Swedish photographer Hannah Modigh recently spent two months living in a motel in St. Charles, Virginia. She fell in with a group of kids there, started shooting them, and ended up making one of the best-looking documentary series we’ve seen in years. But why are the photos so pretty, even though she was in one of the poorest regions of America? “Lots of photographers decide to portray things as harsh and ugly,” Hannah tells us. “I don’t want to do that. I’d rather go to a place that might be rough and try to find beauty.”
A good and noble cause, this Hannah has. And she pulled it off.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HANNAH MODIGH
28-year-old Hannah Modigh grew up in Madras, India, but now lives in Stockholm. She's known she was going to be a photographer ever since she was 13 and got her first camera from her mom. So far she's brought it to several faraway places, where she'll head off on her own to do things like document 13-year-old heroin addicts or Danish sex workers. In her spare time Hannah does volunteer work in a Stockholm's homeless shelters. She has spent so much time surrounded by poverty, fear, and loneliness that we were a little bit surprised when we first met her and she looked like a tiny, cute version of Jennifer Lopez or someone.
Vice: Where are you from?
I grew up in India, in Madras. My dad worked there for UNICEF.
What led you to Appalachia?
Maybe this will sound strange, but I wanted to photograph white people. I just wanted to portray that kind of poverty. You see the poverty of black Americans a lot and right now I’m not drawn to that. Maybe I identify more with this. So I went to St. Charles in Virginia partly because there is a history of deeply entrenched poverty, and partly because it's beautiful.
It’s not just the land that’s pretty, everyone is really beautiful in your pictures. It's almost like Chloe styled everyone.
Ha ha, I guess I prefer beauty. Lots of people take photos of everyday situation that show things as harsh and ugly. I’d rather go to a place that is rough and try to find the beauty in the people. And I also believe that it's easier to embrace the content if the picture looks beautiful. I don’t like shoving a message in people’s faces.
You were there living in a motel by yourself for two months. Was it lonely?
I'm sure it was, but I suppressed all of that. I watched a lot of TV and drank a lot of wine. But that's also what gets you motivated to force yourself onto people. I could go to someone’s house, at any time, in the middle of the night, knock on the door and go, "Hey, what are you guys doing?" You don't do that if you're not lonely.
Would you try to get them to do anything specific or just tag along for whatever they were up to?
What they did for fun was what I did for fun. The people I met were my friends, and I would sometimes give myself free time too. That meant that I didn't have to take pictures. I always brought my pocket camera, but I wasn't there to take pictures. I could relax and get drunk or whatever.
Your project is called “Hillbilly Heroin, Honey,” in reference to the popularity of Oxycontin. Did you do drugs too?
Sometimes you have to keep some kind of distance, you can't immerse yourself completely in someone’s life. When I tried drugs it was in order to be able to see things from their side, to be able to understand what the people who took them felt like—but I did way smaller doses than everybody around me.
Do you ever feel weird taking part in the lives of others, and then just picking yourself up and walking away?
It is. I was thinking very different thoughts when I came back to Sweden again. I was thinking a lot about how I wanted to live my life. I felt distanced from my boyfriend and my friends. But then after a while everything goes back to normal again. When you go away like that, you see so many things. It can make you sick.
Did you get in any trouble in Virginia?
Thinking back, I might've been a little naive. I’d go home with old men by myself and things like that. Sometimes I had to say, "You need to take a step back now.” But nothing serious happened. Well, there was one time. I was in a house where a lot of people used to gather to do drugs. There was a young boy and his mom was there too. Suddenly someone started abusing his mother, and the boy went completely nuts. He threw himself onto the person who was beating his mom, and just started kicking and hitting furiously. No one in the room stepped between them, so I did. The boy was hyped up on adrenaline and incredibly strong. It felt weird afterward when I walked away from there with blood on my clothes.
Your pictures are so intimate, it's like you’re not even in the room. What do you do to make people that comfortable?
I try to take pictures in situations where people aren't paying attention. I usually use a camera tripod. I’m not great at working with a flashlight, but I still want sharp images, so using a tripod is the best way for me to take the photographs that I want. So my tripod is always standing there, somewhere in the room. When I come in I rig it, set the focus and aim the camera, then I sit down and talk to people and try to get them to tell me about their lives. Sometimes I think—I mean I can speak English—but sometimes it helped that people thought I didn't really understand what they were talking about. I could just sit there quietly.
