Joakim Heltne is a Copenhagen based photographer and illustrator who has been educated in Oslo and London. We travelled to Copenhagen to see him and a collection of his previous works, including his main university project, test shoots, print outs and some illustrations. He has an interesting story and very specific, bordering on obsessive, mentality as to how his photography should look, predominantly creating black and white images.
The mentality in Scandinavia, in general, is quite similar. However, Joakim believes there to be a difference from Copenhagen to Oslo when it comes to the creative scene. Looking home to Norway, keeping up to date with what is happening there, he still feels that the country has a “little brother complex” within the creative industries. To an extent he understands why people might feel this way, however, he strongly believes that the talent of Norwegians is not the question. The main things separating them from their neighbours in Sweden and Denmark, he says, is the Norwegians’ somewhat lacking ability to showcase themselves and their belief in / support for local creativity. It is widely known that the other Scandinavian nations do have a longer history of success when it comes to global recognition in furniture and clothing, which may arguably be due to their own belief in their ability to produce quality design. “I feel us Norwegians could learn a few things in that sense, not to be so modest, or second guess ourselves when we make something of quality", he says.
That being said, one thing he thinks the industry might benefit from in Norway, is to do like his teacher in Oslo Fotokunstkole used to say, “Kill your darlings”. He argues that there is a tendency of things being over exposed and therefore losing their impact. Since the industry is small and always looking for talent, “Everything” that exists is being showcased, rather than a carefully curated selection. This might pose a problem and potentially be damaging to the reputation of the creative culture in Norway and views on the level of produced work in general. As a creative it is easy to jump at the chance to get recognition for what you are doing rather than being self critical and asking “Am I worthy of this recognition?” and “Is what I am producing actually good enough?” Joakim believes this kind of self awareness is very important when you’re working creatively and he chose to focus a lot on “perfecting” his aesthetic and technical competence, before starting to, slowly but surely, put himself out there. “I think it’s been very important to me to know that I can look back at old work and still see it as good, years down the road, therefore I wanted to work on my portfolio for a long time before starting to accept work offers", he says.
One of the reasons Joakim gained an interest in photography initially was due to his fascination with people, and the possibility a camera gave him to document people he found interesting. Taking both colour and black and white pictures to begin with he has gradually moved to a predominantly black and white aesthetic. For him, he has always liked the way that black and white photography has looked. “I feel that if a picture is viewed in colour, people might read a lot into the colour palette and it’s various symbolisms, rather than the subject, or the image as a whole. There is a certain something about black and white photography that makes you look at everything around it and it shifts the focus…somehow", Joakim says. He also thinks that now, after numerous shoots he is technically better at black and white photography. Within this type of photography there is a certain “emotionality” that he sees as beautiful and interesting. “Although I might not always know what I’m trying to say with this aesthetic, I somehow feel like I’m saying it better in black and white” he adds.
As photography and editing continues to blur the lines between what is created and what is real, it is important to acknowledge this. Being honest about what is staged and what is not staged, trying to be authentic in what you are shooting and how it is created. For Joakim, his photography is to a large extent staged, as the vision for the images he wants to create requires this. To him the use of a location is of high importance and can make or break an image. He does however find it very hard to define his work, saying it is somewhere between the art and fashion worlds, which is something he has come to terms with. Having originally been told that his images “are not art enough for art photography” and then subsequently being too “artsy for fashion photography”, Joakim has been left somewhere in the middle. “Everything is subjective, and open to interpretation, so it is interesting to hear other peoples opinions on my work”, he says. It is only really a topic of conversation, for him, when asked to define his work by others to which he normally responds “I don't know, you tell me?”
