All photographs in this interview © Jan Møller Hansen
Award winning photographer and development worker, Jan Møller Hansen started picking up his camera to try and capture the harsh reality of the people where he lived and worked. Over the years he has photographed various marginalized people while living in Bangladesh, Nepal and South Sudan. In an interview with Impact Journey, Jan gives us an insight into what motivates his photography, the people he meets and his hopes for much needed changes for the poor and marginalised people in the world.
Your work includes photography of a variety of marginalized people.
How do you choose a topic and is there a particular one that you hold closest to heart?
The themes and people in my photography have often been related with my jobs in humanitarian and development work. I have lived and worked in Asian and African countries on and off for more than 25 years on both long and short-term assignments as a diplomat and development worker. At present, I am in South Sudan working with humanitarian mine action and safer communities. So I usually know the context quite well and do research when selecting my topics. But it is not necessarily a logical and straightforward process. The topics also develop as I go along. Once I get started on something, the work can take me in different directions. I loved to photograph in the urban slums of Dhaka in Bangladesh or just to hang out with marginalised and indigenous forest people in Nepal. I also loved to work with the transgenders in Bangladesh. That taught me a lot, and I met some really nice people who live a very difficult life.
I have also photographed acid survivors in Bangladesh. That is also close to my heart. Not because I like it, but because it is necessary and important to tell people’s stories. Unfortunately, there is so much cruelty and unfairness in the World, and there are so many things that go in the wrong direction. I guess that photography helps me to cope with this. That’s why I pick up on such topics.
Not long ago, I met two girls out in the middle of nowhere in South Sudan. I had come with my teams to work with risk education on mines and unexploded ordnance. There was nothing. Just a few people and some soldiers roaming around in the area. The people had been displaced due to the on-going war and conflict. They had settled here under some plastic sheets trying to survive. In this place, I met these two girls. We were alone, and I felt their hopelessness so strong. That’s what they gave me. It came through the image that I captured. That was the message.
Transgenders living in Bangladesh
What is your most recent project? Could you tell a bit about it?
Photography is not my living. No one has ever paid me to make certain images or stories. It has always been and still is driven by my own desire and passion. My photography projects develop in the settings where I live and work. That has been the case in Bangladesh, Nepal and now in South Sudan. I tend to photograph in my own surroundings. Right now I work with humanitarian mine action and safer communities in South Sudan. So I naturally concentrate on people that I meet here in South Sudan. It can either be privately or through my work. Now I am photographing people who live in areas that we clear for mines and unexploded ordnance from war and conflict. It can also be children and women in villages or schools that we educate about these dangers. At the moment many of my images are coming from South Sudan. I also have some ideas of new projects that I cannot disclose because of safety reasons.
“The camera just helps me to stay true to myself in an unfair and corrupted world.
But the camera, and what it freezes of moments and impressions,
also give me hope.”
I’ve read in an interview that you got into photography because you wanted to experience how the people in Dhaka live and manage under such difficult circumstances. In what way do you feel your work is making a difference to their circumstances?
I cannot tell you. I don’t know. In Bangladesh, I worked as a diplomat and most of my time went with diplomacy and development work. What I was told there by politicians, bureaucrats and many others that I met through my work did not match with what I saw with my own eyes. I think that developed a desire within me to meet people and to show others how reality is. I had to stay true to myself and pay respect to people. I became very impressed by the resilience of the Bangladeshi people. I am here talking about the women, children and men, who everyday are struggling to survive and to create a better future for themselves and their families. They go through so much shit every day.
Millions of people are being treated really badly every day. They have no rights and live under very difficult conditions. They are also discriminated against or violated in so many different ways. It’s their life. That’s one reason for why I picked up a camera. I can only hope that some of my photos make a small contribution to changes that are badly needed. My full-time job has been and still is about creating better living conditions and opportunities for poor and vulnerable people. The camera just helps me to stay true to myself in an unfair and corrupted world. But the camera, and what it freezes of moments and impressions, also gives me hope. I don’t know whether it makes any difference in the big picture or for the people that I photograph. It’s just my humble hope that it does.
Sisters who are displaced due to conflict and war in South Sudan
You’ve mentioned that photography and the people you portray have enriched your life. How would you then describe the relationship between you and the people you photograph?