What's the first thing you say to someone you want to photograph?
I used to say that I was researching the area. Then maybe I would ask them where they lived, and if I could come home with them and take a look at their place. Not many would say no. But there were rumors about me being from the CIA, that I was there to infiltrate, and people said to watch out for me. To me it seems funny that the CIA would hire a Swedish girl who pretended to be a photographer as their secret agent.
What was the weirdest thing that happened to you in St. Charles?
The culture is very different. Many things seemed weird just because of that. But going to a snake-handling sermon was pretty strange. The church was completely divided. Women and men sat at separate sides of the room, all the women had long hair and long dresses, no makeup and so on. During the entire sermon they played this incredibly annoying, loud music. It felt like I was being brainwashed. There was a woman who was crying and said that her husband was beating her, and everyone said, "We will pray for you." I was just, "No, don’t pray for her, you should leave him!"
That’s pretty harsh.
But that's what a lot of people choose from, you either do drugs, or go to church. It gives your life meaning. A lot of people I talked to think that this life is just a trial that they are going through in order to be allowed into heaven.
At one point the priest said, "And we've got a Swedish girl in the audience!" Then he asked me what I wanted to thank God for, and I had to say, "Nothing right now."
Were there any incidents with the snakes?
This priest was new to the church, the one who was there before him, his son died from a snakebite, but he still continued as the priest. His son died, and he went on preaching. I still have to say that it was cool of them to let me take part of it. I was at another church too, a disco church.
Being a cute girl like yourself, is that an advantage or a disadvantage in your job?
In St. Charles everyone’s got great big guard dogs, it says "No Trespassing" everywhere, everyone’s got a gun, and people are pretty suspicious. In those situations I think that there are fewer people who are frightened by a short girl.
What was the most fun thing that happened while you were there?
It was all kind of fun and sad at the same time. But at one point I went to Nashville on my own. It was great, great fun. Oh, I just thought of a downside to being a girl in St. Charles. I had some trouble with other girls who thought that I was after their guys. There was one guy that I shot without a shirt—not because I had told him to, he just took it off. He had a daughter with this other girl. I was going to go visit them in their home at their grandmother’s, but when I got there they were gone. The grandmother said that they had gone away to a cabin, and when I called the girl she said that I could come up if I felt like it. Then when I got there she met me in the driveway and I got a massive scolding, you know, American-style with the hand and everything. She said that there were rumors about me, that I slept with all the men in America, and she told me to stay away from her guy. When you’re in a small town it can be a really bad thing if there are rumours about you. You could get complete ostracized. I had to make some phone calls, you know, to see if she was telling the truth. But it was cool.
What do your parents think about your job?
I think that they think it's OK. I think my dad's cooler with it than my mum, but I think they both worry more than they admit to me.
Is there anything that you experience as a photographer that you won't tell them about?
We have a pretty open relationship, so I tell them almost everything. But there are some things that I spare them from.
Like when I was following a prostituted woman in Slovenia perhaps. I was with her one night, and as she drove between different spots she’d make stops at houses along the way. We stopped at one place and I waited for her in the car. I went out to grab a cigarette, and when I closed the door it locked behind me. So I was standing alone in a rough neighborhood in Slovenia at night, in the winter, in only a sweater. I was freezing. Suddenly a large group of men approached. They were heading up to the house she was in and I was just hit by the thought, “Why would they pay for something that they could get for free?” I jumped into some bushes. There were so many of them, and it took forever for them to come back down. I sat hunched in the bushes shivering and called my boyfriend, who was at Riche [a fancy bar] in Stockholm. He just said, “What are you doing? Stay in the bushes!”
Finally I called her and she told me to come up while she finished the rest of the guys. So I went up to the apartment, and being there… Somebody was just pulling his pants up, there were so many men there, their faces were red and puffy and it smelled moist. It was uncomfortable. That's one of the things that I think my parents could be spared from knowing that I’ve seen. But now they’ll know, I guess!
INTERVIEW BY ELIN UNNES