The first time Mads Nissen set foot in the Amazon Rainforest he was 19 years old. He was not a photographer; or an anthropologist; or a linguist, but simply a curious young man.
“I didn’t know much about pictures,” says Mads, “But I’ve always had three big interests in life: Creativity (mostly drawings), social awareness/ engagement in society (I was active in grassroots organisations), and a curiosity for the rest of the world. Growing up in the boring countryside of Denmark, from an early age I had a big desire to discover more).
“In Venezuela I walked the streets, met local people, chatted, took pictures of the contrasts that I saw and felt – and then one day I suddenly realised that with photography I could combine all three interests. Since then, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
It sounds like a familiar scenario. Many photographers begin their professional lives like this: Curious about the world and wanting to find a way to turn their curiosity (and creativity) into a living.
Mads Nissen has done just that. Aged just 33, he has won a number of awards for his photography (too many for one mantelpiece), including a clutch of POYi awards (2007, 2010, 2010, 2012) a World Press Photo Award in 2011 and Photographer of the Year 2012 in the Danish Press Photo Awards. Now, what began as a gap year excursion is about to be become a book.
After that first trip into the Venezuelan Amazon, Mads began studying Photojournalism at the prestigious Danish School of Media and Journalism, in Aarhus. There was no question what his final year project would focus on.
Colombia, Brazil and Peru were the three countries Mads visited for his bachelor’s degree, and right from the very beginning, his Amazon work took the shape of a book in his mind.
This is what first struck me, looking through the early photographs, and later, book dummies. There was a certain clarity of vision. My personal interest in the art of the photobook has led me to the, not particularly insightful, understanding that a high-quality photobook is not just (or even) a collection of high-quality photographs. It is something else. It is something in itself. And this is what led me to pick up the phone to Mads to speak to him about how his work from the Amazon got to where it is now.
“I wanted to tell my story from this place,” recalls Mads “not just to present a collection of images, but a singular vision, so each picture should work within that framework [of the book] or not be included at all, no matter the quality of images… It’s a personal essay not a piece of journalism. For me a good photographer needs to be able to work both very rationally, or intellectually, and also very irrationally, or based on something close to pure instinct.”
As with most photographic work worth talking about, nice pictures aren’t enough. The photographer needs to have something to say about their subject. They need to strive for an understanding that goes beyond the aesthetic.
After graduating from Aarhus, it was a question of balancing paid, often short, assignments, with trips to the Amazon to keep working on the book. Not the easiest of tasks for a young photojournalist based in Shanghai. But he managed. Making a number of trips to six countries in the Amazon region, all the while refining his technique and style. The decision to shoot in B/W was made right from the beginning:
“I move, compose and shoot very differently when using B/W. Therefore I have to know 100% before. B/W can be more abstract – which I liked for this project. I basically tried very much to shoot with my gut. On more journalistic stories there’s a lot of things to take into account. A lot of things you want to point out and maybe combine in one frame. This project was different and based more on my personal instinct. I also made some rules that I wouldn’t compose my pictures too much – try to avoid too many layers, unlike most of the ‘Danish wave’ from that school. I would try to cut straight into the flesh in a more impulsive and direct way of taking images.”
No matter how personal a work, no matter how instinctively it is shot, when it comes to making a book, you have to open up and let others in. Book making is a collaborative process, and it can often be a lengthy one too. Deciding on edits, design, and ultimately ways of funding the book, on top of the actual production, can be an arduous process.
“Especially in the beginning of a project I spend a lot of time tuning in to what I call the tone or mood, or just the feeling of the story. I might select a couple of images that will serve as guidelines for this – this is what I need to look for – these pictures point out the direction to follow. I look at these pictures again and again even out in the field when I’m not shooting.
“Back home, I start selecting alone, then selecting together with a trusted group of colleagues. Too many opinions will confuse more than direct. And then there’s the editing, the layout and flow of the book. For this I worked either alone or with picture editor Per Folkver [one of the most respected photo-editors in Denmark] who is the wisest man I’ve ever met.”
The hard work of photographing, editing and designing are all for nothing however if you can’t fund the book. It’s the perennial problem. Not just for books, but for documentary photography projects in general.
Mads told me one of the many challenges “is that not many grants support ‘documentary photography’, so instead I looked for those who support ‘art’. Only problem is that many of the boards have a very narrow definition of what ‘art’ is. Having a World Press Photo award on the CV might actually turn potential art funders off, just because of the words ‘press photo’.”
One thing Mads admitted to – which is easier for some, and harder for others – is shameless self-promotion. You have to use every opportunity available to draw attention to your project. After picking up the Danish Press Photographer of the Year award towards the end of last year, Mads was invited onto a morning television programme to talk about his work in Libya. When asked by the interviewer, “what will you be working on next?” he mentioned the Amazonas project and said that this year would be spent trying to raise funds for the production of the book. A few days after the interview a cheque arrived in the post for 50,000 Danish Kroner (GBP 5000). Not every photographer has the opportunity to talk about their work on national television, but the more people that know about a project, the more likely you are to find someone who believes in the work.
All images © Mads Nissen