Maybe the slate is always wiped clean, a tabula rasa constantly, with every breathing moment, imprinted with what we sense. We never manage to register how blank the slate is because the present moment, every moment, is so close to the next in an incessant flood. But beneath them, beneath each moment, the slate is always blank, always ready to receive new impressions, ready to be new and renewed.

What would it take for us to be able to see ourselves see with this blank slate?

Maybe that which is alive arises from a blank surface. Light is trapped and interwoven with darkness. Silence roars in the image.

It is like a grey, a blue, a bluish grey stream where something appears, maybe a luminous orange fin gliding soundlessly towards us, leaving a ring in its wake long after the waves of light have caught our eye.

Trine Søndergaard says: I come from a world of silence.

In Trine Søndergaard’s photographs it is the silent, the averted, the transient that speaks. Each image emanates calm, but it is a seductive calm. Looking at the details of the photograph, turbulence emerges like traces of light – an unspoken story hidden within the motif.

Silence prevails, and silence permeates us, but what is within the silence? Form and stillness, patterns and veils. In Trine Søndergaard’s photographs veiling and calm are one side of the same coin, thrown up into the light. And as we look at the photograph, the coin quivers mid-air then flips to show its other side: dissonance, movement, the unveiled.

Trine Søndergaard captures both people and nature as we are when entirely alone with ourselves. The biggest challenge facing any photographer is to make their gaze transparent so the motif stands pure and alone, ready to settle in the eye of the viewer. Like looking into a stream of crystal-clear water where the pebbles, small water plants and an orange fish are all more vivid and real than they would have been if the water had not been there, if there had only been air between the eye and what it sees. Trine Søndergaard is like the clear water of the stream: her presence makes what we see clearer. The motif remains, alone, but it is the gaze of the photographer that has made a motif of that which was not. In the work of Trine Søndergaard the figure, the tree, the landscape are all lightly touched, as if by a bird’s eye flying unseen above. The photographer’s crystal-clear eye allows the motif to stand in all its existential isolation. The noise of the outside world fades away: the only space that remains is for the one that is seen and the one that sees.

To look at someone who is entirely alone is to become alone.

The motif is extracted from the chaos of the world, and looking at it, it is as if we too are cut off from the chaos of the world and stand still in the shape of the motif. If the woman is sitting, we want to sit. If the root of a tree lies on the ground, we too want to lie down, imitating its form. The photograph has the echo of an inner reverberation between the motif and the viewer, which can only come into being due to the presence of the photographer reverberating behind the motif.

There is an echo and mirroring, the relationship every one of us has with the world, with ourselves when alone, and with our curiosity about whether other people are the same as us when we are alone. Is the calm of others my calm? Is the restlessness of the world my restlessness?

At the same time, each and every photograph is so full of details, patterns, strands of hair, textures, bark, shapes in bark, in grass, that we can, after all, be ourselves in the world, because what we focus on seems infinite, as if there will always be a detail in the photograph we have overlooked, that we need to capture with our gaze and make our own. And when we capture a detail of the motif and make it our own it spreads within us. Stillness envelops us. Our personal perspective merges with that of the photographer and there is a breathless feeling of everything being connected, that this is the only way it could possibly be. That strand of hair can only fall in precisely that place, that pattern can only fall across the face in precisely that way. That it could be any other way is suddenly inconceivable. Trine Søndergaard’s photographs mirror the world yet create a more intense world, a world that feels as if it could never be any different, even though we know it could. Here the photographer gives us the chance to fulfil our longing that exactly like this, and in no other way, something will remain forever, constant and certain, indeed possible.

Trine Søndergaard says: I use the camera to listen to the world

Photography has no sound, yet this is how Trine Søndergaard describes what she does: listening with the camera. We usually think of photography as the art of the eye. The art of light and shade and the eye. The gold against the grey, the colours in Trine Søndergaard’s photographs harmonise in a way that calms each colour in the light waves it emits, as if each colour is chosen not to represent reality with all its clashing colours, but an ideal. The colours flowing from the photograph we look at reach us in harmonious waves. A sea of light the perfect temperature we can bathe in for a long time. Perhaps this finely attuned wave of colours is the soundwave Trine Søndergaard is listening to.