While the Danes and Swedes do have a history in the design focused industries, Norwegians have arguably tended to be more practical about things, prioritising their “allværsjakke” over a fashionable coat and a comfortable sofa, rather than a stylish one, if asked to choose. There is, of course, some interest in selected groups, however, being such a long and spread out country, it tends to be difficult for those who want to do something creative to find likeminded people, unless located in Oslo or Bergen. This might make it easier for those people to “get lost”, without an extensive support network from the government or schools, which you are privy to in places such as London or Copenhagen. Because of this it is understandable why Norway does lose its creative talent to other areas in Europe. If you have a creative interest, it is easier to leave to satisfy this passion elsewhere, which is one of the reasons the scene in Norway is not getting bigger, quickly. Speaking from first hand experience, he acknowledges that he is “part of the problem”, having first moved to London and then Copenhagen to satisfy his passion for photography. Joakim sums it up, saying what is happening in Norway “is not right or wrong, just a cultural thing that takes time to change, due to many different factors”.
The creative scenes in Norway have however experienced incredible growth in recent years and are also enjoying a large amount of international recognition. While growing up Joakim remembers looking to Stockholm and its fashion week as the leader in Scandinavia, he now feels the shift has moved to Copenhagen. The Danes have, in a short period of time, managed to reinvigorate their creative landscape, especially in fashion, by placing importance in the creative sectors from a governmental standpoint. With the amount of talent that does exist in Norway, there is no reason for the growth we have seen not to continue.
Having studied first in Oslo and then London, Joakim experienced two very different types of education. He initially studied at Oslo Fotokunstskole where he gained knowledge that developed his technical skills as a photographer. After the completion of this course, even though he was already very sure of who he wanted to be as a photographer, he felt like he needed a change and made the move to London. Admittedly, he did not learn a lot technically from the education, but the time in London gave him an insight into different cultures, opinions and work habits which helped him to grow in other ways. Being influenced from people all over the world opened his mind and gave him a new perspective as a photographer, as well as on a personal level, which aided him in crafting some nice projects along the way.
He recalls two projects for us form his time in London, one of which inspired the creation of the other. He was firstly assigned with a project called ‘The Muse’. Initially being uninspired, he found himself in a bit of trouble as “you cannot force inspiration, or to be inspired by something or someone”. While battling with this project he realised a model he had previously worked with was in London for a week, to attend castings. He reached out to see if he could follow him around and take photos, while he attended castings, using the day to day life of this model as the basis of the project. Even though he was uninspired at the time of asking, they ended up having a really good connection, resulting in loads of pictures and a great project, that contrasted most of his previous work. He tells us how the project made him grow as a photographer, realising that everything does not have to be meticulously planned and that he actually liked working a bit more spontaneously. This also helped him to combine his rather strict aesthetic and structured approach with the randomness of following people around and the excitement of not always knowing what you will get until you actually get it. This learning process has helped with both personal and commercial projects he has since worked on, where he was not able to plan everything himself.
Based off of this series of images, he started his final project with the concept of creating a documentary in book format. He wanted to explore how gay people are represented in popular culture, as well as other art and photography projects. He has always been very interested in this topic and how gay men are often represented in quite a sexual way. Often the main focus is body image and being “hot”. He wanted to explore the subject of sexuality on a deeper level and get to know the people and their story, rather than “Hey, I'm a gay man, so let’s get a photo with my shirt off looking all sexy”. Similar to ‘The Muse’ project, where he followed a subject around in day to day life, Joakim built on the same approach, but also adding in-depth conversations with his subjects. He did this to better understand who they are, how they see themselves in general, how they see themselves as gay men and how they feel people perceive them. Some people view being gay in a positive way and others in a negative way and it was interesting for Joakim to see that although the subjects may have had similar experiences, they had different opinions and/or reactions to these experiences. From these conversations he formed his own interpretation of the men and was able to portray that through his photography.
“I think the project was a good way for me to learn a lot about myself, by learning a lot about other people, and be able to pick someones brains about subjects and ideas you have been thinking about your entire life.”
