is simple. I am a kind of amateur. The only thing that matters to me is the contact between me and the people. The camera is not so important. It is just a tool.
What do you think about the Zaman newspaper’s project?
-I think it is fantastic and lovely to invite photographers this way. I want to say thank you for what you are doing.
What did you shoot for this project?
-I mostly shot different religious groups and people.
Do you have any plan to collect all of your previous works in a bigger book for the future?
-I collected my pictures in a retrospective. It was published in November combined with an exhibition at the Bibliothéque Nationale de France in Paris. There is another book coming out soon about Rome.
You also offer workshops…
-Yes. I like workshops. I’m the student, and the participants are the teachers. I learn what is going on in photography. This is a privilege.
►Being professional is an enemy of a photgrapher
To be able to believe in your feelings… There are photographs that were thought over and fictionalized a lot. You may easily become a control addict. The biggest enemy of a photographer is to behave like a professional. I met many skilled people that behaved in that way all over the world. There is no harm in behaving ridiculous and in taking photos in the way you feel. I take photos of people left out of the society and that are trying to live under difficult conditions and I feel like them. I myself don’t want to live under the welfare shield offered by the society because it makes one feel a fake security. This security feeling existing throughout the society actually doesn’t reflect truths.
►A photographer isn't a nighttime thief
While I am taking photos, first of all I introduce myself and tell what I want to do. There is no need for deception and hollowness. No need to walk around the main issue like a cat, I directly ask. You need to be as direct and accurate as possible. I stand behind it and take its responsibility. I can share my photos with them after shooting. Except for the ones I met on street I, almost all the time, deliver the prints of photos to people that I took photos. I don’t want to approach people like a nighttime thief. I want to be able to look at their faces when I encounter with them again. I share something with them. If we behave in this way and persist on this attitude, biases of people against photographers may change. Above all is self-honesty and approaching a photo with heart.
►Each person is special
A photo must be psychological. I means more than one person’s getting closer to another person. You need to make a person feel special as you are approaching to that person. You need to make him or her feel unique. Doing so is up to us as photographers. You need to focus on that moment and there. For instance, in the mean time a plane may fall down but you won’t think of the plane. The only thing that should be focused must be the person you are taking photo of. It’s because he or she is your everything. What should a photographer realize when the work is done is he or she just started and that he or she needs to work more. Everyone has a personal accumulation, feelings and character. You make use of these as you are shooting a photo. You can succeed if your accumulation, thoughts and feelings work in cooperation.
►Reverse pyramid of killer
While I was conducting my project regarding a jail in Sweden in 1983 I took photos of the most vicious killer of Sweden, too. I asked the prisoner, ‘How did you become so famous?’ “Very simple” he said and added: “I sharpened the pyramid.” That sounded interesting to me but I didn’t get his answer. He tried to explain what it was: “You are on the base of a pyramid. This base consists of your family, your faiths, your friends, phone, Internet, television, drugs, alcohol and delicious foods. This is where your comfort is. You can’t do and produce anything when you are among these. You can’t develop a gorgeous thing there. You need to peel them as if you are peeling a banana. You need to stop seeing your friends and family and communicating with cats, dogs or your kids. You don’t need to speak on the phone and don’t watch TV. Don’t drink alcohol but drink water. Eat less and less. Cleaner and cleaner… You will reach to the top of the pyramid. Finally, you start thinking what to do at the top the pyramid. Then it appears what you will become. Then you start being dangerous. Then you start beating and attack. Then you become sharper just like a razor blade because you have to cut. Then you start cutting just like doctors do in surgeries. Under such a condition we need two tools, brain and heart. You need to reveal your ego so that you can carry out things that will impress others. In short, you sharpen your pyramid. Don’t believe in truths too much. Try to create your own reality. If you don’t expose your ego, you can’t create your reality. Then you won’t have any experience. “
►Be curious, ask questions, don't be satisfied
You need to ask questions. You need to be curious. You need to be a little bit insane and you shouldn’t know the answers. Look at me, I am 67 years old and I am nutty enough. I am happy to define myself in this way. If one can’t be childish then there is no use in being old. In this way one can see events, people and the self in a different way. Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi can look at with the eye of a child and a woman. She is a great woman. Sometimes I make advices for myself. I have a black notepad and I write my advices on it. Some of these advices are, ‘Ask questions all the time. Work harder. Never be satisfied.’