Replacing Supermodels With Holocaust Survivors: 'The Camera Was Shaking in My Hands'

'The timing for this exhibition couldn’t be more appropriate,' in light of the rise of the far right, says Mikael Jansson, who photographed 97 Holocaust survivors who live in Sweden

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From right to left: Anna Grüner, Jozef Reich and Dora Antonsson.
From right to left: Anna Grüner, Jozef Reich and Dora Antonsson.Credit: mikael jansson
David Stavrou
David Stavrou
David Stavrou
David Stavrou

STOCKHOLM — An extraordinary exhibition opened last week in this city’s municipal cultural center. A show of works by Swedish fashion photographer Mikael Jansson, who has been featured for many years in the most prestigious magazines and campaigns of leading fashion houses. This time, however, Jansson’s images are not of supermodels such as Kaia Gerber and Naomi Campbell or celebrities, such as Victoria and David Beckham or Solange Knowles. Instead, the large hall on the fifth floor of the modernist the Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in the heart of Stockholm displays portraits of 97 Holocaust survivors living in Sweden. Alongside the portraits you can see and hear testimony projected on screens; other survivors’ voices emerging from antique furniture in the center of the hall.

“We conducted a six-month-long investigation to locate the survivors,” Jansson told Haaretz in an interview a few days before the October 18 opening of the exhibition, called “Witnesses.”

“Witnesses,” at Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm. This time Jansson’s images are not of supermodels or celebrities. Credit: Johan Carlson
Max Safir and Lea Gleitman.Credit: Mikael Jansson

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“We spoke with people from the Jewish community, we visited Jewish nursing homes and turned to a large number of survivors. There were those who refused, but many agreed willingly because they thought that now was the time to tell the stories that some of them never even told their children.,” said Jansson. “At their advanced ages, they thought that this was the last opportunity.”

Jansson, who visited Auschwitz before beginning work on the exhibition (which is on display through December 16), was not just the photographer. “When we sat and talked, the survivors told me their life stories, and I realized we had to document them,” he said. “So, I filmed the testimonies, and I now have many hours of recorded testimony. Some of the material went into the exhibition and in the future a documentary film is planned.”

Portraits in the “Witnesses” exhibition, at the Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm, Sweden.Credit: Johan Carlson

Photo sessions, some of which took place in survivors’ homes or in nursing homes, and others in the studio, often went on for a full day. Sometimes, other family members took part too. “Even though, from a technical perspective I shot the Holocaust survivors the way I shoot anyone else, these were not regular sessions,” says Jansson. “It was a hard process, the stories are difficult and it was hard to hold the camera without shaking. I cried every day.”

Moroccan-Dutch model Imaan Hammam for Vogue Paris, shot by Mikael Jansson.

A moving meeting

Some of Sweden’s Holocaust survivors arrived as refugees during World War II, while others came after the war ended. Sweden, a neutral power, played an ambivalent role in the war. On one hand, it sold iron to Germany, which was essential to its military industries, it maintained relations with the Nazi regime and allowed German troops to pass through Sweden on their way from German-occupied Norway to occupied Finland.

On the other hand, Sweden aided the Danish and Norwegian undergrounds and saved thousands of Jews with its generous refugee absorption policy and diplomatic efforts in the 1940s, the best-known of which were the actions of Folke Bernadotte and Raoul Wallenberg. As part of Sweden’s humanitarian efforts, nearly all of Denmark’s Jews, half the Jews of Norway, and many other Jewish refugees from camps in Europe found shelter in Sweden. After the war, many of these refugees remained in Sweden and became part of the Jewish community there. The ones who are still alive are now in their 80s and 90s.

Jozef Reich and Dora Antonsson.Credit: Mikael Jansson

Mikael Jansson sees a connection between the historical events that brought his photographic subjects to Sweden and the political climate in the country today. He talks about the growing strength of the far right, against the background of a debate over acceptance of asylum seekers. “There couldn’t be more appropriate timing for such an exhibition,” he says, and while he makes it clear that it’s not meant to have a political message in the partisan sense, it does have a human message. “The exhibition,” says Jansson, “deals with large human tragedy and it was created for us to remember it, so we will not let such a thing happen again.”

A Vogue Paris cover featuring American model Kaia Gerber, shot by Mikael Jansson.
Vogue Paris July 2018 cover with supermodel Edie Campbell, shot by Mikael Jansson.

Jansson, now 60, began his career as a teenager in the 1970s in Stockholm, when he photographed rock acts appearing there. These included David Bowie, Blondie and The Clash. During the 1980s, he worked for photographer Richard Avedon in New York, and in the following decade, he began acquiring his own reputation when his works were published in such leading fashion magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and W. He photographed campaigns for such brands as Hugo Boss, Gucci, Armani, Calvin Klein and many others, and shot celebrities like Robert Redford, Kate Blanchett and Iggy Pop.

Jansson says that when the Micael Bindefeld Foundation for the memory of the Holocaust asked him to do the show, he “didn’t hesitate, and said yes.” Even though he knew about the Holocaust from stories and movies, like everyone else, the meetings with the survivors had a powerful effect on him: “To meet these people, to look in their eyes and hear their stories made it more real, almost too real.”

“Simple and naked”

It is clear from the pictures that Jansson listened intently to the subjects he photographed. The images are are in black and white and were shot without any other objects in the frame. “I like black and white,” he explains. “I didn’t want the weight of the details and the style that color has. I wanted it simple and naked.”

Tauba Katzenstein and Anna Grüner.Credit: Mikael Jansson

Some of the portraits show only faces, the subjects looking straight at the camera and the details on their faces exposed and clear: wrinkles, stubble, spots and moist eyes. In other pictures, the subjects appear with their upper body or seated in a chair. Some of them wear a Magen David (Star of David) pendant around their necks, one subject is seen holding a yellow Star of David patch, while others point to the numbers tattooed on their arms.

Jansson says he tried not to influence the subjects, but instead tried to show them the way they are. “I didn’t tell them how to dress,” he says. “There were those who dressed up elegantly, others simply, there were those who went to the hairdresser before the photos, while others just came as they were.”

What is common to all the pictures is the genuine quality of the expressions: One can find the full range of human diversity: There are serious expressions and piercing looks alongside expressions of sad acceptance and deep looks that seem to be hiding secrets. Here and there, even a smile can be found. In this sense, Jansson’s photographs contain exactly what the Nazis wanted to eradicate – the personal statement that expresses the infinite value of every person through the total uniqueness of their feelings, thoughts and internal worlds. After all, this is the beauty of the human face. Regardless of age, origin, gender or race, our faces express our humanity, they tell our story and even though they have a universal dimension, no two of them are identical.

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