‘To Use the Light’

Swedish photographer Mikael Jansson tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures.

By / February 2012

I want to capture a specific moment. Sometimes this means a chance encounter, other times it means a prolonged hunt. Then there are moments, like last May, when I return to a familiar spot, in this case, a residential part of Södermalm, where there’s an office window that has always drawn me in.

I had stopped there before to take pictures but I was never satisfied with the result. On that Wednesday afternoon, as the sun slowly finished its daily course, I stood by the widow and waited.

I don’t know how long I stood there, maybe 15-20 minutes, taking a few different photos of people walking in other directions. Finally a man walked into view, and I felt like a director, guiding his man’s movements across the stage of my scene.

When the shutter clicked, it felt like the snap of a film clapper, saying “End Scene.” He was the right person, going in the right direction. I knew this time I nailed it.

I put photography aside for about 10 years. I don’t know why. In 2004, I found it again.

It’s like that old shirt you find tucked away deep in the closet. You haven’t worn it in years. The color has faded and it’s tattered around the edges, but you can’t wait to bring it out and feel its soft, familiar fabric on your skin.

Photography is relaxing for me, especially when I’m out walking in Stockholm. I spend a lot of time in the center part of city, a 15-minute subway ride from where I live. I feel at home there.

When he is not taking pictures, Mikael Jansson works as a paramedic in Stockholm.

I go anywhere: Norrmalm, Gamla Stan (Old Town), Södermalm, Vasastan. I get lost among the impressive buildings and small alleyways. I blend in with tourists. I return to my favorite places again and again.

I remember when I was younger and saw big photographs hanging in stores. I was always interested in the story behind those pictures. How was the picture made? What happened during the shot? Something intrigued me. Something pulled me in. But I couldn’t always pinpoint what.

When I looked at a photo that spoke to me — I mean, it could be shouting to me — I couldn’t say why I liked it so much. It’s hard to put into words. That’s typical of the Swedish: we have a hard time highlighting ourselves and our feelings.

I am self-taught. It has been by trial and error. I try and fail, try and fail, and sometimes I try and succeed. Today I might go out into Stockholm and take 200 pictures but I’ll probably only be satisfied with four or five.

It’s hard to see in the beginning. You’re seeing the world through a lens. You’re seeing images. For many it comes natural. They can see it directly. Like they’re born to do it. I’ve had to grow into it. I’ve had to refine my eye, by observing, by looking at things, by learning to use the light.

My interests in photography are people and emotions and if there is a bit of melancholy added it will make my day. Maybe it’s my personality. I’ve always been like that. I like melancholy music, and bands like Coldplay, too.

Lately though, I’ve been noticing a change. I used to think — to make a good picture — don’t smile. But more and more, I enjoy seeing a lot of joy and expressing lots of joy in my photography. I got married in October 2009. Maybe it’s because of that.

Maybe that’s how photography works. It’s a reflection of you. I love the feeling I get when I take pictures, it seems safe and familiar, which is why I’m glad I brought it back into my life. Its presence helps me express what’s inside through what’s outside. I am able to be myself.


— as told to Brandon Hoops