Denmark, a small country with some 5.3 million inhabitants, has probably produced more successful photojournalists per capita than any other country in the world. Three of the most recent winners of World Press Photo’s Picture of the Year award have been Danish. Virtually all of them have been students of the now legendary Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus. The school works closely with Danish newspapers and magazines in a thoroughgoing internship programme that encourages young talent and supports their development. One of the stars in the Danish firmament is Jan Grarup who seems to have won every photojournalistic prize short of World Press’s Picture of the Year. He has worked for several years with Per Folkver, Picture Editor in Chief of the Copenhagen daily Politiken, and is the author of a new book, Shadowland, a compendium of much of his reportage from crises around the world. Known for its stunning black and white imagery and in-depth reportage, Grarup’s work is intensely personal, deeply felt, and immaculately composed. Shadowland sets a standard for concerned photography that touches the reader as much as anything by Salgado, Nachtwey, or Kratochvil. It is a stunning tour de force from the front lines of human existence at its most extreme.
Per Folkver describes the relationship between the school and the paper as the secret to Danish success and to Grarup’s in particular. ”When photography was brought into the programme 15 years ago, it was as part of journalistic training. For the first part of their studies, photographers will not touch a camera. At that time I thought it was stupid, but now I think it is great. I see the trainees come out, and they are fantastic. What I do with the interns at Politiken is that I tell them they have a big responsibility and a lot of freedom. I ask them their ideas and suggest that they perhaps do it this way rather than that way, and they listen. I will actually change the schedule to accommodate their ideas if it takes a day or a week to do a job.” Among other things, the students learn to critique each other’s work and to network on a collective basis. In the old days, he notes, “The photographers were not allowed to debate the merits of their own pictures. We changed that. Now you have to criticise a colleague’s work. You have to remember that it is never personal. It all revolves around the idea of how can we be better.” Obviously, the system works.
When Grarup joined Poltiken, he had been working for the Ekstra Bladet, a tabloid, and doing some long-term stories as well. Under Folkver’s tutelage, he morphed into a reportage photographer. “What happened to Jan was that he had started as a hit and run photographer, but now he has developed a kind of humanistic touch, a human sense. He seems to work even harder each year to understand what he’s looking at. Instead of just taking the picture, he is trying to get behind the scenes. He is concerned about what he is seeing and doing longer stories and returning to the same places.“ Shadowland contains 11 essays on Chechnya, Rwanda, Rammallah, Kashmir, the earthquake in Bam, Iran, the tsunami, the Balkans, Roma in Eastern Europe, Darfur, and other stories.
For Grarup, reportage must be about more than single, stunning pictures. The imagery must tell stories. “One of the things in the book is to make us question the fast-forward media world in which we live now,” he notes. “We talk about ‘sexy conflicts’. A conflict is ‘sexy’ for maybe six months, if not only three months. At some point everybody goes to Afghanistan and then three months later, they move on to Iraq.” In the years that he has worked with Folkver, Grarup’s shooting style has changed to a more nuanced approach to his subject matter. “I find myself seeing things more simply now. Previously, I was looking for many layers before I was really satisfied with a picture. I am now stepping a few steps back before I take the picture. I try not to think too much about it. The simplicity brings a lot more to the picture.” This affects the way stories are composed as well. “The thing is that by simplifying some of the images, you make room for the much more complicated ones. You cannot do a story with 12 really complicated, many-layered images. They have to complement each other. That is what I was looking for. One of the things I needed to think about was how to tell a story, like the one about the Roma. The image of child in a pram in Trebisov, Slovakia, is just a documentation of how Roma are living in 2004.” Other stories, for example from Darfur, present other problems because of the stunning colours involved in this “fashion conflict”. He notes, “You see it in the picture of the mother and her child. This takes away from what should be going on in your mind that this is a real conflict. Some pictures are so beautiful they are distracting.”
The Shadowland project will also expand into new media. A website (www.shadowland-book.com) will include all possible information with the entire book available as a flash production with a podcast for more in-depth commentary. Grarup notes, “This is no one time thing. This is an on-going project. It is not necessarily to promote my work. It is about telling people about these stories and what is going on in these stories. We are planning to present it and keep it out there to keep these stories alive. That is why we have the website. It doesn’t matter that I have done these stories, they could easily keep going, unfortunately: Kashmir, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur ... The thing is stories seem to drop away, but in reality they keep on going. I think that the thing is to do these stories when they are not hot in the media world, because they get lost in the next crisis. People must remember, they must know, that they are on going even after they drop out of attention.
“We have an obligation from my point of view to get involved in these issues. Whether it is war-related or some natural catastrophe like the earthquake in Bam or the tsunami, it doesn’t really matter. I truly believe that we cannot just sit back and not get involved.“Such is the strength of Jan Grarup’s work that it is all but impossible to look at Shadowland and remain unmoved. BK