I like to photograph because it is a way of sending vibes and messages to others. Something reaches others without words. I never forget the people that I photograph. It’s like they are staying with me. I was there. I was with them. Even though I might pass through quickly or we do not talk together, I still feel some connection. I don’t claim to get a personal relationship with all the people that I photograph. Not at all. But photography can be very intimate. Sometimes I have photographed the same people during a longer period. As a photographer, you also have to stay somehow detached from what you are capturing in order to perform as a photographer. Sometimes I have been very moved when I go through the images and edit them afterwards. The entire workflow is important to me, and I love every stage of it. I experience the situation over and over again in the work process. What I saw and what I felt when I was there with my camera can come back again and again. The work process also helps in dealing with the personal experiences you get as a photographer.
I also feel that I show respect to people when I portray them or tell their story, irrespective of whom they are or what they are doing. But it’s a very delicate matter to photograph people. Using your empathy and staying confident is important. You need to establish trust and acceptance with the people you are photographing while at the same time challenging them and yourself.
“It’s a very delicate matter to photograph people. Using your empathy and staying
confident is important. You need to establish trust and acceptance with the people
you are photographing while at the same time challenging them and yourself..”
What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in your work and is there still something you really want to achieve?
I just want to stay passionate and curious. That’s what drives my photography. I don’t want to force my photography. Just let it happen when I am ready and feel like doing it. I photograph because I want to tell stories, and because I like looking behind what’s there. It’s also a great way of gaining insight about people and finding out about your surroundings. Your photographs also tell a lot about who you are as a person. Most of my images are not made by coincidence. Some are but not all. They come from somewhere or from something that I have been searching for.
Photography is a tool of communication – it’s a way of expression for me. I like speaking through images. I just want to let this continue flowing. I am not striving for creating the perfect image or the greatest story of all times. I just want to explore my surroundings with the camera and to tell stories that I am interested in. If others also find it interesting and relevant, it’s just fantastic. I am looking for insight and messages. That’s my ambition.
Dalit woman from remote Western Nepal, belonging to the group of so-called 'untouchables'
At Impact Journey we try to make people aware of the story behind the images with the use of visual story telling, as we feel that people often do not look beyond the picture to see the actual people and their living conditions. In your work you make use of social documentary and visual story telling. What is in your opinion the power of these tools to bring a different image of people to the world?
Social documentary and visual story telling is very powerful. There is no doubt about it. With images you can tell so much. It can also be drawings or paintings, by the way. It’s like a shortcut that sends messages much faster, and sometimes more effectively, than words. But combining the image and the word is very important for telling the full story, and to make the greatest impact or impression on the viewer. Great images usually need a few accompanying words. You need to put the image into a context to tell the story of what you have seen and experienced. You need to tell the story that goes beyond the image itself.
The right combination or frequency of the images, when it comes to creating great visual story telling, is also very important. As a photographer, you have been there yourself, but you should always remember that this is not the case with the viewer. You should play with that and work around it in a clever way. I am not talking about manipulation, but to find ways of generating an interest with the viewer to explore, reflect and learn from your story. If it can also create action and the willingness to do something as a response to seeing and reading the story, it’s just fantastic and will be a huge accomplishment. If you get to that level, you cannot wish for more.
“Combining the image and the word is very important for telling the full story,
and to make the greatest impact or impression on the viewer.”
Impact Journey also tries to inspire people to think critically and to come into action to address social and environmental challenges we are facing. Yet, for many people it is not always clear in what way they can best contribute. From your experience in development work and photography, what would your advise be for people who want to make a positive change to the world?
First of all, you have to follow your heart. Pay respect and honour your desires. That’s what you have to nurse first and foremost. That will lead you in the right direction. You have to know where your interests are, and then you must know yourself in terms of strengths and weaknesses and work around that. But don’t just work and think alone. It’s very important also to engage with others. Combining social and development work with photography is a great thing for many different reasons.
There are so many great organisations and initiatives involved on many different and important agendas throughout the World. Some will pay you for working on important social and environmental challenges. Other organisations are driven entirely by voluntary initiative and engagement. They all need people with commitment and skills. There are a lot of opportunities when it comes to creating positive change to the World.
Boy who has been attacked by his uncle with acid. He is here united with his father. Bangladesh
Jan Møller Hansen
Jan Møller Hansen is a self-taught and international award-winning photographer from Denmark, who works with visual story telling and social documentary. He has photographed slum dwellers, indigenous and aborigine people, brick kiln workers, sexual minorities, sex workers, refugees, acid survivors and other marginalised people while living for eight years in Nepal and Bangladesh.
Jan was recognised as the Lucie IPA People Photographer of the Year 2015 and he has published the book “Images of Nepal”, Jagadamba Press Kathmandu. He is also an independent senior consultant and former senior diplomat. Currently, Jan is living in South Sudan, where he is working with humanitarian mine action and safer communities.