When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I have always been very interested in languages. As I found myself studying writing journalism in Sweden – getting involved with communicating in a language that reaches a very limited amount of people – I realised photography’s potential as an important and powerful global language.
Who were some of the first photographers that inspired you?
I have always enjoyed looking at different domains for inspiration. Sociology is a great inspiration. It has allowed me to think about how I want to approach my projects. I enjoy photographic works or projects that provokes questions.
I came to have specific photographic influences quite late I guess. Certain inspired me with their distinct visual language, others for their engagement with subject matter. My aim has always been to combine aesthetics with a commitment to comment on and engage with society.
Can you tell me a bit about your project Into Oblivion. You spent three years documenting the residents of a geriatric hospital in France. What first got you interested in this project and what has kept you motivated for the duration of time that you have spent working on it?
I am very interested in issues related to the limitations of the body. The idea of a failing body is something that we in the western world don’t seem to be able to accept. Disease, ageing and dying thus represent big taboos for us.
In a society obsessed with youth and success, where generations are segregated it is easy to ignore the implications of a growing ageing population. My project tries to comment on this and “Into Oblivion”touches on quite a few taboos. The door, and its repetition throughout the series is a strong visual cue and metaphor both for the general neglect from society but also for the notion of confinement and why it’s justifiable as an aspect of care.
The series shouldn’t be seen as merely a critical piece about one particular ward or about institutional care, it has a more general purpose of generating a debate about issues related to an aging population as well as how we deal with Alzheimers disease and dementia.
The whole project came about by chance. I got a rare opportunity to gain access to photograph in a hospital, something I had always been interested in doing. The wonderful director who initiated the contact was acutely aware that questions related to ageing and the institution get too little attention within society. She was willing to take a risk and get involved with me in order to perhaps stir the pot a bit and incite debate about these difficult topics.
Along with this initial access, I started considering the realities that our ageing population is facing. During my fist visit to the hospital I visited the Alzheimer ward and was very struck by the vision of two residents peeking through the two glass windows of the blocked door, trying to get my attention. The head nurse explained the situation and I became very interested in the ward, I knew I would come back to it.
During the three years I was involved in shooting at the hospital, I spent a lot of time not taking pictures. A lot of time was spent to get access to start shooting and later on to clear permissions in order to be able to publish the images. I would try to spend about five to seven days per month at the hospital but sometimes it was less.
I was assisting photographer Peter Lindbergh at the time so that both limited and allowed me to take my time with the project. Into Oblivion also fed into a degree in sociology that I had started in parallel to working on the series and I believe that I would not have been able to fully understand nor accomplish the project without the sociological framework that I managed to obtain. To have the time to thoroughly read up on the subject matter was crucial to me and opened my eyes to many of the difficulties I needed to face to properly understand and contextualize the situation photographically.
I was really dedicated to the life of the residents and my main interest was to spend time with them. To them, my presence became a welcomed kind of animation, I was there, available and in no rush. I participated in their activities and we went for outings but my main role became that of a human presence during the hours when the activities and the presence of staff were elsewhere. Spending time in the unit during the quieter hours allowed for me to better understand the course of the day from the perspective of the residents. I came to realize that there was a stark contrast between the times when staff were present and the times when residents were alone. Spending time in the ward when nothing happened allowed me to get a feeling of how it might be if time actually stood still.
I justified my presence by spending most of the time in the ward with the residents just like any volunteer. By being there, I was able to attach them to the present and this felt very meaningful. If they were left to themselves, they would easily drift into an otherworldly state that could be distressing for them at times.
Throughout the project I grew very attached to the residents in the unit. I would keep in touch with certain family members whilst I was away and it was painful to go through difficult times with them. The worst bit of Alzheimer’s disease is that the affected person will go through moments of lucidity where they realise that they are loosing their memory.This can cause behaviour difficulties such as aggressiveness, eating disorders, increased anxiety or depressive tendencies. It is also very common to have a strong urge to go home, often to an imaginary childhood home. This is where the constant wandering and the struggle with the door begin. That was very difficult to watch. If I was present in the unit, I could sometimes prevent them from entering the conflict with the door by chatting to the resident or doing something with them.
What would your dream assignment be?
THE dream assignment would be I guess – to get money and complete freedom to develop my own projects.
I also love any assignment that bridges genres, mixing sociology and photography, or fashion and documentary for example.
If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?
Be patient and stay curious!
(Maja is based in London. See more work, here)