Arles 2017: Q&A with Jacob Aue Sobol

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Born in Denmark in 1976, Jacob Aue Sobol studied at the Fatamorgana Danish School of Art Photography from 1998-1999. In Autumn 1999, he went to live in the Tiniteqilaaq settlement in Greenland, and mainly stayed with his Greenlandic girlfriend Sabine and her family for the next three years. The resulting book, Sabine, was published in 2004, and nominated for the 2005 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
In 2005, Aue Sobol travelled with a film crew to Guatemala, to make a documentary about a young Mayan girl’s first journey to the ocean. The following year he returned alone and he met the indigenous Gomez-Brito family, and stayed with them for a month. His story on the family won the Daily Life Stories award in the 2006 World Press Photo. 
In 2006 he moved to Tokyo, and shot a series of images that won the 2008 Leica European Publishers Award. I, Tokyo was published by Actes Sud (France), Apeiron (Greece), Dewi Lewis Publishing (Great Britain), Edition Braus (Germany), Lunwerg Editores (Spain) and Peliti Associati (Italy). Sobol became a nominee at Magnum Photos in 2007, and a full member in 2012.
Aue Sobol has also made work in Denmark, Thailand, America, Russia and China; his most recent book, With And Without You, collects a selection of images made over his 20-year career to date. On his website, With And Without You is described as a tribute to his father; “Printed on Jacob’s 40th birthday, 20 years after the death of his father, it is a compilation of all the projects that he has made and that his father never got to see.”

From Arrivals and Departures, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
BJP: With And Without You is a tribute to your father, could you say how the book came about?
Jacob Aue Sobol: When I turned 40 last year, I started thinking how I had lived half of my life without my father. He was a very important figure to me during my first 20 years, and the way we lost him, in a car accident, was so sudden – from one day to the next he was gone. I had never experienced death before, and certainly not in that way.
Shortly afterwards I started working with film and photography, so I felt all this that I had created since also had to do with him, and the way we lost him, and all that has happened and evolved since. All the anxiety that came after his death is something I have been dealing with ever since – I use my photography to express it, and all kinds of other emotions.
Of course other things are also important in why I take the pictures I do. There is also my relationship with my twin brother – I felt I almost lost him too after my father died, we became less close because it was very difficult for us to try to deal with the accident together. Until then we had shared everything, we were forever together and even didn’t have that many other friends, because we had each other and that was enough.
But after my father’s death we shared this terrible experience – we were told about it by the police, and then had to wait for our mother to come home so that we could tell her. It created this space between us, after that whenever we were alone together I would feel very anxious because I would feel I was back in that room again.
These emotions were very powerful, and I started to take pictures as a way to express them. But I would also say that my photographs are about love. They are all about love, and the search for love.
From Arrivals and Departures, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
BJP: It’s amazing to see how consistent the images are, from your early 20s until now. Do you think so?
JAS: Basically I feel that I’m the same person as when I started photography 20 years ago – although a lot of things have happened since then, at my core I am the same. I just try to be myself and as long as I identify with my pictures, there is no reason to look for something else. If something changed in my life, maybe could see things differently.
BJP: Are you also influenced by other photographers though, maybe some of the other Scandinavian photographers?
JAS: Of course I’m influenced by others, especially Anders Petersen. When I met him, I didn’t know you could be a photographer like that. His work made me understand and believe that photography could be about being close to other people, that the camera could be used as a tool to make a connection. Through his work, I saw that photography is not only about the shot, it’s also about you and your relationship to the world. That fitted perfectly with what I wanted to use photography for, so he is my greatest influence
But also my mother was a photographer, and my grandfather, so photography has long been a part of my family. My mother took photographs of me and my brother growing up, so I was always around photography.
BJP: Your first book, Sabine, does seem quite different to the others though, because it is about your girlfriend at the time. It seems very personal.
JAS: Yes, Sabine was very different – I still feel the love [in my other books], but in a different way. After publishing Sabine I had a couple of years where I couldn’t take any pictures. Photography had been about the person I loved, so photographing other people? I didn’t feel that. It took me years to photograph other people, and it wasn’t until I moved to Tokyo in 2006 that I was able to photograph strangers. I went to Guatemala and shot a family there, but that felt the same as my work in Greenland – I lived with a specific family taking part in their daily life.
When I moved to Tokyo, I felt this complete isolation. It was very difficult to become part of the place and really belong. But I had small camera, and I realised I could use it as a tool to get in contact with people. I started to photograph people on the street, and slowly realised I could share an intimate moment with a complete stranger. I was able to create a moment of trust, and share a moment of closeness. When I realised that, a whole new world opened for me. It has been the way I have worked since.
From Sabine, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
BJP: I wondered if you also didn’t want to photograph the way you did in Sabine again, to shoot something so personal and revealing.
JAS: Yes, to be honest it kind of broke me down, the responsibility of sharing that intimate piece of work, about this love and relationship and Sabine. Even though Sabine was always supportive of me and the book, I felt the responsibility was too heavy. And at some point she had a new boyfriend, and I thought maybe he wouldn’t like the book…
Even though I loved the work and was very proud of it, I was very anxious. It is very difficult to publish a piece of work like that – even though you have had the pictures on the kitchen floor, editing, it is very different to see your book in the bookstore for the first time. In the beginning I was thinking to go to all the bookshops and buy all the copies myself.
