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Angelica Elliott overcomes personal trauma with the help of photography

Sensitive Content – the following article contains references to sensitive topics, which some readers may find upsetting.

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The Swedish photographer’s first monograph charts an intimate and empowering journey, searching for stability in the everyday as she comes to terms with a troubled past

Angelica Elliott arrived in Rågsved, a southern suburb of Stockholm, seven years ago. Almost immediately, she started taking pictures. Initially, she was shooting without any clear direction and with no real experience of the medium, but “wanted new pictures in my head”, she explains. “I was dealing with post-traumatic stress and I wanted to know myself. Photography helped me and developed into my therapy. It felt important to show my place, and my place within my place.” 

As she became acquainted with the area, Elliott began to assist JH Engström and Margot Wallard with their workshop project, Atelier Smedsby, a non-academic one-year photography programme in Paris. “We had a friend in common who introduced us at a bar in Stockholm, in 2013,” she explains. “I remember I was upset at not being accepted to a photography school and my friend thought this could open some doors for me.” Engström and Wallard mentored Elliott. She gained invaluable experience from the photographers, curators, publishers and writers they associated with on a professional and social level, including Anders Petersen, Nan Goldin, Jim Goldberg, Gilou Le Gruiec, Todd Hido and Christian Caujolle, to name but a few. Engström in particular took a keen interest in Elliott’s work as it began to take shape. “I have followed Angelica and her project since she started it,” he says. “We have talked and shared a lot over those years. Almost never specifically about Rågsved, but more about longing, love, loss and death. In all our conversations, I have had a feeling of total honesty from her side. This is unusual and beautiful. What we have talked about and shared could have taken place anywhere. For Angelica it took place in Rågsved. In her universe.”

From the series Rågsved © Angelica Elliott.

Elliott’s compulsion to document and form new narratives takes form in her first monograph, published by Journal – a Swedish photobook publisher. Titled Rågsved, the book shares its name with the town that partly inspired it. It is a compendium of photographs that oscillate between two spaces: the interior and ordinariness of Elliott’s life, from waking up in the morning and looking out of the window of her high-rise apartment, to having friends over for drinks and late nights; and the exterior world outside, the built-up environment and people that comprise Rågsved itself. 

From the series Rågsved © Angelica Elliott.
From the series Rågsved © Angelica Elliott.

However, Rågsved is more than a sensitive, diaristic collection of photographs from this location. It is also a visual expression tempered with an underlying need to connect with the immediacy of an undramatic reality. The familiar can seem mundane, yet on closer inspection, the dwellings sparkle with a salience hitherto unnoticed; shifts of light, shade and colour conjuring phenomena in constant flux. The dormant bike on the balcony that has weathered the seasons embodies time passing; a baking tray left to dry on the kitchen sink gleams with sunlight. Everyday objects momentarily develop a personality, inanimate yet alive. 

A strong sensibility emanates from the pages of the book, suggesting there is something hidden within its fabric. The images mix colour with monochrome – Elliott describes their hue as “emotional colour” – and various camera formats frame them. Handwritten texts scribbled on Polaroids punctuate the otherwise visual flow. We learn that the work was born from a tragic loss, one that occurred in her early twenties, when Elliott found her boyfriend dead in their apartment after he had taken his own life. The situation was traumatic and disorientating for Elliott and resulted in her move to Rågsved. She was searching for a fresh perspective and a way to heal.

From the series Rågsved © Angelica Elliott.
From the series Rågsved © Angelica Elliott.

“I learned a lot about myself during this time. In a way, to be myself. I learned to respect my work and believe in myself as an artist. I also realised that, ‘Fuck it, I can still do this without a proper art school education, and that I will continue doing what I do in my own way’. That is freedom to me. Nothing and no one can take my photography away from me. It is something I will never lose. That makes me feel strong and independent.”  

From the series Rågsved © Angelica Elliott.

Rågsved is a postwar satellite housing project following the Nordic model: an economic and social conflation of capitalism and a socialist welfare system in the Scandinavian countries, prominent during the 1950s and 60s. The area is an example of the idealistic and generic combination of modernist architecture – multistorey high-rise blocks, with a small horseshoe shaped commercial centre seen in Elliott’s photographs. Half a century ago, it was inhabited by affluent professionals. Today the population is not as wealthy and is approximately 70 per cent ethnically diverse. Elliott’s portraits of friends on the streets go some way to reflect the community. The photographer felt the suburbs were “a metaphor for safety. Rågsved is a wonderfully diverse suburb, and not what people expect. It’s not a ghetto on the periphery of the city, but rather it is a place with a strong fraternity and sense of community, something you don’t find in the centre of Stockholm. For me, it’s home.” 

No matter where we are in life, we eventually need to drop an anchor. When she first arrived in Rågsved, Elliott was looking for a new beginning but the proximity of her tragic past continued to haunt her. She retreated into herself and then into her apartment and consequently into her project, Rågsved, which ultimately expanded her universe little by little. “I learned a lot about myself during this time. In a way, to be myself,” Elliott explains. “I learned to respect my work and believe in myself as an artist. I also realised that, ‘Fuck it, I can still do this without a proper art school education, and that I will continue doing what I do in my own way’. That is freedom to me. Nothing and no one can take my photography away from me. It is something I will never lose. That makes me feel strong and independent.” 

angelicaelliott.com

Ragsved is published by Journal and is available now.

Helplines 

If you have been affected by any of the topics discussed in this article, you can seek help and advice from the following organisations: 

Samaritans

samaritans.org

CALM

thecalmzone.net

SASP

supportaftersuicide.org.uk

Red Cross

redcross.org.uk

Mind

mind.org.uk

Michael Grieve

Michael Grieve has been a contributing writer and photographer for the British Journal of Photography since 2011. He has an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, graduating in 1997, and then began working on assignments as a reportage and portrait photographer for publications. In 2008 he began writing about photography and was the deputy editor of 1000 Words Contemporary Photography Magazine. In 2011 he began teaching and was a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and now teaches documentary photography at Ostkreuzschule fur Fotografie in Berlin. He is the founder/director of Art Foto Mode, a project that organises photography workshops internationally. Currently based in Athens and Berlin.

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