Behind the scenes of a travel commission

Postcards from Copenhagen invited three photographers – Marco Kesseler, Peter Holliday and Laura Stevens – to travel to Copenhagen over a long weekend and create a new body of work inspired by the Danish capital. Following the publication of the three series on British Journal of Photography’s website, here, we take a look behind the scenes of the commission.

In the weeks leading up to a trip, checking the weather forecast becomes an almost obsessive preoccupation. Two weeks ahead of Postcards from Copenhagen, Danish weather reports warned of plummeting temperatures. Yet, against all odds, on the four days that British Journal of Photography travelled to the city, the sun shone throughout. Copenhagen, it seemed, was intent on presenting itself at its very best.

For a group of photographers on commission, however, such unseasonably mild weather presented its own set of challenges. Both Laura Stevens and Marco Kesseler started each day at sunrise. “Things seem to have a slower pace in the mornings, there is a meditative quality. But there’s also a much more beautiful light,” says Stevens. “The bright sunshine over the weekend has been difficult for me to shoot in – it is not really my aesthetic.” Kesseler had a similar opinion: “It has been a very sunny weekend,” he said, in an interview with BJP. “I like the softer light of the early morning.”

With the blazing sunshine proving a challenge, both Kesseler and Stevens would leave the hotel each morning before 6am, returning several hours later to take part in group reviews. “I have been trying to find a quality of light that will be consistent throughout the images,” says Stevens. “It is a challenge, but what I am looking for is a particular light that will enhance the emotional reading of a photograph.”

Kesseler, Stevens and Peter Holliday travelled to Copenhagen with BJP in early-April. Tasked with creating an alternative portrait of the city, the three photographers purposely avoided tourist destinations and instead explored the lesser-known sides of the capital. The photographers were given the freedom to explore Copenhagen as they saw fit; coming together in the mornings for group reviews, exploring the city independently during day, and often meeting in the evenings to share their experiences.

While the photographers were each set the same brief, the approaches and resulting bodies of work differ greatly. Holliday examined the human ideals and aspirations latent within Copenhagen’s peripheral spaces, Kesseler followed a concealed tectonic formation that runs across the capital, and Stevens explored the city’s unique relationship with water. The difference in approach extended beyond subject matters of the work. For Holliday, it was his fourth time in Copenhagen; Kesseler and Stevens had never been before. While Kesseler and Stevens relied upon chance encounters, Holliday scheduled meetings ahead of the trip. While Stevens’ photographs are exclusively shot on a digital camera, Holliday mostly used film. Kesseler worked between the two.

Each photographer kept a journal while in Copenhagen, recording their observations of the city along with their day to day experience of the commission. The pressure of creating a body of work in just four days meant that the weather was far from the photographers’ only challenge. Below, drawing on interviews and journal entries, we share an insight into each photographer’s working process.

Laura Stevens: To the Water  

Day four: “I get on a bike. I spend the afternoon in the nature reserve. Everything is flat. The wind blows. I fall off the bike, a lot.”

Laura Stevens’ journal.

Working on a travel commission with an open brief is more difficult than some may think. On the one hand, you want your approach to evolve in line with your experience, and understanding of a subject matter; there is indeed a limit to what you can plan in advance. On the contrary, the time constraints typical of this type of project mean that relying purely upon chance encounters and discovery poses a risk. What if your theme does not naturally evolve? What if you fail to come across compelling subject matters or locations?

For all three  photographers, these were very real concerns. Stevens was however particularly candid. “On the first day I tried to cross the city and see as much as could,” she says. “But this wasn’t concentrated enough; I realised that I was just trying to cover ground.” Many of the photographs that Stevens took on this same day were, she felt, “too picture-postcard”. Once more, Stevens was not entirely certain about her approach to portraits. Should they even feature?

Laura Stevens’ journal.

On the second day, following boarding a train that was travelling in the opposite direction of her intended destination, Stevens got lost on the island of Amager. It was at this point that the photographer’s anxieties started to fade and she begun to relax into the commission. “It feels wilder and the sense of not knowing where I am, where I will go and what I will find is exciting and the fear starts fading,” she writes. “The fear of not finding anything surprising or of being within tourist environments. I walk along a stream. I get on a bus. I get off the bus. I walk. I get on another bus. I am lost. I keep going.”

On the third day of the commission Stevens visited Dragør, a small fishing village located at the southern tip of Copenhagen. “ The third day had arrived and I felt to be falling into a rhythm, my eyes clearing a little,” writes Stevens. “I loved this afternoon.”

Laura Stevens’ journal.

See Stevens’ Postcards from Copenhagen series – To the Water –  here.

