Theater of Cruelty

Moments into the suffering of others

Norwegian Journal of Photography
DOCUMENTARY PHOTO / The opportunity is there now to see what professional documentary photographers are doing.


Is photography, taking a cut out of time, not something everyone is constantly doing at the moment? Is a documentary photographer with his camera equipment therefore more special than high-quality snapshots in situations taken with people's ubiquitous smartphone?

Norwegian Journal of Photography number 4 has collected photos from eight professional photographers between two binders. The book has been published in collaboration with the exhibition Norwegian documentary photography at the Henie Onstad Art Center at Høvikodden – which will offer "alternative ways to see and understand events and situations that shape the world we live in." Well, consider what the alternative might be. The exhibition's 30 photographers show documentary expressions in reportage photography and contemporary art, according to curator Susanne Østby Sæther. The project is supported by Fritt Ord, who wants to produce documentary expressions in contemporary times.


According to the preface, the photographers in the Norwegian Journal of Photography – where at least half are exhibited at Høvikodden – try to work essayistically. As Gerry Badger writes, their photographs are also "serious" – that is, well-thought-out works. Essays means to test or experiment. Ask yourself if "essay" fits the works, as the term also means to bring in experiences as well as reflection, direct dialogue, and often at the core something heretical – as the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno once defined the experimental nature of the literary essay.

Sad and personal

Fred Ivar Klemetsen accompanies the images with a longer story related to his black and white photo series – he has traveled around the world. At the same time, he has also chosen several time travel, returning to previous places he has been and people he knows. Like the picture of the woman in bed, who 20 years later again looks in the camera. But what about the love life of the man who has had many men and boys in his life, is it interesting or does it become trivial today? The composition of the photos is there, at least, as well as you feel the presence of the photographer and the confidence he has gained as a photographer.

What remains with most of the photographers in the book is the intimate, the personal, or the grief of others – but also the eternal and repeated question of one's own identity. This is different from the Danish war photographer Jan Grarup has traveled around the world misery and photographed incredible catastrophes and war situations – presented on the middle pages of this newspaper.


But is it the documentary filmmaker's lot to deal with human misery? There's a lot that's damn sad in the Norwegian Journal of Photography. Somewhere it is also said with Susan Sontag that photographs are a reminder of "Meménto mori" (remember that you are going to die). But Sontag also has in his book Å consider the suffering of others emphasized how the depicted tragic situations aroused despair in her when the images did not lead to action – and gave a feeling of powerlessness. Yes, many are having a hard time, financially and mentally, so how can we change that?


Line Ørnes Søndergaard has in the series Discomfort ("Discomfort, illness or unease, general global malaise") photographed young people hanging around trying to live in the moment, when the future is not exactly bright. Well, some unemployed or climate activists may well sign it. As it says in a couple of captions: "Our prospects for the future are worse than those before us." "We all share the same struggles."


The suffering of others is even more evident in the melancholy series Black sun to Therese Alice Sanne. Let me pick a bit in the texts that follow the portraits "I fell deeper and deeper into darkness"; "I thought I was Messiah and that the end of the world was imminent"; "There is nothing rational about mental illness" and "That month I attempted suicide four times".

The intimate, the personal, or the grief of others – but also the eternal
and repeated the question of one's own identity.

Also photographs of landscapes can be of importance as mental images, where they can act metaphorically or as bits (metonyms) of something you do not actually see. For example, Paul Sigve Amundsen's photograph of the glacier Rhône Glacier – covered in sheets to prevent the sun from melting. Here, the glacier is suffering.

At the same time, there are several diary-like journeys in the book, hidden stories that emerge through the many pictures, journeys to cities, smaller places or far into the private – around the globe. This requires an ongoing will and openness in meeting people – the qualities of the best photographers.


Let me also mention the humorous thing about Monica Strømdahl's pictures, though it is a glimpse into the sadness of others: A number of people who work far from home must stay for periods at motels or hotels ("lophauses") before a law forces them to change residence. Notice the crowded room with the woman in bed, or the boy on his way to the next motel with all the dick packed in the car seat.


The documentary photographers do a kind of memory work by freezing the moments of life. The second after, they are all history. One last question: Will our experiences really only be valid if we take a picture of them?

Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp: /
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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