With a career which spans back to the 1960s, Anders Petersen is recognised as one of the most prominent documentary photographers of Europe. Renowned for his series of photographs documenting the underground worlds of prostitutes, drugs users and transgender individuals, Petersen explores the intimacy of the marginalised spaces of society. In a unprecedented retrospective Monograph, published by Max Ström, we discover some of the most striking of Petersen’s images. Schön! caught up with the photographer to discuss the launch of his latest book.
You’ve released over 20 books. What was the process for selecting images for this new book?
My idea was to go backwards, beginning the book with what I’m doing today and ending up with some pictures from Café Lehmitz in Hamburg from the sixties. I started by choosing 1600 pictures and showed it for the book designer Patric Leo. He is an old friend and very intuitive and professional, a person I trust a lot.
After a while, there were only 300 pictures left and we tried to find a balance between the different projects and combining them with new unpublished work.
Your work dates back to the 1960s – that’s a huge body of work – were there any photographs that stand out for you? Did you exclude material you would have liked to include?
Yes, I excluded many photographs, there were so many, too many repetitions. Perhaps I will try to publish the excluded ones in other books. But there are no special pictures standing out for me. Not that much. Nowadays, I have a tendency not to focus on single pictures, but rather to look for the context, the combinations and the flow.
What’s normally the first thing that catches your attention when you choose your subjects?
I look for presence. It can be everything. It’s all about the identification process, where there is no camera in between and the mind is only intuition and emotions, and no brain. Perhaps it helps if you are a bit stupid and confused like me. Finding a kind of condensed and raw moment is also an opening.
Which three public figures (dead or alive) would you most like to capture and why?
Today, right now, I think I would like to go back in history and meet Djenghis Kahn from the Mongol Empire. He said: “If you are afraid – don’t do it – if you are doing it – don’t be afraid.” Even if he obviously was a cruel ruler, he also had a distinct personality. I think that quote is close to the approach of photography.
Next comes filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, because I really get lost in his films. Finally, the artist and painter Marlene Dumas, because she expresses the magic and the metaphor of life.
I’ve read that you’ve described yourself as a “private documentary photographer” – could you explain what you mean by this?
My pictures are primitive. I cannot say I’m a documentary photographer – if you mean that as a more objective approach – it would be untrue and pretentious. I noticed my tendency is more diary-like and egoistic, so I once called it a “private documentary photography.”
You’ve shot some extraordinary individuals. If you had to pick one which of them stands out the most and why?
It’s difficult for me to pick one individual. Seriously, I think everyone is extraordinary and unique with their own knowledge, experience and strength. We often talk about being strong enough, but I think it’s important to be weak enough, so you have access to your emotions and to your intuition.
Have you ever toyed with the idea of switching from still to moving image? If so what do you think you’d make a film about?
Yes, I was a student at the Swedish Film School called Dramatiska Institutet. It was a long time ago in the seventies. I stayed there for two years, but didn’t make any film. If I were to make a film, I would like to make a film about my friends all over the world.
Words / Ihunna Eberendu