Theo Elias explores intimacy and connection in the depths of a Swedish winter

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Inspired by a notebook he kept during a month-long residency in a remote town in southern Sweden, Elias’ latest publication explores distance, intimacy and human connection

Red / January 2021 by Swedish photographer Theo Elias is a book of antithesis: intimacy and distance; hot and cold; love and violence. The images were made through January 2021 while Elias was on assignment for Gamleby Photography, an educational photography platform based in Sweden. The organisation had invited him for a month-long residency in Tjustbygdens, in the south of the country, to document the small, remote town during the pandemic. His latest book is modelled on a notebook he kept during this period of isolation.

Elias was truly isolated. Not only was the area in lockdown, like much of the world, but the depths of winter made venturing outside difficult. “All events and gatherings were cancelled, some days the temperature went down to minus 20 degrees, meaning that my cameras would stop working, and you only had a few hours of daylight – so circumstances were not great,” he recalls. Given the problematic conditions, Elias needed to improvise. He set up a trail camera – traditionally used by hunters to track animals – outside the local grocery store, which captures images using a motion sensor.

© Theo Elias.

The resulting images capture anonymous passersby, photographed like spectres in the snow. These are presented alongside images of bodies radiating heat, captured using a thermal camera. The contrasting colour palettes of these two mediums tie to several of the dichotomies that thematically guide the work. While the figures in the thermal images bear connotations of love and passion, the figures captured by the invisible flash of the trail camera feel cold and distant. These themes recur throughout the book and are intended to mirror Elias’ own personal experience during the residency.

All the white, in the back of his mind, and influencing his artistic output, was a tumultuous romantic relationship that Elias was attempting to navigate from afar. It made him ponder ideas of closeness and contact. “As humans, the only way to find out the temperature of an object is to touch it with your hands, but since I was not able to touch anyone at that time, the thermal camera became a kind of shortcut to intimacy – like I was experiencing the heat of others, but from a distance,” he explains. This exploration of tactility and human connection, as well as the symbolism of hands, was foundational to the project and it meant that as well as documenting the reality of the town during the pandemic, he was also able to create his own reality within the pages of his notebook – one that reflected his mindset and his feelings of loneliness, seclusion and desire. 

After returning home, Elias decided to replicate his original notebook. He wanted the design to correspond with both the DIY aspect of the source material and his experimental approach to making photographs. Alongside handmade elements such as taped borders and layers of paint and ink, red is used as a colour motif in order to engage with and encompass the various themes within the book. “It refers to passion, sexuality, violence and warning,” he says. “But it’s also at the end of the visible spectrum, so in this work it refers to the edge of what we can see or imagine… Maybe the edge of reality as I see it.”

Red / January 2021 is self-published by Theo Elias.

Red / January 2021 by Theo Elias.
Daniel Milroy-Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.