Artist Blog

Every week an artist whose single image was published by Der Greif is given a platform in which to blog about contemporary photography.

Sissel Thastum – Interview

Feb 27, 2015 - Andrei Nacu

I am here when you are here To my Mother and my Home »Through the nature, the landscape and the feminine form, »I am here when you are here« mediates a close and intimate relationship between mother and daughter. It is a bond that is found within the return to the familial; the home and the mother. Portrayed through a melancholic language our relationship to each other, to our age, our gender and our identity become underlying themes. The essential presence of nature in connection with the body calls up the notion of a cultural and symbolic identification, emphasising the feeling of the ‘Nordic’ ambience. Within the return to the familial, an uncanny presence of both attraction and estrangement is evident. These elements enable a search for memory and, consequently, identity. Julia Kristeva connects this search with what Freud named the ‘umbilicus of the dream’ and she essentially states that it is “…something unnameable, which becomes, none the less, the source of our investigation”. This investigation of, and search for memory and identity; what we cannot talk about, what we try push out of our sight and out of our mind, therefore becomes the vital undertone of the images. I am here when you are here is a personal project made between my mother, my home and I.« Sissel Thastum, 2014


I had the privilege to ask a few questions about this project not only to Sissel but also to her mother, Line. There is a long list of photographers who portrayed their family in a multitude of ways and for different reasons. What pushed you to chose this topic and start this project? Have you been inspired or influenced by other artists' works on this subject? Sissel: When I started this project I was in the process of finding out why I wanted to photograph at all. I was exploring the importance of it in my own life, trying to find out what it meant to me to be a photographer. I came to the conclusion that you need to have a personal engagement in everything you do. Not only for photography, but for anything to matter, you have to care about it. The thing I care about most is my family, so it was natural to me that this was what I needed to photograph. In the beginning it was not only my mother that I photographed but also my father and brother, but it quickly became clear that I needed to only focus on my relationship with my mother. During the process of photographing I never really looked much at other photographers work about family, not intentionally at least. I think my influences have more to do with a specific approach to photography than a theme. There was one book though, that a friend showed to me relatively early in my process. This book was “In the shadow of things” by Leoni Hampton – a beautiful book, that I feel quite related to despite that her situation with her mother is completely different than mine. The mother-daughter relationship usually plays a crucial role in a woman’s self-definition. By turning your investigative eye upon your mother in this way, at this moment in your lives and by trying to understand her, have you ever felt that you are actually searching for your present or future self? Sissel: Yes, through our relationship and the fact that my mother agreed to be photographed in such an intimate way, the project was a way for me to define myself, and it still is. I did not clearly state that to myself from the start of course, I just did what felt right and important to me, I was just guided by my intuition. It was only later in the process that I started to narrow down what it all about. So even though it is obvious, I was so much in the moment of photographing that I did not spend time on analyzing myself. You combine images images with you mother and landscapes, making the presence of nature very strong felt in the whole project. The interaction between the human body and the natural elements feel delicate but relentlessly in the same time. How important is for you this Nordic environment and the relationship with nature in general? Sissel: For me this is a part of my home and an important part of how I see my mother. Really what this relationship with the nature means has to do with a connection to something uncensored and real, that allows you to be yourself. I have grown up seeing how my mother has valued this and used this therapeutically, and I recognize that in my pictures. For me this environment and the nature in general represents a space to just be. When the child is photographing his parents the social norm is reversed, new power dynamics take place and the roles are inverted. I'm sure you must be very grateful for your mother’s willingness to reveal herself in these moments of great vulnerability. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of creating an identity for your mother through these pictures, or that you are using or betraying her in a way by taking them? Sissel: I never thought of my photos as creating my mothers identity. I am telling a story that I feel has importance, not just for me, but for others too. It is not about factual truth, it deals with emotions and psychology; all these intangible elements of a relationship and of being human. I have always done this from a place of love and trust, so I never felt that I betrayed or used anyone. That is not to say that it has not been emotionally challenging or overwhelming, for both of us I think. I remember in the very beginning of the project I was home for a weekend and I had gone to wake my mother up to photograph her. Lying in bed we started talking about a very emotional issue for both of us and she started crying. For a second I was unsure if I should continue, not because I wasn’t allowed to photograph her crying, but because I did not want her to feel that I wasn’t there for her 100% . I didn’t want her to feel secondary to the photographs. But it was fine, she knew that I was there for her, and it turned out to be a really positive moment being both sad and grateful at the same time, and the fact that I wanted to photograph her ended up emphasizing my dedication to her in a way. Even though I have been taking the lead this project, initiating it, it has always been a collaboration between us, even when if it