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Anders Petersen, who took the snowman picture in our Still Lifes Issue, has been taking heartbreaking, stunning black and white photos for the past 40 years. Back when he was a wee Swedish teenager, he left his quiet country home for Hamburg's sketchy red light district and shot Café Lehmitz, one of the most enduring photo stories any Swedish photographer has ever made. His work remains in the same captivating, groping spirit and his books are more collectible than serial killer hairlocks. From Back Home, Anders' collaboration with his young protégé JH Engström, won "best photo book" at last year's Arles photo festival. This year will see the beginning of City Diary; an open-ended book series featuring new images tinged with classics from his impressive body of work. Can you tell we're excited?


Vice: I figured you might be tired of giving interviews by now, seeing that you've been around for well, as long as I can remember.
Anders Petersen: Actually, I don't usually give interviews. I've given most of them in France and do you know what they ask me about there? My relationship to Christer Strömholm. They're obsessed with it.

Of course. They've got that whole patriarchal complex over there, and, before you came along, your mentor Christer Strömholm was the big name of Swedish photography.
Yes, and now poor JH Engström gets to hear the same thing. What people need to understand is that role models are constantly present, not one single sucker in this world exists on their own. Never try to fool yourself into thinking that you're not under the influence of someone who came before you. You're constantly being influenced, by everything around you and by people you encounter. In my case, one of those people was Christer.

How old were you when you guys met?
We met when I was 22, but I'd been into his photos long before I even knew they were his. Back in '65 I was interning at the Värmland Tribune--you know I am from Värmland--and stumbled upon a photo depicting a Parisian graveyard that had been covered with a very light powder snow during the night. This photographer had been lucky enough to pass by and discover that, in-between the graves, there were footsteps going in different directions. It made you see how that night, the dead had risen to mingle and hang out. It was such a literary image, posing all these questions instead of providing you with answers. I found it wonderful, and it turned out to be Christer's.


I heard that you two met when he was teaching at a photography school whose lab you used without permission, and that one day he caught you, but liked your pictures so much he took you under his wing.
Christer initiated my interest in photography and supported me. He had a magical ability to make people visible by focusing his attention on them, without dropping quasi-intellectual comments or anything like that. He would go through my contact sheets and, for every image that he liked, he'd make a very neat little C, for Christer.

But you were taking pictures even before that, when you "got the hell out of Sweden" as you refer to it, and left for Hamburg.
Yes, that's when I took the Café Lehmitz images. Being 17 and living in St. Pauli, on a street called Reeperbahn, I encountered a lot of oddities, things and customs that wouldn't fly anywhere else. I fell in love with a girl, Vanja, who was a year younger than me, and a prostitute. I wasn't exactly a choirboy either—I mean, I was a teenager living on my own in Hamburg. We were part of a larger group of people, we were probably perceived as a gang, made up of kids from all over the world. Vanja and me hung out for about six months, which taught me a lot about being under-privileged and vulnerable and having to insist on surviving, without ever compromising what you believe in. It was an experience that shaped me more than most other things.


Would you advise people to do what you did--leave their comfort zones?
I think one should be very careful about handing out advice. However, it pains me to see how talents languish and fade away. Here's how it works: the bottom of the pyramid is a really nice place to be, you're surrounded by your friends, you've got your everyday life and your family, safety—all very important things. But you're not creating any masterpieces down there. Not ever, not going to happen. In order to create masterpieces you need to go up, and once you start climbing, you change, you're not just a chilled out guy anymore. There's a lot of adrenalin involved.

And that adrenaline is what makes you dare to get into situations you'd usually avoid?
Yes. But you can't stay up there at the top of the pyramid forever, you need to learn to come down again too. My problem has always been that I disappear into the situation. I forget to take photos and I forget that I need to be a bystander, a voyeur. The camera can get you into rooms that would otherwise remain closed. All through my institutional trilogy--where I entered insane asylums, prisons and the eldercare--the camera was my ticket to enter and my excuse to stick around.

How were you first "discovered"?
Since no one takes you seriously in Sweden, I decided to leave and went to the Arles photo festival in '77. I had brought my Café Lehmitz pictures and was just looking through them in the square when this dude came up to me. "D'ya have any pictures then?" he asked. He turned out to be one of the main curators at Arles and arranged for me to hang my photos in a museum.


That's what I said. People started looking at my photos differently after that. Suddenly the publishers were lining up, and the book was released in Sweden in '82.

A lot of your photos are very private. Do people ever start bargaining with you? Like, "If I'm going to be this exposed, then you need to do the same for me"?
Yes, of course. There's nothing odd about that at all. I do things with people, not to people. I'd rather be someone's fellow man than someone's photographer. I only photograph people I identify with and, as I identify with all kinds of people, I just assume that everyone I meet is part of my family. So if I'm in Tokyo or San Francisco, I don't feel as if I'm meeting foreigners, I meet brothers and sisters. Once you understand that notion, it magically removes your problems with interaction.

And could get you into trouble too.

But you like that, right?
I get fucking triggered by it.

What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into?
I think I carry the Swedish national record in getting robbed. I've been robbed some 13 times. One of the scariest times was in Las Palmas, on the Canary Islands. Two guys came up to me going, "Take our picture." And so I did. Then they said, "Hey, what are you doing? You took our picture!"--the oldest trick in the book, I know—and went on, "You need to get rid of it." When I refused, one of the guys took out a knife and told me to give him my camera. He came closer, waving the knife at me, while the other dude started undoing my pants. I was standing with my back against the wall and he was tapping the knife against my glasses. The other guy was pulling down my pants, and by now a crowd had gathered to watch. The dude by my legs hung himself in my balls, while the guy with the knife was stabbing the blade into the front of my glasses. I grabbed my camera and pushed it against his chest so that he could just grab it and leave, and it worked.


Jesus, how do you bounce back from that?
Oh, you always bounce back. In such situations, the main thing is to not panic, to deflate the situation and to erase the perception of being a victim.

Look at you full of good advice, and you're a teacher now too.
Yes, it's wonderful. I've always liked looking at other people's photos.

Anyone's photos in particular?
You've got great young photographers like Marcus Erixsson, this young kid Johan Emanuelsson and JH, of course. What it all comes down to is sticking to it. And you need to be passionate and obsessed.

Well, it's easy to tell someone with talent to "stick to it," but that person might be struggling with doubt, late rent, and parents wanting to know why the hell he or she still doesn't have a job.
You're absolutely right. For me it was always easy, as I've never known anything else. I've always had this compulsion to ask questions and nothing could ever compete with that. That's what you need to survive, it doesn't matter how talented you are--I mean it helps if you at least have a smidgeon of talent--but if you don't have that need, this job will break you. You'll never be able to pull through.

The first set of Anders Petersen's open-ended book series, City Diary will be out this fall on Steidl.