Close Encounters

Danish Photographer Jens Juul talks about breaking the boundaries that separate photographer and subject.

Jens-Juul_Six-Degrees-of-Copenhagen_11.jFrom the series Six Degrees of Copenhagen, by © Jens Juul

A stranger in the street catches his eye. He approaches, makes conversation for a while, then asks if he can take their picture, in their home, with no one present. And so begins Jens Juul’s Six Degree of Copenhagen, a series that takes its inspiration from the theory of American social psychologist Stanley Miligram – that we are all separated from one another by a chain of five other people.

Six Degrees of Copenhagen, which won 1st Place in the Portraiture category at Sony World Photography Awards 2013, is a series that features subjects in intimate settings – ‘capturing each person as immediately as possible, during activities where they are undisturbed by others,’ explains Danish photographer Jens Juul. He then begins to thread connections to them.

The first step is breaking the boundary that separates photographer from subject, stranger from stranger, and making connections between people. Juul stops strangers on the street, in markets, at social gatherings and asks if he can take their portrait, in their home. His visits generally last several hours, or just long enough to get the right shot. He then asks his subject to recommend someone in their inner circle of friends.

“The project is also about breaking boundaries. First, I break a social boundary by approaching people on the street and inviting them to participate. At the same time, I need to get the subject to break a boundary by inviting me into their most private space.”

Juul says there is nothing scientific about his method; rather, it’s an approach that speaks to the deepest of human emotion – trust. The point at which his subjects feel secure that their vulnerabilities will not be exploited is the moment when he teases out stories.

He was introduced to an elderly woman, 86, by a younger woman he had photographed for the series. ‘We met a few times and talked a lot,’ he explains. ‘When you meet like that and get comfortable around each other, it is natural to start talking about more personal issues – life, love, death. So we talked about her grandmother.’

She explained that her deceased grandmother’s body was placed on a table in the living room, and since it was winter all the windows in the room were opened to keep her corpse cool. ‘Her family and friends dropped in throughout the day to say their last goodbyes. As this lady was telling me her story, she took her clothes off and showed me how her grandmother had lain. Then she invited me to take her picture.”

‘Nudity is never a goal to me; the nakedness is not an issue – there is nothing remotely sexual or erotic about it. In my experience, a lot of old people are game for whatever I bring up – it’s like they’ve dropped all pretence. When you take an interest in people, when you are genuinely curious about who they are, and you approach them without any prejudice or preconceived notions, it’s amazing how willing they are to open up. My work is really just a journey into the lives of other people.’

To learn more about this project, visit Jen's PHmuseum profile

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