The Unbearable Sharpness of Being
by Anthony Georgieff
Welcome to Skelbækgade in the outer reaches of the Copenhagen Central Railway Station area, the notorious streetwalkers’ corner, one of the town’s cheapest. In the late hours of the afternoon, the prostitutes, most of whom young and hooked on anything from coke to heroin, start gathering on the pavement opposite Kødbyen (literally, ‘The Meat City’), waiting for custom. Sometimes they would be given lifts in passers-byes’ cars. Sometimes they would take their business up into some minuscule, dilapidated flat where beds are covered with hand-towels and the walls are so thin you can picture what’s going on in the next room by just listening. Raw female flesh to be exchanged for money to be exchanged for a sniff or a shot: a complete circle.
Any woman walking Skelbækgade after the blue hour has succumbed to darkness bears the danger of being stigmatised as ‘one of them’. In a society famously cited for being liberal, non-hypocritical, and sex-unashamed, stereotypes, strangely, thrive on. These women are on the margin of society (that otherwise attempts to care for all citizens regardless of how desperate their individual situations may be). Moreover, they will stay there, probably due to the sometimes grotesque regimentation of life the supposedly omniscient social framework has created as a result of years of planning and welfare. Ask Trine Søndergaard, the twenty-six-year-old photographer who ‘works’ Skelbækgade — and actually lives just above the prostitutes.
Søndergaard started photographing her neighbours in their daily work ruts after an educational assignment to ‘go out and take pictures of one’s fears’. After having asked herself the usual questions of what would happen if I was one of them, how would I feel if I was to give someone a blow-job in his car, and where would I find pride in my life if I were to fall out in Skelbækgade, Søndergaard found out about some less empirical aspects of life in the street. The excitement. The exotic. The touch with the forbidden. The clash between what is ‘decent’ and what is ‘not’. The morals being developed at the providing and the recipient end of the quickie sex act.
Which, in turn, led to the more fundamental enquiry about the photography’s agent’s nature: what matters more in a situation where you ‘immortalise’ on film a predicament most citizens would not want to be pictured in? What matters more, the camera or the human personality behind it? What makes the difference, the fact that you are a photographer or the fact that you are a woman? What would be emotional and intellectual consequences if the roles were to be switched around?
These questions, Søndergaard concedes, have not yet received answers: they have but added to the confusion. But if the actual photographs are to be considered outside the personal context of someone who goes up Skelbækgade several times a day, thepitfalls transpire. The subject matter of what, as the cliché goes, is the oldest profession in the world, has been exploited ever since the invention of photography. The schmaltz ordinarily associated with it is at least as difficult a barrier to cross as that first step a teenager has to make to earn a few kroner to buy some dope. Then there is the unconscious urge to sentimentalise on those women’s recurrent victimisation.
What is unusual about Søndergaard’s photographs, however, is the seamless segue between the trite and the quotidian with the knife-sharp of the lethally real. The fascination with the vivid colours and the obvious debts to social documentarians in the mould of Nan Goldin and Nick Waplington aside, Trine Søndergaard’s pictures cut closer to the bone. The garish skirts are lifted to reveal the physical and psychological scars of reality. You can see and feel for yourself the presence of a peculiar love triangle where the hypotenuse is the girl with the camera.
And this is the more fundamental chord Søndergaard strikes. The reality bites reverse their positions: the bodily juices are sucked back into their emitters and the fee, figuratively, is given backwards. The triangle becomes a square with the viewer an active part of the game. Predictably, this is a game that is unlikely to end any time soon. But it takes guts to make such a statement. Trine Søndergaard has. She has launched a weird yet powerful assault on the peacefulness of our summer.
Published in KATALOG 10. 3, 1998
Now That You Are Mine
by Finn Thrane
Now That You Are Mine is a series of photographs taken between 1997- 2000 by the Danish artist Trine Søndergaard, photographs of prostitutes on the streets where she used to live in the red-light district of Copenhagen.
Ethical considerations have always been an integral part of Søndergaard’s documentary works: works in which the investigation of the exchange of human contact – also between the photographer and photographed – merges with the artistic drive to transgress the boundaries of the private sphere. By choosing to work with a conspicuous flash and in colour in the late ’90s, Søndergaard shattered the traditional narrative codes of documentary photography in a conscious challenge to aestheticised and distanced black and white ‘reality’.
Søndergaard goes beyond the walls of the private sphere, following the women and the ‘fly on the wall’. Released from these conventions, Søndergaard’s work embodies and explores the dualities of her own role as an artist, but also as a woman. The artist was personally and daily subjected to harassment by male customers on the street where she lived. Her own subjection to this male gaze marked the beginning of the project. She realised that she was not “seen”. That she existed only as a projected fantasy of a woman for the male customer. It is this fantasy her work ruthlessly exposes, a sexual fantasy in harsh contrast to the reality of infected needle sores and bruised skin.
During the development of the project an artistic exploration and experimentation emerged. Some of the images are in gaudy, bright colours, others in muted, pale tones. Late in the project she often eliminated the women who were her original subject from the final work, choosing a compelling minimalism focussing on details not immediately associated with the harsh realities and tired stereotypes of prostitution. This is the artist’s representation of a reality temporarily shared – but as she consciously and visually acknowledges – never lived. A central acknowledgement in Søndergaard’s uniquely respectful and moving portrayal of life on the streets and behind closed doors.
The series gave Trine Søndergaard her international breakthrough, and today she is an indisputably central figure in a new generation of art photographers. In 2000 she won the prestigious German Albert Renger-Patzsch Award dedicated to publishing monographs that do justice to the visual ambition and quality of the work of outstanding photographers. The monograph NOW THAT YOU ARE MINE was published by Steidl in 2002.
© Finn Thrane, Museet for Fotokunst, Denmark
Rewritten in English by Jane Rowley
NOW THAT YOU ARE MINE
This series of photographs shows the world of street prostitution as one of contemporary society's most despised activities. The artist, whose home is in a street near the place where she took the photographs of NOW THAT YOU ARE MINE, freezes with her gaze various stories and biographies of women engaging in prostitution. The area they frequent, their times of waiting and the streets they occupy recreate a tough and sordid enviroment.
These are images taken from the harshest reality, in which a need to recount a social problem can be noted. These pictures show scenes of people defenceless against the adversities of life. Unlike other photographers, Trine Søndergaard lends dignity to the persons portrayed, to the protagonists of her pictures, being who despite their suffering are presented as beautifull brushstrokes of reality. Solitary women framed in an urban landscape towards which the artist directs our gaze.
© Tania Pardo
Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon, Spain