MIKAEL JANSSON has been a photographer for decades, but no project has given him the sense of urgency that he felt shooting his new exhibition, Witnesses. Jansson shot portraits of 97 Holocaust survivors living in Sweden, all of whom were over 90. “I photographed 97 people. Five have died already,” Jansson said recently. “They are the last voices. The stories can be told later, but not by the people who were actually there and experienced these horrible things.” Jansson began shooting Witnesses last November, and the photographs and accompanying videos will be on display at Gallery 5 at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm until December 16. Jansson paused from a day spent hanging and re-hanging the show (“unfortunately I’m quite particular”) to discuss his experience.
Lauren Larson: Why is this an important moment for Swedes to hear from living witnesses to the Holocaust?
Mikael Jansson: I don’t think it’s only Swedes. I think it’s going on everywhere—the right-wing wins all over Europe. There are walls being built. It’s crazy. So I don’t think it’s only Sweden. I do think it’s very important to remember what happened and to make sure it never happens again.
LL: Did this feel personal for you?
MJ: I don’t have a Jewish background. It’s more of a “human” thing.
LL: Did anyone want to smile for their portrait?
MJ: My idea was to try to interfere as little as possible. Of course I was directing, in terms of, “Sit down.” But I never told anyone what to wear, or touched their hair. They just came and I took the picture. And we talked. But I think both of us felt that you don’t want to laugh.
LL: What was challenging for you about these sessions, versus fashion sessions?
MJ: I didn’t know if I was going to do the photograph before or after I talked to them. Sometimes it helped to hear the story first, but then both of us were so moved and shocked and in tears that it was difficult to photograph. At times it was easier to take the picture first, but you also gain something with expressions by being in the middle of the conversation, so to speak. A lot of tears.
LL: A year of those conversations must have taken an emotional toll. How did you cope with that?
MJ: I kind of didn’t. It’s been very very moving, and difficult. You think differently: You think about this all the time, in your normal life.
LL: Were most of your subjects eager to speak to you, or were some hesitant?
MJ: Some people had been doing lectures in schools for 30 years pretty much every day, but some had never told anyone, not even their kids, about this. And now, during this project, they sort of felt this was the last chance for them to tell their stories. Sometimes the children were in the studio or in the home where I photographed them, and they’d never heard the stories before.
LL: Besides telling their own stories, did they have any messages they wanted to share about trends in Europe right now?
MJ: They did. That was also part of my interview. I asked them to tell their stories from the beginning, but also what they think about what’s going on today. And most of them are really frightened. They are worried. Some don’t even want to be in this exhibition with their names, because they are still afraid.