Peter Holliday: Edgelands

Day one: “Perhaps that makes Copenhagen more of a utopia than an apocalypse though? A place where ambition can be realised and where the collective vision of humanity reaches a state of cohesion – a balance between mankind and nature.”

Peter Holliday’s journal.

There is a page in Holliday’s journal where he reflects upon his observations of Copenhagen. In place of lengthy paragraphs detailing the ins and outs of his four days spent in the capital, instead, Holliday sticks to singular words: “Egalitarian, renewable, open, clean, post-industrial, natural, organic, democratic, trendy, determined,” he writes. Elsewhere, the photographer muses on the wider context of his series: “The reclaimed landscapes of Copenhagen conceal the sacrifice of nature,” he writes. “However, one feels that this restructuring has been conducted responsibly and in good faith to the benefit of the city’s inhabitants. It is therefore more of a utopia, than a dystopia.”

Holliday differed to Kesseler and Stevens in that he was already familiar with Copenhagen. Having first visited several years ago, Holliday now lives in nearby Helsinki; Copenhagen is a regular travel destination. The commission, however, saw Holliday explore parts of the city that he had never ventured to before. On his second day the photographer cycled to a collection of warehouses and artists’ studios located on the northern tip of Amager East to visit the amateur rocket organisation Copenhagen Suborbitals. “These places are up-and-coming and developing really quickly,” says Holliday. “I had never been there before, and definitely didn’t know that a rocket company was based there.”

Peter Holliday’s journal.

Holliday was notably unfazed about the time constraints of the commission – just four days to create a new standalone body of work. The first two days he dedicated at least three hours to capturing singular portraits. Insisting on getting to know a subject before photographing them, Holliday benefitted from hearing numerous anecdotes about life in Copenhagen; his sitters often recommended new destinations to explore and photograph.

Peter Holliday’s journal.

Having made appointments with a boatbuilder, a rocket enthusiast, and skate park designers ahead of the trip – all of which are subjects that Holliday felt represented the aspirations of the city – his approach to the commission was initially very structured. With the remainder of his time in the city, Holliday chose to explore by bike. The resulting series – Edgelands – captures multiples facets of the city. Although Holliday shoots on both film and digital, he has a preference for the former, and, while in Copenhagen, he shot almost 20 rolls of film.

See Holliday’s Postcards from Copenhagen series – Edgelands – here.

Marco Kesseler: The Carlsberg Fault Line

Day two: “Got stopped by Imad and his son who asked me for a portrait and tried to pay me with Capri Sun! Reminiscing about medium format film from when he grew up in Palestine. No email address, need to post portrait.”

Marco Kesseler’s journal.

While in Copenhagen, you could say that Kesseler’s approach to portraiture was one of fortuity. The subjects he encountered were always by chance. Crossing Dronning Louise’s Bro (Queen Louise’s Bridge) in central Copenhagen, it was only through pure luck that he met DJ Hip Hop. Likewise, when walking through Assistens Cemetery just after sunrise, Kesseler had no idea that he would bump into aspiring footballer and Gambian refugee, Jahmiel. Such a serendipitous approach relied on Kesseler’s eye for intriguing characters. “Usually I am drawn to people that I feel may have a story to tell and might open up to me,” he says. “Other times it might just be the location that I am in or what a person is wearing – if it really stands out given the context.” By solely photographing the individuals the came across by chance, Kesseler successfully captured the genuine diversity and character of the city. There was no casting call or pre-arranged meetings; instead the portraits that feature in The Carlsberg Fault Line show Copenhagen at its most authentic.

Marco Kesseler’s journal.

Kesseler however still employed a certain structure to ensure that he achieved the diverse body of work that he had envisioned. The research he conducted prior to the trip drew him to a motocross course that fell directly on the Carlsberg Fault zone. Given the thrill-seeking nature of the sport, Kesseler knew that the track would present a good opportunity for portraits.

Upon his first visit to the course on a Friday, the first day of the commission, Kesseler found the site deserted. Slightly perturbed, but nonetheless persistent, Kesseler returned the following day. The gamble paid off and the photographer spent Saturday morning photographing the riders. “I prefer to work having researched things and gotten in contact beforehand, but the nature of this commission is that it is quite short and fast pace,” says Kesseler during an interview on the way to the event. “There is a lot of ground to cover in three days. I did stop off yesterday but there was no one there. On this occasion we will go, approach people and just try and find out a little about them.”

Marco Kesseler’s journal.

See Kesseler’s Postcards from Copenhagen series – The Carlsberg Fault Line – here.

Words: Anya Lawrence 

Postcards from Copenhagen is a British Journal of Photography commission made possible with the generous support of Wonderful Copenhagen. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.