The subject of immigration is particularly fraught in Europe. Not merely are immigrants seen as threatening to the local economy, they are considered security risks and potential criminals or terrorists. The arrival of immigrants from Islamic countries has also become a major issue touching not just on fears of terrorism in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also on the concepts of religious freedom and integration in the face of “creeping Islamisation” and applicability of Sharia laws in Western societies. Cover features in Der Spiegel, “Mekka Deutschland,” and The Economist, “Eurabia,” do little to address immigration in contexts beyond daily news stories.
Henrik Saxgren, a noted Danish photojournalist, has done us the favour of just that. By featuring the stories of new immigrants into Scandinavia, people who have moved for reasons of love or war, Saxgren presents a new take on immigration and how immigrants adapt to life in traditionally closed societies. Commissioned by the Hasselblad Center under the direction of Hasse Perrsons who curated the book and travelling show, Saxgren spent four years researching and photographing the project. In his work he identified approximately 110 ethnic groups that have settled in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Greenland. His research led him to photograph in refugee centres and in the new homes of people now living in Nordic countries.
Saxgren’s work takes off from the point where Sebastião Salgado’s epic Migration project stops, according to Perrsons. It further references August Sander’s legendary People of the 20th Century in its direct approach. Unlike either Sander or Salgado, Saxgren accompanies his portraits of individuals and families with their own stories. His photography is respectful and restrained. Indeed, in contrast to the brightly hued panoramic images from resettlement centres with their prayer mats and Ikea furniture, the colours in his portraiture seem paler. It is almost as though he were making his non-European subjects “whiter” and thus, demonstrating their assimilation into white, northern European society.
Ikuo Oshima was born near Tokyo, Japan, in 1947. He dropped out of society and moved to Siorapaluk, Greenland, the northernmost town in the world, some 30 years later. There he became fascinated by the Eskimo way of life, married Anna, a local woman, raised a family and ultimately took up hunting and fishing like his neighbours. Muhammed Ahmed Ibrahim Ali, originally from Dongola, Sudan, became a doctor in Cairo, and ended up working in Denmark and later marrying a Danish woman and moving to Sisimiut in Greenland where he has become infatuated by mountain climbing. Other families moved from war-torn Sri Lanka, the Middle East or the Balkans.
Saxgren’s portraiture allows these new immigrants to Scandinavia to tell their stories, but it also has the broader purpose of normalising immigrants as human beings in European societies often seen as unwilling to accept people “not like them” by reasons of religion or skin colour. In cities such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam where immigrants make up more than 25 per cent of the population, this is no small thing.