He achieved this insight by putting a safe framework around the topics and conversation, in the form of his project, which helped him to ask more personal questions than you might when you meet someone over coffee. “I’m a very curious person” he continues, “I always want to ‘figure people out’ and this project helped me do that to some extent. It gave me a reason, as well as an excuse, to get a peek into small parts of the lives of the people I was documenting. It helped me understand them better and in turn helped me understand myself better.” Being a crazy perfectionist, there are loads of things he does not like about the project and some things he would love to explore further, as he does not feel it is complete. Therefore, the project has not been shown to a lot of people, although he has been told from those in the industry that it is publishable as is. He plans to work further with the project, as he still wants more out of it, hoping that it could someday ideally become an art book.
Not being in Oslo and learning about new countries and culture really opened his mind outside of the Scandinavian mentality where, in general, you are supposed to think in a certain way. It was good for him creatively to leave Oslo where he feels it is sometimes a bit too homogenous. The move to London pushed him out of his comfort zone and significantly changed his mentality from being a photographer that liked to create things he thought was pretty, to now thinking why he is making things and understanding why and how he is doing it and how it will affect people. “The move to London somewhat reminded me of what got me interested in photography in the first place: My desire to observe people and places and document the way I perceive the world around me”, he says.
He does have a strong personal aesthetic and laughs, telling us that he sees a lot of things that are not to his taste all the time. He emphasizes how this probably says more about him being obsessively obsessed with details, composition and certain aesthetics, more than whether the work he sees is good or bad. “I’m not saying my way is better, or that I am any better than other photographers out there, I just have a very strong sense of what I like and what I don’t like. I can acknowledge something as good and still dislike it a lot”, he adds. If something seems - to his eye - out of place in a photograph, it greatly affects his appreciation of the image. We openly discuss this obsession with details, to which he says that the good thing is how this mindset helps him to continue with his strong, clean aesthetic, but at the same time it also limits his ability to appreciate other types of photography.
There is no right or wrong here, but he does not like things being out of place, and people recognise this as a strong characteristic of his work. Over the course of 4-5 years Joakim has trained himself to see things a certain way, so even if he is walking around and taking quick snaps for a location scout, for example, he knows exactly where he wants his camera to be to get the angle he wants. By constantly doing this and practising shooting to hone his skills while being aware of his aesthetic, he has been able to develop a certain style that he hopes to maintain. He acknowledges that he is constraining himself by practising one thing and shooting in a particular way over and over again which shows “how crazy” he is with these practises but practising this in a very aware way has helped him to become good at what he wants and able to stay true to his aesthetic without really trying anymore.
During his time at Oslo Fotokunstskole they were not allowed to photoshop anything. Everything they shot was analog and printed in the darkroom. “If something isn't supposed to be there when you get the finished photograph, it shouldn't have been there when you clicked the camera button”, he says. “That was the way to go at Oslo Fotokunstskole, which taught me a lot.” It is important for him to see what he wants when he shoots. He does use photoshop now, but mostly to edit from colour to black and white as well as small adjustments to things like contrast, highlights and shadows, which he has crafted his own way of doing. The little things that have a huge impact to make his images look like they are shot by him. “Of course, if a location is dirty and there is no budget to clean the whole street I will edit out gum on the pavement and such, if I feel it is necessary, or at least if I am asked to by a client”, he says. However, from an ethical perspective he does not like doing too much to a photo and would rather shoot somewhere else, where he does not have to do these things to keep the image as a photograph, rather than some sort of hybrid between a photograph and a digital manipulation. “I think a photograph should be just that. Not because digital manipulation is a bad thing in my opinion, but it isn’t a photograph. The difference is quite important to me”, he adds. Joakim concludes that he tries keeping his digital work as close as possible to something he could also achieve in a dark room (if he could afford the cost of exclusively shooting analog). “It is important to be aware of that as a photographer and as an image maker as well as being aware of who you are as a creative person.”
Portraits by Ronja Penzo
Interior photography by Joakim Heltne