I wouldn’t like to [do something so personal again] – it is something you can only do when you are young. I was very young, 23 years old when I met Sabine, and that book has the feeling of something very innocent and beautiful because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. Now I know exactly what I want, at the time I didn’t. But over the years I have talked with so many people who have said how much they love the pictures. I have realised that they have given a lot.
BJP: With And Without You includes a project called Home, shot in Denmark, which I think you haven’t published before, is that right?
JAS: Yes, I haven’t previously published it. I don’t know if I thought it through. It’s a project I have I worked on for some years and want to publish as a separate book, it is a mix of black-and-white and colour images. But it’s been a part of my life for the last 20 years, so I wanted to show a small part of it in With And Without You. I’ll continue to work on it.
BJP: How did you choose which images to include in With And Without You?
JAS: I worked with an editor who I have worked with for the last eight years and we went through the whole archive, about 100,000 pictures. We found some new things not published before, and some more classic photographs. It was a very interesting process, and of course if I did the book next year it would look completely different. Editing shows how you felt on the day you did the edit, it reflects your mood. It is always most emotional to look at Sabine, looking at it is always very emotional. In Sabine I can see where all the films and negatives are coming from. I see elements of Sabine in all the work since.
From Home, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
BJP: You’ve set up a studio in Copenhagen, and one of the photographers who works for you there has told me how much you try to help your crew.
JAS: It’s really a great privilege they want to work with me – I always enjoy being around young people, they have a lot of energy and ideas. I get very close to them. It can be lonely being a photographer, so it’s nice to have them around. We spend a lot of time in the studio together, and try to create things together. They help me, and I try to support them. Some of them are disappointed because I’m only one person – I try to give as much as possible, but it’s not always enough.
Some are 20 years old when they come to me, and have a dream of becoming a photographer, but don’t want to be a commercial or a press photographer. They want to make something that is their own, and I try to show them how to make this dream possible. For me now it is possible, so I hope they get to see how to make a life out of this, and try to build their own vision and find their own way. Some succeed and some find out ‘ok, it’s not for me’.
Often they are very surprised how much work it is. For me it’s 90% hard work, and then maybe a bit of talent and some luck. 90% is insisting you want it.
From The Gomez-Brito Family, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
BJP: Your work seems very much about intimate relationships with your subjects, yet you’re quite active on social media and in promoting your work. Do the two things feel very different?
JAS: Very different. When I’m out photographing I go into a space where I try to block out everything else. That’s why I only take pictures for two months a year, always in the winter. That comes from Sabine – when winter comes, I start to feel that I want to travel and meet people, to find this contrast between the cold, harsh, dark environment and the warmth of the people. It’s been part of my pictures all the way though. When I get back to Denmark and start editing, it is completely different.
The social media is a way to share my work, Instagram and Facebook are incredible ways to share and communicate. But of course it’s also a business – you are creating an audience. Now I am starting my own publishing company, and I can sell to a whole audience of 135000 followers or whatever. I don’t have to go to publishing house, who will take a cut, or through a distributor, who will also take a cut. I can sell direct to someone in India.
So for me, it also creates a space to be able to do more work and to run the studio. I can’t remember the last time I did a project that wasn’t my own project – I have created a space where I can concentrate on doing what I love to do.
BJP: You’ve shot in some very disparate places – from Siberia to Tokyo, and from Guatemala to America. What draws you to a place?
Each place I’ve been to, I went for a different reason. I went to Greenland because my father had given me a book by a Greenlandic author, featuring very minimal drawings and poems about daily life. After his death I took up this book and was fascinated, also my father had been to Greenland, and had told me stories about it. With Guatemala, my twin brother was going there to make a movie and he invited me to come along. Once I arrived, there I got fascinated.
Many places I’ve been to are not places I chose specifically because I thought they would be interesting. I somehow ended up there, then got curious. But I feel I always start to look for the things we have in common – not what’s strange or different. I look for things we share, and most often that’s our emotional life. A young couple falling in love in Moscow is the same as a couple in Beijing.
From Arrivals and Departures, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
BJP: In the introduction to I, Tokyo you wrote “I believe it is when pictures are unconsidered and irrational that they come to life”. Do you still think that now?
JAS: I can seem a bit more organised now. When I meet a young couple [now], I often used social media to find them, or local people. But the few hours I share with them, if I photograph I still feel I’m using my instincts. It’s a way for us to get to know each other. I try to share something with people, I don’t like to always be the voyeur – but it’s complicated, because I’m still the one taking pictures.
I often feel I want to take part. If I photograph boys playing basketball in Mongolia, I want to put down the camera and join in. It’s kind of a dilemma. I’m looking at the world but honestly, I would prefer to take part. Maybe you can feel this eagerness to take part in my pictures.
Jacob Aue Sobol is showing With And Without You at the Voies Off in Arles this week, and selling copies of the book. He is also running a special print sale at Arles, in which you can choose any of the 138 prints With And Without You and buy it, signed and framed, for €100. The framed prints can be picked up at Arles or shipped to you.
From I, Tokyo, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From I, Tokyo, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From By the River of Kings, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From By the River of Kings, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From By the River of Kings, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From Home, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From Home, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
From Road of Bones, included in the book With and Without You © Jacob Aue Sobol/Magnum Photos
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy