Mr. Ten Hoopen, your career is impressive, as is the list of the awards you have received: the World Press Photo, multiple Photographer of the Year awards in Sweden, an Emmy award nomination for your recent film „Hungry Horse”. Is there anything more you can achieve in photography?
Awards matter only in the short term. They are like a silk blanket you can cover yourself with when you receive them. Of course, it’s a nice feeling that people have seen your work and admired it. But the real backbone in my photography is not the awards, but the feeling that I have when I work: a longing for development, longing to try to figure out new techniques, to become a better storyteller. Those are the real challenges that drive me in my work.
You choose projects that are challenging in terms of photography, journalism and emotions: you have worked in Chechnya, Afghanistan, covered the aftermath of the Ebola crisis, among others. Why do you aim to cover such topics?
I like to be challenged, and I need to feel intrigued by a topic. The subjects I photograph are also very important to me. This is why, for so many years, I have photographed the topics you mentioned. I like projects that are visually challenging, that are based on a state of mind, a feeling, the atmosphere – and that require being close to the people I photograph. I need a form of intellectual crossover and visual crossover – those two things have to fit together.
Besides assignments, you also regularly publish books that are, for me, entities ripe with a certain emotion, and reflect a closed chapter of your life. What is the difference between working on a book and working on assignment?
In the case of my books, there are no rules other than those I create myself. The time when I work on a book is when I need to break barriers. When it comes to projects for clients, I try to break down barriers when it comes to the visual language, but I still have to communicate to a bigger audience.
I think that all my work, but books especially, are quite a transparent reflection of my feelings in general, a reflection of where I am standing, which phase in life I’m in. For example, when I started working on Hungry Horse in 2003, I was extremely lonely, especially in the beginning. I was also looking for a lot of new ways to work, tried to figure out where I was as a photographer.
Stockholm, on the other hand, was a reaction to how I dealt with life as an immigrant to a new country, Sweden. It is shot in a specific way and doesn’t show the brightest side of the city. Today, I would never shoot Stockholm in the same way
And if I were to start over with Hungry Horse, it would probably be a different book as well. The project is special because it took more than ten years to complete. Perhaps, this is the reason why I have so many different feelings when it comes to Montana. There is a lot of romance in it, there is longing in it and a lot of solitary. It is positive in many ways too, in my opinion – in it’s strange ways, it is positive.
Another part of telling that story is also using photographs of the landscape as a parallel to images featuring people. What does landscape communicate that people cannot?
I see landscapes as a very living thing. For me, a landscape can be frightening, threatening, sexual, emotional, erotic – it has it all. That’s why I combine photographs of landscape with portraits of daily life.
Recently, you also combine photography with film. How does the choice of medium influence your approach to the way you work?
I started filming because I longed for a different form of storytelling. I was longing to research form and technique and see how I could adapt it to storytelling. I have to say that since I started filming, my love for photography has grown stronger again. Before that, I sometimes had a feeling that I was done. But since I started filming, I have gotten hooked – I have had to think again, work harder, question myself. It has benefits in every way for my photography and has spurred a hunger to develop again.
Before, I was far more focused on myself when it comes to storytelling – my ego, my photographic language, my stories. But now I find it way more interesting if I can find a combination. I can take photography and combine it with a movie or a text that makes the story more complete.
You talk a lot about storytelling. What makes a good story in your opinion?
A good story doesn’t leave you. The story itself doesn’t have to be very spectacular, it can be very subtle, poetic. It doesn’t have to be loud, for example, Montana is not loud. It is whispering with you, Tokyo is as well. Good stories in general are something that keeps you engaged with the topic for the duration of it. And the topic can be anything, as long as you find a way of communicating it. Sometimes people can choose interesting topics, but the story is not good: the editing is wrong or the visual language is wrong. There are many details you have to think about while building up the story to achieve a goal, which for me is always the same – if it is a movie or a book, I want the people to live it, stay in it.
When do you know that the story is finished?
It can be different reasons and depends on the form of the project. But, in general, in my photography, I very much look for social connections and specific topics. I have to decide for myself on a certain topic and then, when I shoot it, I am fully concentrated, I do it 100%. Nothing less. Otherwise, I know I should not do it anymore.