was subconscious. Thinking about the value that is given by time to a photograph, what do you think these images would mean to you after a number of years? How will these photographs, and the process of creating them, will influence your own memories and experiences? Sissel: I already see my memories in the photographs, and I think this will only increase, as that is how time works on photography. But I also realize that I have been using already existing memories while photographing. How can you not, when you photograph your childhood home and your mother, or your family? Your connection to them consists in big part of both implicit and explicit memories - this is how we act and react to our surroundings, through conscious and subconscious recognition related to our memories. I think that I will only come to appreciate these photos and what the mean to me more and more. It is a proof of what we have together. Not only because of the physical photos, but because of the fact that they could be created the way they have.
What were your initial thoughts about being photographed by your daughter? And how do you relate with these images now? Line: My first thought was that it would be a good way for me to support my daughters development as a photographer, letting her get so close to another person both emotional and physical. We are very comfortable in each other’s company, and it felt natural for me doing this with her. However, I did not consider exposing myself “to the world”. I was just there, and then it became a kind of shared project, that made us even closer. You ask how I relate to the images now. First of all I think it is very beautiful and tender pictures, sometimes sad, maybe lonesome, strong – touching for me, to see myself through my daughters eyes. At first I thought; “this is only a part of me, where are the other parts, that as I see of myself”, But then I realized, that this was the part Sissel wanted to show, an important part that she saw, the part that was found while being together in this project. It takes a lot of courage to reveal yourself and your vulnerabilities regarding ageing, sexuality, physical and emotional fragility. There were any moments when you felt that some things are to personal to be exposed in this way? How did you negotiate these boundaries with yourself and with your daughter in the same time? Line: Actually, I did not feel that the process or the pictures became to close or to personal. And we didn’t discuss the boundaries. I feel that Sissel has handled this project, and treated me with great empathy. Another reason that I didn’t find it to personal is because I think I am an open person. I have never been uncomfortable about myself, my age ore the way I am. Off cause, I am not always satisfied with myself, but I am good enough as I am, if I am, allays trying to be and do things at good as I can. I have never been taught to hide myself away; or felt that I should be different from what I am. I have been growing up in a time and a place, where it was just fine to be natural, and not necessary to hide your feelings or body away and make it fit into a certain body ideal. Finally, I think that we all are emotional, vulnerable beings, sometimes strong, sometimes week. We are getting older all of us. To show these parts of me is to recognize them and to tell other people: It is all right to be what you are. There were any things that you have discovered about yourself in this process? Do you think this experience changed in any way the relationship between you too? Line: An important thing I realized through the process and the pictures is how much I am related to the nature. All though I use less time in the nature these days because of my job and other project, the connection to the nature still is essential to me! The process have also made me reflect on the parts of me that Sissel brings forward, and the atmosphere that are connected to them. The atmosphere in the pictures touch certain parts of me, and feelings in me, and in the same time I, as a person, and as her mother, must have been source and inspiration for Sissel to express just these atmospheres. – I think the process has develop the both of us and our relationship. You had the chance to be on both sides in the mother-daughter relationship. What is your best memory from being a daughter and what is your best memory from being a mother? Line: I have to be a little general on this question, because there is not only one best memory… What I remember as the best thing about being a daughter, is to be loved as I am and been taught that women are strong! To learn about empathy, aesthetics and creativity from my mother. Mirroring myself in her and become aware of which ways I wanted to be like her and which I definitely did not want to be like her. The best thing about being the mother of Sissel - and mother at all, is to have the opportunity to love unconditionally and to give. Seeing your children embrace the values I try to pass on: Trying to be a decent person to others, to the world around us and to themselves - even if I as a mother have made lots of mistakes. But you learn all the time, also from the difficulties of being a mother. It's great to see my daughter grow into an empathic, creative, socially engaged and responsible human being. Although I think it's more about which person you are than what gender you are, I nevertheless have a female-solidarity with my daughter. You are a mother all your life, but mother in different ways. For me it has been a development from the adult protector to be equal friends – That is a gift!
Sissel Thastum, born in Denmark 1987, is educated at Fatamorgana, The Danish School of Art and Documentary Photography. She resumed her education at FAMU, Film and TV school of Performing Arts in Prague in 2011 and graduated in 2014 from the department of Documentary Photography at The University of Wales, Newport. She recently took part in the »Wish You Were Here« group exhibition at Ffotogallery in Cardiff, Wales and has been invited to exhibit at the »Pingyao International Photography Festival« 2014 in China. In 2013 she received the »Reginald Salisbury Travel Award« toward the making of the work »I am here when you are here«. In 2012/13 she was received Marie Langhoff's Artist grant, Danish Photographic Society grant as well as Anna & Jens Grum’s grant, all towards her artistic studies.