Trine Søndergaard says: The camera doesn’t see fantasies or dreams, it sees things as they are, it only depicts outer reality. But I use the camera and physical world to explore what’s not visible.

Things as they really are, the objective truth. Nothing can be hidden from the camera. The camera does not see a dream, it sees the hand and the hair, the slight curve of the back, the inclination of the head. It is the photographer who makes the objective subjective, who makes the images about dreams, about the feelings expressed by the turned back, the hidden face. What is going on in that pattern? Why does the shoulder slant that way? How am I meant to understand historical dresses and veils on young, women today? When the ornate golden bonnet of a married woman is worn by a young girl in a thin Monki T-shirt? The photograph is a reflection of reality, and it is the same mirror that reflects the personality of the photographer. Everything we have to imagine ourselves. “Help yourself,” she says: “Here you have reality”. “Which reality?” we ask, leaning towards the photograph with our magnifying-glass eyes. Which is when we start to think.

Trine Søndergaard says:

Photographing people has something to do with the truth.

We all have endless stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Stories about where we’re from and where we’re going. With the camera I can look for the truth behind the performance. The challenge, of course, is that everyone, maybe even the roots of trees, gets self-conscious when you point a camera at them.

I have been photographed twice by Trine Søndergaard. As an author I have been photographed many times: I prepare myself. Check no roots are showing, moisturise my skin, put on make-up and jewellery, choose my clothes carefully. It is a mask I put on to make me feel safe, so the person that looks back at me in the photograph matches my idea of myself, the self I want to be in the eyes of others. Trine peels all that away, step by step, gently and calmly. The jewellery comes off, the makeup comes off, my shirt is changed, she plaits my hair and puts it up. Every single strand of hair is precisely where she wants it to be. She moves on to my facial muscles, because they are trying to do something too – smile, look appealing. Everything falls apart, like severing a tight elastic band. I fall apart, and what is left is who I am when I no longer know who I am.

Trine Søndergaard says:

We see images all the time, most of them ad nauseum. There are so many inbuilt aesthetic codes we know inside-out that we rarely see something we haven’t seen before. But when we do, we can lose our foothold for a split second, tilting the way we see the world. It’s familiar, yet completely different. It’s another layer, a glimpse into the space in between that might just be a place we can be. Be for a moment without having to move on.

And there you have it in a nutshell. Trine Søndergaard’s photographic reality is highly real without claiming to know more about reality than we do ourselves. It is not documentary realism pounding war into our eyes. It is reality, a reality we have to discover how to be in ourselves. There are no answers, and we might not even have asked the question. Yet still we are shaken. What is this? Are we allowed to ask? The simmering restlessness, the lack of answers, the insistent physical presence. “What is this?” “Reality!” says the photographer and photograph. “But what is reality?” we ask. Because we thought we knew, but for a split second now know we did not. Reality is beyond reach. Only in the moment we are forced out of our routine reading of images, can it reveal itself.

Kant again. Always Kant. Always returning. The thing itself – the reality that exists everywhere, but which our limited sensory system makes it difficult to experience – can reveal itself through the work of art, through the work of art that does not meet our expectations but gently nudges us so, as Trine Søndergaard puts it, we lose our foothold. Then we fall. And land in reality for a moment, the reality Kant calls ‘Das Ding an sich’- that which otherwise escapes us. The moment, perhaps, it takes to take a photograph. So we know something we did not know before. Maybe there are no words down there, maybe no clear thoughts. But there is a truth: incomprehensible, real, the interplay of colours, a crystal-clear stream, the way things could not be any different.

It is about the relationship between light and dark. The point where things appear, where we look at a picture and have to stand with it for a while before we find it and let it resonate within us. Just bathe in it. Just let the opposites unite on our blank slate, then let it be broken by the orange fin of reality. That is when we lose our foothold.

  • text: Merete Pryds Helle
  • published in: 203 Works, Trine Søndergaard
  • Fabrikbooks and The Gothenburg Museum of Art
  • year: 2020