“This is where my dad lives in Sweden. Before arriving, I had only seen it on a satellite photo. I wanted the viewer to see the way I followed him—how with each shot I’m trying to get closer and closer.”
About four years ago, photographer Johanna Heldebro’s father abruptly left his family in Montreal and relocated to his native Sweden. Johanna’s parents had just finalized a sudden divorce after Mr. Heldebro disclosed that he was having an affair with a mother of two who lived in Stockholm. Of course, everyone was angry and confused. But instead of writing her dad’s name 30 times on a piece of paper in black ink and burning it over a black candle, Johanna decided to use the unfortunate situation as inspiration for her artwork. She traveled to Sweden to stalk her dad and find out about his new life firsthand.
The outcome was To Come Within Reach of You (Gunnar Heldebro, Hässelby Strandväg 55, 165 65 Hässelby), a photo series that acted as her graduate thesis for New York City’s School of Visual Arts. After viewing her work, we asked Johanna if she’d allow us to publish some of the images in Vice. She agreed and even did us one better by granting us an interview about the whole ordeal.
Vice: How did you end up stalking your dad?
Johanna Heldebro: My parents’ divorce happened, and my dad and I had a pretty big falling-out. I would talk to him once in a while, but I mostly severed ties with him. I knew he lived in Stockholm. I didn’t know where he had moved exactly, just that he lived with his girlfriend and her two kids. A couple of years passed and one time when he was in New York for business we got lunch. I had my camera with me, and I ended up following him after we said good-bye. What were you hoping to discover?
I wanted to see what he did when he was by himself. That was the inspiration for the project, and then I started looking him up on the internet. Using satellite images, I found out where his house was located. I did research and started traveling back and forth between New York and Sweden, photographing him over a period of eight or nine months. And he had no idea you were tailing him?
None. I really wanted to be able to watch him without him being able to put on a mask or act a certain way. I didn’t feel like I knew him at all because of the things that had happened between him and my mom and me during the divorce. I guess I was kind of expecting to see him living this wild, exciting life. If you don’t mind me asking, why did your parents get a divorce?
Basically my dad just decided that he didn’t want anything to do with us. He decided that he wasn’t living the life that he wanted to live. He realized he didn’t like my mom at all. Right before Christmas ’05 he was totally fine, then over the holidays something happened. He fell when he was out dancing with my mom or something. After that he just got cranky. In February he didn’t come on this family trip we had planned for my mom’s birthday. About a month later he said he wanted a divorce and then, after my mom went to Sweden to try and save their marriage, it turned out that he was in a relationship with this woman he worked with. I don’t know how long that relationship went on. He claims that it started recently, but it could have been going on for years as far as we know. Is your mom now living in Sweden too?
Yeah, she didn’t really have a choice. She couldn’t stay in Montreal by herself because she wasn’t able to work there without a visa; she was pretty financially dependent on my dad. So how many times did you go to Sweden with the intent of following him around?
Three times. I would just take the train out to where he lived when I knew that no one would be home.
“I sectioned the projects into chapters like a book. Each chapter has a title, and the one that includes this photo is called ‘My Father From a Distance.’ The second chapter, ‘Finding My Way Inside,’ is about me entering the house. I was curious about what it was going to look like. Was it going to look like my house? Were there going to be pictures of me?”
Did you tell your mom about what you were doing? What did she think about it?
Yeah, she thought it was really funny. How did you prepare for the photos? Were you running around Stockholm looking for hiding places?
Well, my dad and his girlfriend live together, so when I knew no one would be there I went and explored the neighborhood and photographed around the house. I wanted to get a feel for where I could stand without being seen. That was the first time I took photos of him, and during my next trip I went to his work and walked around. There was a lot of waiting. It was a lot less fun and exciting than you would think. Did you use a telephoto lens?
Yeah, but what I used depended on whether I was expecting him or not. When I had time, I would photograph whatever I was curious about around Stockholm. When he showed up, I would switch to my telephoto lens so I could keep my distance and not be discovered. What did you hope to learn by doing this?
I guess I was trying to find some sort of answer to why he left my mom. I figured that he was with a 25-year-old or something like that, but that’s not what I discovered. I found out that he had an almost identical life to the one he had with my family, except with different children and a different woman who was basically the same age as my mother. Did you have to literally break into the house, or was the door unlocked?
No, no, my older sister let me in. She’s lived in Sweden for a while. She has a better relationship with my father than I do. I also have a younger brother. What did your professor say when you proposed this project as your graduate thesis?
At first she thought I was totally nuts for taking the risk of going so far away and hoping to build my entire thesis for grad school on it. I think she was concerned that it wouldn’t pan out, and I never thought it would go as well as it did. Has your dad seen the photos?
I had to tell him because he was planning to attend my graduation, where the work would be displayed. I explained what I had done, and he had an obvious reaction—he was pretty pissed off and disappointed at first. I think he’s a little bit sick and tired of the divorce still being an issue, but at the same time I think he was partly flattered that I had an interest in his life because I had told him I didn’t want anything to do with him. So he eventually came around and accepted what you did?
Yeah, I think he’s been a good sport about it, but we still don’t have a very close relationship. That’s not specifically because of this project, though.
“These are pictures I found on a shelf in the house of myself, my brother, Erik, and my sister, Sofie. I was inside for about 25 minutes total.”
“This was one of the first pictures I took of my dad. I followed him to his office, which is part of a larger, mall-like building in the suburbs of Stockholm. He’s eating alone in the food court, surrounded by other businesspeople.
“This is my dad walking back to his office after lunch.”
“I visited the house a few times at night, when I knew he would be alone and just doing chores and relaxing.”
“This is one of the photos I took from the veranda outside the window. Here he’s painting the kitchen.”
“A couple of days later I went back and he was home alone again. Here he’s filling up a pitcher to water the plants.”
“Someone called him while I was outside, and the funniest thing was that he was microwaving soup the entire time. It should only take a minute or two to warm up soup, but he must’ve had it in there for over 30 minutes.”
“He was also using the computer that night. I’m pretty sure he was just checking emails and putting some music on, but he closed all the windows when he got up from his desk so I don’t really know what was going on. It’s kind of an open area without light, so the screen was the only bright spot.”
“One day he just took his motor scooter out for a minute and came right back. I think he had to reposition it in the garage or something.”
“I knew my dad liked to run, so when I was doing my internet research I looked for a place where he might go for a jog. And, luckily, he did.”
“This is the end of the final chapter of the project, which followed him running and now shows that he’s gone.”