Marcel (on the right) with an Angel. Photo by Hugo Lauritz Jenssen
Having spent the last five years following members of Norway's Hells Angels, this year photographer Marcel Leliënhof put together a book called Helvetes Engler - Hells Angels MC Norway. The book was released in May, and Leliënhof's photos were also exhibited as a part of the celebrations for Norway's Independence and the Norwegian Constitution's official 200-year anniversary.
I called Marcel to find out how he charmed his way into such a media-shy group.
How did this project come together?
I have always had an interest in subcultures. Before starting this one, I travelled around the US, documenting the cowboy and ranch environment and that put me in contact with several bikers. I have been riding a motorcycle since I was 18, and I am a member of a biker club in Oslo called Taurus MC – so I've always been interested in one way or the other.
The Hells Angels have a specific lifestyle and a historic past that I find really intriguing. The initial idea behind the project was to make a photo book but I soon realised that text was actually just as essential as the photos themselves. This is where Hugo Lauritz Jenssen (co-writer of the book) came into the picture. When I undertook the project, I didn't realise that it would take me five years to put together – the process took much longer than anyone involved could ever have expected. But the extra hours only meant that I got to know the Angels and they got to know me.
Was it hard to earn their trust?
Well, I started by approaching the members of different chapters in Norway but it took time for them to fully understand what I wanted to do. They have had some bad experiences with different media outlets in the past, and I needed to reassure them that I didn't have any sort of hidden agenda. Some of the guys have personal baggage and a past that they don't necessarily want to talk about.
I tried, as best as I could, to communicate my vision and after some time I managed to convince them. When HAMC Norway agreed to let me work on my project, we had to ask permission from Hells Angels Europe. That took three years – and then we had to take it to Hells Angels MC World, who have the final say in these matters. It's a very democratic process – approval from all the chapters was necessary to get the project started.
It must have been hard to ignore the fact that the Hells Angels have been associated with illegal activities. Did you have any prejudices before starting the project?
Naturally I had my own assumptions and prejudices about who they were before I got to know them – mostly coming from what I had read of Hunter S. Thompson's work in the 1980s and what's been written in the media. This also went both ways; I made assumptions about them and they made assumptions about me.
I was proven wrong in some of my preconceptions and I think they were also surprised about me. It was important to tell the stories that aren't being told in the media, so as not to reinforce other people's prejudices.
Speaking of prejudice and assumptions, were there any wow-moments or anything that surprised you about the bikers?
The whole stereotype that they are a homogenous group turned out to be completely false. They are very much their own individuals, with some of them being surprisingly vain.
They were also very organised and their club houses appeared surprisingly clean and neat, something I hadn't expected beforehand. Everything was just so in order. Still, the major surprise came in the contrast between members' lives, preferences and attitudes. Some, for instance, refused to drink anything other than expensive vintage wine, some didn’t drink at all, some were family guys and some didn’t have a family at all. Within their sub-group they really represented a broad cross section of society.
You said some Hells Angels are vain and a lot of the photos are portraits. Were any of them nervous about their looks?
There were definitely some guys who weren't too happy with having their picture taken, and weren't very patient during the process. Not everyone likes posing and I think you can see that in the book.
You learn to adapt, though. You never know what you will get when travelling from chapter to chapter. Some guys wouldn't have their photo taken at all, but as the project progressed and I showed them some of the other shoots, they changed their mind and approached me themselves.
Given that you love motorbikes and that you spent five years with them, did you consider joining?
No, I am already a member of another biker club. Our gang is about drinking beer and riding bikes. Hells Angels is a lifestyle. It's something that was interesting to document and – to a certain extent – be part of, but I am happy with my club and my life as it is. That said, I am sure that after five years, they were pretty happy about getting rid of me as well.
I guess you drank a few beers with them over the years?
Actually, the first time I visited a HAMC chapter I ended up sitting at the bar with one of the oldest members and discussing my project. He said that there was no way they'd make a book so I tried to drink him under the table. We drank so much tequila, that by the end I was sick as a dog and ended up falling down the stairs. They certainly have a sense of humour as well; When the book was going to print, they played an April Fool's joke and told my publisher that they were backing out.
Yikes. Thanks Marcel.
Click through for more of Marcel's photos: