It’s about two in the afternoon as I sit down and wait for the highly renowned photographer Kristofer Dan-Bergman to show up at the Swedish coffee shop Konditori on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
As a young boy growing up in Stockholm in a show-business family, Kristofer was involved in both acting and several different sports before he took a liking to photography as a teenager. Moving to New York in his early twenties as a banker (!!!) turned out to be a life-changing decision. Since then he has produced editorial photography for some of the biggest international newspapers and magazines, as well as advertising work for brands such as Clarins, Tag Heuer, AT&T and Kay Jewelers. His work has also shown up in a number of solo and group exhibitions (“S_PACE”, “Away”, “unObserved”, etc.) in both the U.S. and in Europe, showing he has the capability of working with everything from conceptual and abstract themes to more informative as well as captivating documentary photography.
Earlier this year, Kristofer went to East Africa on a four-week expedition through Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda where he shot portraits and interviews for Spark Micro Grants (an NGO operating in East Africa) in cooperation with Global Good Fund (.org)
Not long after I have started sipping on my first coffee, Kristofer suddenly enters the coffee shop. The noise is to loud there to conduct an interview so we decide to take our conversation to a nearby park instead.
You’re born in Sweden?
Yes, in Stockholm.
You’re father used to own a theater and your mother was an actress, is that correct?
Exactly, “Lilla Teatern” [The Little Theater]. Both of them were actors in the beginning, before I was born. They met during one of their acting-tours, in a small town.
And as a child you had a role in an art-movie that was shown on Swedish television?
That’s right and I cried after watching it because I thought it was too short.
How come you didn’t want to continue acting after that?
It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to, it just kind of happened. I mean, acting wasn’t exactly my thing, I think. Although, I did write a couple of plays when I was 9-10 years old, which I acted out in my school. One was entitled “The Ghost House”. It ended with the line: “Do we dare…?” And then the curtain fell [laugh] I’ve actually asked my parents about that, why they didn’t encourage me to continue, but it was also during a time in Sweden when it was “hands-off!”. You weren’t supposed to encourage your kids one-way or the other.
But that can be a good thing too, don’t you think? Then the children can find they’re own way.
True. But you still have to push them a little bit; a child doesn’t know anything from the start about how the world works and of who they are. You have to help them so that they at least get exposed to different things. Then they can choose to do whatever they want. The most important thing is the passion; if you for example show that you have a passion for something, then don’t kill it.
Maybe you weren’t exactly pushed, but you did receive a camera by your father when you were 16, correct?
Yes, something like that. It was his boyhood-camera, one that his father gave him.
So he didn’t encourage you to start doing photography? You started that all on your own?
Yes, exactly. I was photographing a lot during that time, but never thought of myself as a photographer. I studied economics instead, became a banker and moved to New York.
So you were already here [in New York] when you started doing photography full-time then.
That’s right. I quit the banking-business after a couple of years. I realized that it wasn’t for me fairly quickly. Ultimately, what made me drop out was a weekend-course at ICP in “Darkroom 101”. When I saw my first print developing in the tray I thought: “Wow! This is it!”
I had done all types of competitive sports growing up; I played soccer, hockey, handball, squash, you name it. And I loved it. But I stopped doing it because it was affecting my studies too much (my parents wanted me to get better grades). That passion that I had for sports, which I hadn’t felt in a really long time, I suddenly felt there in the darkroom. I thought then, if I was going to “switch” careers, now was the time. It had to be now.
How did your professional career start out then? Do you remember your first paid job?
I put myself on the Swedish correspondent list in the US. Soon thereafter I got a phone call early in the morning and it was from Expressen [a major Swedish newspaper]: “Can you be there and there now?” [laugh] “…And then just send us the pictures through AP as usual.” And I’m thinking: “As usual? ‘AP’, what the hell is that?” The initials felt familiar though. “AP…AP…AP…” I was going through the phone book at that time, and then suddenly: “Ah! Associated Press!” [laugh] So I called up Associated Press and asked them: “What the hell do I do?” “Just come up here with the film”, they said. That was how it all started. They never had a clue that I was lacking any kind of experience.
It continued on with the other major Swedish and Scandinavian newspapers like DN, VG and Aftonbladet, and then later to other European publications and agencies such as Corriere della Sera, El País, Getty, AP etc. The press is pretty fun because new things are happening all the time and you have to be fast. You meet a lot of interesting people; I’ve gotten the opportunity to photograph Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, Hillary in her residence at the White House , Muhammad Ali and Lauren Bacall, as well as well-known photographers such as Gordon Parks and Peter Beard.
Do you have any favorite among the people you’ve photographed?
I do. Emotionally, it would obviously have to be standing in the Oval Office and photographing Bill Clinton behind his desk – because that’s just kind of cool.
But the person I liked the most was Lauren Bacall; she was a lot like my mother, in some ways. And we got into talking about theater, which we discussed for a long time. There was a real connection there.
I read that you like photographing people in particular. What is it that makes this so interesting to you?
That’s right. I guess it’s the conscious as well as the unconscious connection I get when I photograph another person which I find interesting, the instant connections you need to get. Since I’m not overly controlling but more spontaneous, people feel rather comfortable when I photograph them.
That notion of liking to photograph people is also why street photography is very important to me and has always been – the documentation-aspect. And I do it all the time. What I learn from the streets I can apply to other parts of my photography.
My latest personal series, for example, which I’m working on at the moment, is about a coffee shop (in particular the bar by the window) and how people kind of “live” there . I have a ton of those shots from this subject.
