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Any Answers: Anders Petersen

Anders Petersen portrait © Michael Grieve

"My advice to younger photographers is not to be a photographer but to be a human," says Anders Petersen, the Swedish image-maker behind the celebrated photobook Café Lehmitz

My earliest memory is of sitting alone in my grandmother’s cherry tree in her pink underwear. I was four years old. Nobody could see me behind the leaves but I could see the whole garden beneath, with apple trees and a cat running over the street far away. It was my paradise.

I was brought up in a privileged and bourgeois family. We lived in the countryside surrounded by forest and I spent a lot of time there. I must have been a disappointment for them.

The first photograph to make an impression on me was a picture of a cemetery with footsteps in the snow, surrounded by graves. The photographer must have been there very early in the morning to capture that dead people met each other during the night…

For me, this was fantastic. It was both a symbolic and a literary way to use photography. I didn’t know the photographer’s name. Many years later I found out it was Christer Strömholm.

I first met Strömholm when I was illegally using the photography lab at his school. I had been using it for many months, making many mistakes printing and developing. One night at 3am he stood at the door and found me.

I looked around and saw only a mess. But he asked to see my pictures. He told me to visit him the next day, when I thought I would surely end up in prison. But instead he asked if I wanted to join the school. He became not only a teacher but a close friend. I miss him a lot.

When I was a young man photographing Café Lehmitz, I learned that photography is not about photography. And being strong is not going to help you much. But being weak – just enough – opens up a presence. Then you begin to understand that we belong to a big family.

Since the 1970s, I’ve dreamt about a ‘Lehmitz Family Album’. When I was shooting in the bar I felt like it was a big and warm family. I finally hope this can be realised with a revised version of Café Lehmitz. It’s a desire to give back something to those I photographed.

I have a profound fear of intolerance. But also a profound excitement at the diversity of people and different cultures. I profoundly miss a world built on equality and justice.

Failure must be a part of everything. If you are lucky enough to survive a failure or a loss, you will be stronger. And your new self-confidence makes the impossible suddenly more possible.

I am a father. My son is called Jens and I love him. He brought responsibility into my life. I was married recently and it feels fine. To experience love is a favour, a present everyday. Though my wife does keep me awake at night.

I like being Swedish. Emotionally and for many other reasons, such as the stillness of nature. It doesn’t mean that I’m for everything that happens politically or culturally here. But compared with other countries, Sweden is privileged. We haven’t been in a war for more than 200 years.

I am interested to see what is hidden; what you cannot see. That is a decent explanation of why I spent so many years photographing behind closed institutions, such as a prison, a psychiatric hospital and a home for old people. I had four walls and my time. I could focus on the people and get to know their personalities, their dreams and secrets and vulnerabilities, their innermost longings.

To know I exist, I need to be at touching distance. Not only when I’m shooting. It’s often a question of approaching a reality I’m aware of but don’t want to know. This behaviour has many names; one of them could be curiosity.

In life there is a constant movement between feeling up or down. Between presence and absence, love and hate, defying the natural meaninglessness, as I got to know it. If you are unprotected and curious you easily suffer, you are a target.

When you are older, people expect you to know how things are. But the truth is you don’t know at all. The more you know the less you know. When I was younger, I knew everything.

My advice to younger photographers is not to be a photographer but to be a human. It is about you: your emotions, experiences and knowledge. The camera is just a tool. So find a language with your own distinct smell. It is important to be weak enough to feel and innocent enough to enter the confusion. This article was first published in the May issue of BJP

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