Walking with Charlotte Østervang in Christiania is an experience in humility. She knows, and is known, by almost everybody. And she interacts with them with gracefulness and kindness. One can see she is loved there. One can also see she loves being there. Over a period of four years Charlotte conducted a project that concluded recently with the publication of a book and an exhibition in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. It will be quite difficult to explain the concept of the “hippie town” Christiania in a few words. This place, a gigantic art/hippie squat of village proportions, played an important role in the freedom of expression in Europe for the past thirty years or so. The history of Christiania is also seeped in illicit drugs. Marijuana and hashish are trafficked freely on one street, but urban legend holds that the area also became involved in hard drugs, possibly pushing this utopian experiment into a place of darkness. For various reasons the government has been eager to normalize the place, and from an objective standpoint, one could witness a steady decline of the original spirit in recent years.
Charlotte’s work, however, does not focus on politics. Her book contains ninety-five portraits of the people of Christiania, together with a short text telling their story. It is nearly impossible not to note the irony of having these pictures displayed in the centre of Copenhagen. Even after discussing it with her, I still think the exhibition is somehow weird. Maybe allowing the exhibition was a bold political and demagogic move from a part of the government, while at the same time another faction is really trying hard to get rid of the “free city.” Whatever the case, Charlotte’s amazing work got the coverage it surely deserves.
Christiania: Interview with Charlotte Østervang
H42: Your work is part ethnography, part photography. What is your background?
CØ: In my younger days I tried many different things, but portraiture has always been where it ended up no matter what I did. I was educated in an art school in Prague but I wasn’t sure about how to develop my photography. Christiania made me the photographer I am because I was more interested in Christiania and its people than in photography per se. My dream had always been not to put myself inside a box but float inside photojournalism, portraiture, art…
H42: How did you learn the techniques of photography?
CØ: At school I learned large format camera, which I brought up here to do architecture photography. And I got caught up in that slow way of doing things. I fell in love with this therapeutic way of letting the images slowly develop on many levels. I also thought it was good for this project because Christiania is a slow place. Working this way, you meet people and get to know them. It wouldn’t have worked with big, new digital cameras. I think I really made the right choice, also because when setting up my equipment, people saw it as a kind of old fashioned theater.
H42: You used a Polaroid back, right?
CØ: Yes, I chose that type of film (Polaroid Polapan; out of production) back in 2004 and fell in love with it. It’s not really easy to work with because you have to put the negative in water and all kinds of stuff like that. But you don’t have to go to the developer; you are independent in a way. And also I could give a Polaroid to the people, which really made it popular. I am happy to have used this slow film (25 iso): the person being photographed really had to concentrate on the shoot. The aperture was 8.0 and very often the shutter speed was 1/8th of a second. “Don’t even breathe” was what I told them. But it has such rich tones; it’s wonderful to work with.
H42: What is your failure to success ratio? How did you choose the final pictures?
CØ: There are ninety-five pictures in the book and I shot about three hundred. For example, the first three years I shot three pictures with each person. We never disagreed on the one that should be selected when I got back to them. It’s all about a little thing with the eye, or the way you stand. It’s really small things but it makes a huge difference in the end.
H42: Can you describe your workflow method?
CØ: I just biked around waiting to see a spot that I liked, a person whom I wanted to take a picture of, a story I wanted to tell… Then I’d ask if they wouldn’t mind standing for a portrait. I’d set the equipment and ask for ten minutes of their time. The talk actually developed from the picture. To write the stories, I’d find them again and go to their house, sit and talk while drinking coffee. I started taking pictures of the people that I knew and then slowly worked my way deeper into the community. And when you are in the street making that kind of theater, people get to know you. People talk, they know their neighbor had a picture, etc. I came back again one year later to get the permission/signature to put the pictures in the book and exhibition. And then I realized I needed more for the stories, because pictures are not enough for me. So I went back again to conduct interviews. I’d get home to write and go back the next day and we’d work on it together to finish it. And now I am back for the last time to give them the book! I’ve visited about five or six times…
H42: So one day you woke up and said, “Hey, I’m going to do that stuff in Christiania”?