[Kristofer picks up his iPad and shows me a number of images from his coffee shop series.] All the people in these images were first photographed separately in a constructed coffee shop-set that I had built-in my studio. I put them all together in Photoshop afterwards. I’ve chosen to call this series ‘allONE’, as in “all” and “one”. The idea is dealing with Time and Space and the search of ‘Who am I?’ or ‘Am I?’ and the possibility of other worlds.
Your other projects, “S_PACE” and “Away”, were also part of this annual collaboration with your friends?
Yes, this is something that I have been doing seven years in a row now. I invite my friends to be photographed one night, with a new theme/concept every year. The first time I did it, it was mostly just for fun. Then I thought: “Damn, this is actually a pretty good idea”.
In this latest shoot ‘allONE’ I photographed between 75 and 100 people within a five-hour span. In my invitation to the event I talk about what color scheme I want people to consider when dressing up, and I always emphasize that styling is very important for the final product. If props are needed I will give them a few clues (I will also have some on a table for people to pick from). I don’t want to be too controlling since this is a sort of collaboration but I do emphasize that this is a serious event (even though it’s a lot of fun).
But if everyone was there at the party, couldn’t they all have sat next to each other at the same time?
Yes of course, but that wouldn’t be the same thing, it would have been more of a ‘Photo Booth’ thing and it would lose its basic idea. The point is that they’re not supposed to influence each other. It’s more about a philosophical kind of thinking. Like with the ’S_PACE’ project; It’s about all of us living in the same space but at the same time we all have our own spaces. The idea to ’S_PACE’ came out of an ongoing documentary-series that I am doing called ‘Divided World’. An example from this would be an image where you see a restaurant with people inside that are happy and toasting with each other on one half, while on the other you see a person who is outside begging for money. In the ’S_PACE’ series, which is based on Divided World, I created two spaces divided by a wall. Then came the idea of digitally mixing and matching the people as I saw fit, which I really didn’t plan on in the first place. Two people with a wall in between using a body language that implies that they are aware of each other’s presence, although they don’t really know for sure. It deals a bit with the abstract, the fact that we might actually be connected in some way (or not).
The interesting thing about “S_PACE” (which is the series that I’m most fond of) is that people view it differently; the spaces seem to represent different things for everyone which is quite natural since we see and deduct things based on our own life experiences and conclusions. The ‘allONE’ series is a sort of follow-up to ’S_PACE’ or a continued exploration of space and time. After I played around with the ‘allONE’ photos and created a few composites it occurred to me that each one of them has a real story. I thought about this for a while and then came up with the idea to invite writers to write a short story from the composites. It would also be great if I could get i.e. 3 different writers per photo and see their different interpretations. This series will definitely be a show and even possibly a book.
Any ideas about what else you’ll be doing within the next few years? Or are you taking it as it comes?
It’s day-by-day [laugh]. I like doing commercial jobs because of the collaboration between the art director, creative director, the stylists, etc. And it’s really intense; preproduction, shoot and then post-production – bang! However, I like to mix my bag with documentary and fine arts/personal work, not just for the sake of mixing, but also for learning. I learn so much from each discipline of what I am photographing that I can apply to the other – it’s a continuous journey.
Also I would like to continue working on my street blogs “The Red Wall” and “Sliver of Light”. Everyday that I was biking to my studio (which was located in Tribeca) I passed this Red Wall about a block from here, on Bowery and Prince. I had always been fascinated by it, and many times I would stop on the other side of the street to photograph it as people passed by. Then I started writing little segments underneath the images, which showed what the people walking by were thinking or what they were talking about (I just made it up, obviously). It was great, because I had no idea where it was going. I like the writing and the process of immediately jotting down whatever popped up in my head without editing or rethinking anything.
I always make sure to push myself too. That was something I did with the recent Africa trip, where I decided not to just go there and document, but to do something that I’ve never done before; be ambitious and bring lighting equipment and so on – without the help of an assistant. Push my own boundaries. When you go on a documentary trip you learn from experience that you have to decide beforehand what to focus on and what your approach will be, because when you get there you’ll probably want to photograph everything and that can easily lead to an incoherent story.
I read that you picked a good spot in every village to shoot portraits and then went ahead with what you had.
Well I’ve always said that a good photographer should always be able to make something out of the circumstances given to him, whether it is equipment, location or subject/object.
In terms of my latest Africa trip I had to be very focused and stick to my plan of actions because of time constrain and fatigue. Every time we came to a new village I scouted/scanned the area quickly for a spot to shoot my portraits. Once I had made the decision, I worked with the idea of how to approach it while I was shooting the documentary shots.
You always have to look at yourself and learn what it is that makes you tick and how your brain responds to things. It’s not the easiest task, but the more you do it and try to understand why and how you act in certain situations, the better you get at it. That’s at least true for me. And that’s why a trip like this one works and I guess that is how life works in general.
Award winning photographer Kristofer Dan Bergman has worked with numerous international newspapers and magazines, from Corriere della Sera to El País to Elle and advertising work for Clarins, Tag Heuer, Panasonic, AT&T and Pfizer.
He has had numerous solo and group exhibitions, including ‘S_PACE’ (conceptual), ‘Yearbook’ (conceptual), Unbound (Abstract), Chapters (Retrospective), The Karen People of Burma (Documentary) and Kenya’s Garissa Hospital (Documentary) to name a few. He has also been part of a few Museum exhibits (Vaxio and Ljungby in Sweden as well as Queens Museum of Art). His work is represented in the ICP permanent collection.
Andreas von Buddenbrock is a freelance writer and illustrator for Altpick.com. When he’s not working, he’s finishing up his Bachelor degree in illustration at the various campuses of Savannah College of Art and Design (Hong Kong, Savannah and Atlanta).