Thomas Thorstensson’s images are an exploration of ideas and of place. In our interview with Thomas, he discusses his photographic journey through the lens of a camera. His subjects could not be more different; Alfama has a quiet dignity, yet Thomas’ work in London is raw and edgy. In this article we focus on the images from Thomas’ Alfama series yet discuss other aspects of the journey of the mind and the eye through the lens.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I’m of mixed Swedish/Tanzanian origin and grew up in Sweden. I came to London in the late 90’s to complete a Master’s Degree in Philosophy. I have, sort of, remained in London since then. Sort of: I also lived for a few years in the 2000’s in Sweden, and also for a while in Spain. Nowadays I read a lot of novels (currently reading The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiesen), but I don’t think I have picked up a single Philosophy book in 15 years. I find people think degrees are indicative of a person’s character, but I was just meandering about …To earn my keep, I have for the past 12 years or so been working as a freelance web developer…
How did you begin as a photographer?
I began taking photos, in a serious way, around 3 years ago. Before then I was just the occasional smart phone photographer, and not so good at that. It was mainly to remember good moments, and capture family and loved ones.
Then some silent shift came where I ended up buying myself a DSLR and some photography books. Looking back, I think I just decided that I needed to find an outlet for my energies, a way to refocus and feel better about life. I soon adapted a research like approach to learning about photography: reading book after book about composition and digital processing. Looking back now though, I think I should have balanced my newfound photographic obsession against matters of the heart more, but yeah, that’s how it came to be.
As I could notice this intensity in my approach towards photography, I first thought that my newfound passion was going to be a passing thing. Something you pick up for a while and then stop doing.
Now I can say, I guess, that I probably found what I always been looking for, perhaps my entire life. Simply put, once the intensity and ‘madness’ left my soul, I found peace and tranquility in being out in the streets with the camera. It has now become less of an intellectual obsession and more a craft that I am at peace with. I realize I probably always been in some sense a photographer: always noticing things around me, even when I don’t want to.
You are very selective in your work with several well-defined themes. What can you tell us about your photography?
I think my selective approach probably is an overflow from my quite logical approach to things, and even though I stopped with philosophy, the schooling or the basic character traits that lead you to it, never stopped. Basically, I am a logical person, I like facts, I like themes, and I can think better around simple themes and simple facts.
And I like being thematic, I like unity: I process my photos in one of perhaps 3 ways in Lightroom and Google Nik Collection and the presets have not changed much since I first created them years back.
Continuing with facts, I would like to think that you have to shoot with your heart and all senses aligned through the lens, to paraphrase Bresson. Meaning, that Photography is not a hobby: I don’t arrive at a certain moment just to press the shutter button and walk on – taking a photo requires me to understand why I’m taking it, what some of the qualities are, the nerve of the composition and story.
I would like to think that the people that appear in my photos never have a look which is cute or in some way loosely detached from what it means to be Human…They are not ‘things’ beyond the lens.
What inspires you?
People who are capable of showing and feeling great love and compassion. As time goes by, I have come more and more to realize that you only truly can get inspiration if you do good things. So basically, the ‘conditioning’ for being creative is, if I humbly might suggest so, be a nice person and stay healthy!
How has your photography evolved over time?
Hard to say. I think some basic traits in my photography have been there from the start, such as that the photos must show respect for other people, and not be intrusive.
Perhaps, my compositional approach has become more defined in the last year. I tend to arrive to places before there are any persons there to photograph, as I look for compositional ideas that can underline or somehow contribute to the story of the people walking into the composition. It is a fine balance, and doesn’t always work or happen.
A change or development: I now allow color in my photography. Slowly but surely, there will be more color injected into my body of work.
Yes, and my first camera was a Nikon. But quickly I found a home with Fujifilm cameras. I love their lenses and I’m a happy owner of the X-T1 and X-T10.
Are there any great stories you can tell us about your photography or life in general?
It might sound odd, but I can’t think of any. I hope there will be some great ones coming up, though!
Your images of the Alfama area of Lisbon are wonderful. What attracts you to this area?
There are so many good facts about Alfama.
One fact is that the people that live in Alfama are very restful in themselves and very much in balance with the flow of time; they do not mind sitting alone at a bench doing nothing, enjoying the day. There is a peace and dignity in how the locals conduct their lives.
Another fact is the organic architecture. The streets of Alfama continue in through people’s windows and into their living rooms. The trams can come up behind you without you hearing them, and you have to squeeze up against some wall covered with someone’s laundry, to let them pass by. At some outdoor cafés, the tram lines in the streets nearly clip the feet of the locals as they sit and talk. Inside is outside; people stand in their windows talking to neighbors outside.
From a technical point of view, the differences in elevation among all the areas of Alfama, makes for great photography. There are so many compositions waiting to be found within the district.
Your photographs of Alfama have strength and a certain dignity that shines through in their quietness. What are you feelings about this area of Lisbon and your photographs.
When it comes to dignity and quietness. Let me first say Thank you for pointing out those qualities, as they are qualities that are important to me in my photography.
I think the quietness in my Alfama project comes from when two similar tempers meet: I like to be quiet in the way I take photos, and Alfama likes its quietness too.
I don’t think quietness is a technical aspect of Photography, like composition is though. I simply never think about it. If asked how I am quiet, I could not explain. It’s just natural.
Your photography in Harlesden is completely different than your work in Alfama. Can you tell us about that experience?
My photography of Harlesden probably differs from my photography of Alfama, because I felt a need to document the people living in Harlesden, more than the area itself. Whereas in Alfama, the area really becomes the people, this is not true of Harlesden. I could never escape the fact that some of the locals in Harlesden looked misplaced, as if they should be somewhere else in a much warmer climate, in a much more balanced environment. Since London is not a balanced city…
Because of this feeling of misplacement or displacement, I knew I had to focus on the people, on the stories I could see in their faces and in their gestures and expressions. I tried to get in closer with the lens than in Alfama, and, therefore, often felt like I was taking portraits at half distance.
Some days it worked, some it didn’t. Some days I lost my nerve. I ended up standing around long hours, nervously calling my former partner to hear her comforting voice, and then continuing.
Your portfolio includes images of vagrants. What makes you take these particular images? How has this changed you?
Whereas my Harlesden project is now over, both the Alfama and especially the Vagrant project is very much ongoing.
To be honest I’m not sure yet why I’m taking these images.
Perhaps I’m doing it because I can’t stand the idea of living on the inside of some illusion that things are going well and all is just fine with our lives. London is a city that is under water: it is overpopulated, over trafficked, and over stressed. It is not a humble and calm city. Yes, it can be nice to spend some time within its realms, but for the sake of sanity I would say, that it’s a good idea to leave London for good at some point.
Somehow I think that the Vagrants in London, remind me constantly of the fact that all things are not well in London. And it saddens me. Perhaps the Vagrant project is about dealing with these emotions, but also about trying to get other people to deal with such emotions too.
More about Thomas Thorstensson:
First, thank you for this interview!
I would just like to end by saying that there’s a Portrait’s section coming soon on my Photography site, and for those who like documentary photography, there’s some stuff happening this year as I’m thinking about various documentary subject matters. I think a lot of my work is very documentary in style and I’m thinking about covering some social issues as they happen, later on this year.
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