CØ: Yes! [laughs] Actually it was a Saturday night. I remember biking around, asking permission to shoot and everybody was shrugging: “do whatever you want, anybody can take picture if they want to…” Outside of “Pusher Street” (the street where people deal hashish), people don’t care. Actually, they find it interesting. Because they are people who are proud of what they are, the life they have. I also met the cultural chairwoman and asked her feelings about it. I had been dreaming about this project for five years already–one of those projects you keep talking about and nothing happens. I also wanted to use it as an educational journey in photography, which is much more important to me than a school diploma. I started with an Avedon phase, as you see in the beginning of the book. Then I went to the USA. Unfortunately he had just died and I never got to meet him. Then I took a course at the International Center of Photography and I met Shelby Lee Adams. He mixes genres and his portraits are so rich with stories. I really admire his work. I also worked with Antonin Kratochvil from Czech Republic. I traveled in Eastern Kentucky with Adams and worked in New York City with Kratochvil. I learned a lot during this half year, mainly their approach and their way of thinking. So I went back to Christiania for three more months of shooting, knowing then that I should show their real background to tell the story. It made it much more complicated: now I had to know the people and their relation to the area. Before, when I was working with a white background, I was standing at the drugstore and just picked up people. The whole thing could have been done in three weeks. It also became more interesting with this opportunity to bike around and knock on those old wooden doors full of mysteries. Then I went back to America again, to see the same people and host an exhibition there. Then back to Denmark to shoot again…
H42: You also mentioned you actually lived in Christiania?CØ: Yes, I borrowed a house for the second and third shooting season. I later sold my apartment, bought a caravan and placed it next to Christiania. I was spending a lot of money to educate myself and do this project; my financial situation was a complete disaster. I could earn freedom by selling my apartment and starting all over again. It was fantastic to move to Christiania because that was when things really started to happen. I was scared though, about what the Christianites would think about me trying to work my way into Christiania with a caravan. When I placed the caravan at the edge of Christiania, they started coming out of the woods, asking if I wanted some help, to come to their house for heating. Then I continued living there, to follow all the meetings and the politics. It was both great and awful. I lived there during their worst year because of this enormous external pressure they experienced from the government. It has been awful to see such hatred when you come down to the political scene. It struck me hard but it was also good for me to see another side of it.
H42: How come you finished it up with this exhibition in central Copenhagen? From an external point of view it looks like a political statement from the commune. It looks demagogic to me…
CØ: Everybody can apply for the square, so anybody can put on a photographic exhibition there. But it is kind of funny, and I like the teasing in it, because the administration that is affecting Christiania is actually just around the corner. The people working to remove Christiania walk everyday in front of the exhibition, and I invite them into the caravan for coffee everyday when I see them. Since 2002, the government and police have been working very hard to tackle the hashish problem, but in a very narrow minded way that fails to involve Christiana residents and take their interests into account. They have done a lot to create bad headlines and negative stories in newspapers, and now Danish people don’t have the same tolerance and interest in the place.
H42: I particularly like the fact that this political situation doesn’t show in your work…
CØ: Yes, that makes me proud. It is an exhibition for everybody, showing the people’s face of Christiania. But my motivation was not only artistic, because the reports have been very manipulating. The government made and showed fancy development plans for Christiania, as if they were trying to look at the situation carefully. But they didn’t. So my work is some sort of silent provocation, a silent riot act.
H42: Finally, what has been your greatest reward?
CØ: When going back to Christiania with books, like I did before, not phoning, just going there, the reaction of the people showed me my project was a gift to Christiania. Even the toughest guys took the book to their heart and said they were going to give it to their family. So the biggest achievement is the acceptance and respect I got from the people I photographed. The second biggest is the exhibition location and the fact that I put the caravan there. No newspaper wrote about the book, and I get my reviews from the street, as nobody knows I am the photographer. Also the reaction of the people displayed there is fantastic. They often come and stand looking at themselves. It is very touching. They listen to what people say about them and sometimes say: “Hey, it’s me.” They end up being photographed again next to their picture. It really gives the exhibition a depth I was not thinking about.
H42: It wouldn’t happen in a gallery!
CØ: Exactly, it starts in the morning with the office people and goes to the school kids and housewives. Then come the tourists and some drunk people. I get a huge variety of people. It is going to be difficult to go into a real gallery again!
Charlotte’s website: Oestervang.dk
Christiana website: Christiania.org
FRISTADEN Christiania 2004-2008
Photography and text by Charlotte Østervang
(dist. & sales: Verve Books)