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Hannah Modigh
From The Milky WayPhotography Hannah Modigh

These photos explore how we keep our pain inside

Fascinated by death and the natural world, Hannah Modigh’s work delves into how humans deal with inner turmoil

Born in Sweden, before moving to India and later back to Stockholm, Hannah Modigh learned early on to immerse herself in a universe of her own. This is a skill she has taken with her into her photography, where she documents intimate moments that all make a passing comment on the transient nature of time and the ephemerality of life.

“I’m drawn to people who are fighting with inner tension and doing all they can – every day – to repress it,” says Stockholm-based Modigh when I ask her about her worldwide-subjects. When pressed further, she tells me her subject choices are always instinctive: “I turn to feeling first, aesthetic comes much later”. She explains: “I’m not interested in giving voice to someone’s pain, that’s not what I do. Instead, I’m interested in finding out how they swallow it, in their silence, in their waiting, and in their mourning.”

“I’m not interested in giving voice to someone’s pain, that’s not what I do. Instead, I’m interested in finding out how they swallow it, in their silence, in their waiting, and in their mourning” – Hannah Modigh

With a voyeuristic quality to her work, Modigh is a photographer who favours spontaneity in her compositions. Always with a small point-and-shoot camera, she admits later in this interview that she is “a really slow photographer”, but consciously so. She explains: “The emphasis is on grabbing the moment more so than trying to produce a perfectly composed picture, but it takes some time to capture underlying tension – even when you feel it instinctively.” As such, her subjects are often peripheral details or occurrences that might otherwise go unnoticed dwarfed by natural landscapes and presented to the viewer untitled and without a hint of explanatory text: “I am very cautious about using text, I don’t want to point. I would describe my work as a ‘whisper,’ I’m quietly encouraging people to relate to a universal feeling of uncertainty. Nothing is permanent because death is omnipresent. At a time when we feel so disparate, at least we can say we all have that in common.”

Traceable within each of her series is a focus on death and the natural world – the two, she marks as synonymous. Most recently Modigh visited America’s south to bring her project, Hurricane Season, to life. Shot in Louisiana – a state that has been living under the threat of impending natural disasters for the last 15 years. Each of the images are linked in a narrative, informed by Modigh’s six-month stay there and by the heightened feelings of anxiety she felt from a community living in fear of death by nature. “Given the symbiotic and ever-changing relationship between the land and people, I wanted to consider how a ‘homeland’ has both the power to protect and to kill.” Below we catch up with the photographer to discuss her work.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about your most recent photobook, Hurricane Season and how it falls in line with the four photo books published before it?

Hannah Modigh: In Louisiana, the threat of hurricanes arrives annually, but the storm around the poorest people is felt daily. I think of permanent vigilance, or recovery, and the constant need to start over. Memories that never have the luxury of time to heal. Anger springs from fear, a dam against chaos. In the storm with all the destructive power, the people I met were like pillars in the water, holding up the houses. Hurricane Season, deals with the transient nature of life and how people deal with impermanence – this theme is common to all of my work.

How would you describe your work?

Hannah Modigh: I am drawn to nature and skin, both are where we really belong - in nature and in our skin. I find myself searching for marks that are indicative of both presence and absence, these could be physical marks; lines around the eye, a scar on the upper arm etc. or, they could natural marks: a downtrodden pathway, a track - all are indicative of a past. I find myself paying close attention to body language and subtle characteristics, I’m always looking for something below the surface. In Louisiana, for example, there was a tension that is ready to implode, but every day these feelings live, wait and breed – I’m fascinated by this.

You moved around a lot when you were younger, how did this affect your photos?

Hannah Modigh: We did move around a lot. I was born in Stockholm, we then moved to India and I lived there for a couple of years, before moving back to Sweden this time to the south. I was 16 when I moved out of my parent’s house, and from there, I travelled where I could. I have been fortunate enough to experience different ways of living, and, as a result, I don’t ever get anxious in a new place, I generally feel comfortable pretty quickly.

My dad worked with a lot of different charities for the most part of his life, he worked for one whilst we were in India. Although we were perceived as a privileged family, because we were white, we were also exposed to a level of poverty that was unheard of in Stockholm and gave (us) fresh perspective.

What influenced your decision to become a photographer?

Hannah Modigh: I don’t remember ever making that decision. My mother is an artist and my father an anthropologist – I was encouraged by both from an early age to think about a world beyond our house, a world that is above all else open to interpretation. Photography became that interpretation for me. From the age of 13 I carried a camera around (a gift from my mum), it was a natural progression from there, and travel was key to this development. Maybe it was innate.

Your photographs include both strangers and people with personal connections to your life, does this variation ever impact your approach?

Hannah Modigh: My brother played a pivotal part in The Milky Way, and the project I am working on now has a strong personal connection too. However, I do tend to shoot mainly strangers, often in countries I have never visited before. My curiosity for others is boundless. I learn a lot from meeting different people because I have so many questions to ask them: how do they deal with stress? How has violence manifested itself in their life? Kind of dark, right? But, when you ask these kind of questions, especially when you talk very directly about violence it becomes universal. Violence is a universal language and I immediately find myself contrasting their answers with my own experiences – again giving perspective and also a sense of likeness.

It feels like strangers have had a significant impact on both your life and work?

Hannah Modigh: Completely! Meeting new people and visiting unseen places, is my way of fixing my eyes and understanding the world around me. Most of the time when I travel for work I am alone - I don’t have a role to play or responsibilities to think about. Instead, I am myself acting out of nothing but instinct which helps to give my work spontaneity. I have shot many people from 13-year-old heroin addicts to Danish sex workers - they all quickly became friends.

Do you hope viewers will feel a certain way after seeing your photos?

Hannah Modigh: I would be happy if some felt something, whatever. I hope more than anything I can change their preconceptions of a person or place – because nothing lives out like it does in your head.

See more from Modigh here