Faraway Nearby: A Talk With Jan Töve
Over the course of ten years Jan Töve has been visiting the town he grew up in for his latest body of work. The photographer decided to look at the landscape he felt he knew best for Faraway Nearby but found himself only learning things he never did in his career as an artist. The images are an honest and beautiful look at the vast land and locals of the place so close to him. His study of his home even drew him to move back to the more peaceful life of the Swedish countryside.
The images have now been released in a book form for the first time published by Hatje Cantz. We spoke to Jan about his work and his home of Västergötland.
Where did your interest in the photographic medium come from?
I started photography as an extra subject in elementary school, but my interest in photography at that time would have come from earlier days. I remember that I really loved to go through my parents' photo albums with black and white pictures. It was such a happy experience and at the same time so mysterious in a way, to see frozen moments from a time when I did not exist.
Interestingly you studied to become a film cameraman, but dropped out to pursue a different course. Now your work is mostly, if not entirely, stills based. What made you less keen on moving image?
I realised quite quickly that making movies is a costly process that requires finance. Still image photography is more independent. Movies are a flow of pictures, from A to Z so still photography is, in a way, a stop of motion and time… To hold on to something as long as you wish. This fascination has never faded. But for me it is important to let still images be part of a narrative flow.
Your work focuses a lot on man altered landscapes, and it seems you spend time seeking the places where human society and nature meets. Do you think growing up in Västergötland, Sweden, and being in such a vast landscape was the influence behind this?
Yes, in a way, but more importantly I have a background as a photographer of the natural world. I portrayed nature as a distant thing from man. I felt like a somehow reach the end of the road. I didn't feel honest either to myself or what I photographed. My interest in nature's evolution and environmental issues was deepened and I began to see a relationship that opened up new important opportunities for me as a photographer.
Your latest body of work, Faraway Nearby, sees you return home to Västergötland. Why, after years of doing photographic work in various other locations, did you want to focus on home?
In my eagerness to discover the world and to photograph in remote places I became home-blind. I thought that the answers to what I was looking for could be found far away. And then, as I mentioned previously, I came to the end of the road, I ended up feeling depressed. To get out of it I opened my eyes. I saw things that had been hidden... It's hard to describe. What I had been searching for was suddenly in front of my nose. I started traveling in the landscape that I thought I knew and it became a new and very joyful discovery trip.
You’ve been photographing the work for ten years. Have you seen the environment change in that time? Was this something you wanted to reflect in the images?
Much has changed. Not only since I grew up but also in the ten years I worked on the project. If you look at the landscape it has become more and more over grown. Lots of farmers have quit and the farms have closed down. Where I live there were 53 dairy farmers in the late 1950s but today there are none so of course, that affects the landscape. Without animals the landscape closes and darkens. The forest is also expanding. In addition, house prices have fallen in some regions, which causes people living in apartment houses to be able to afford their own house and move out, but there are also no jobs in the area. They have to commute. Many shops have closed and social services have deteriorated in many ways. The worst hits villages that are far from urban areas, but there are also exceptions. In the region I live, near Gothenburg, young families have moved out into the countryside. Small stores have opened and sell local produced food and you can find cafés and cultural activities.
Did your time photographing your home teach you new things about the environment and people?
Yes, the social codes are a little different. People who live in the countryside their entire lives often make spontaneous visits to each other, drink a cup of coffee and talk for a while. As a returner, I am more involved with similar people who have also returned after education, work, love or moved to the country from the bigger cities. People in the countryside show their curiosity more openly. They can stand staring at you when you pass or stop. It never happens in the city. I think there is also an unprecedented fear and suspicion of what breaks the pattern and the norm, but when you get to know people, you soon discover that it's not very deep. The warmth and openness that I have often recieved are both surprising and pleasing.
Talk to us about the photographic process behind the images.
I have a slow working method. The basic idea for the project is there, but I don't specifically plan what I want to photograph. I embrace the unpredictable. I see myself as an observer with plenty of time. I remain in a place to see if something happens. I like to talk to people who pass by. I move a lot around the landscape, on foot or by car. Even the equipment I'm working with requires slowness which is large format (8x10) film or medium format with digital back.
The work has been published in a book. Was this always the end goal for you?
In a way, yes. I love the photo book as medium and buy a lot of books with others work in as often as I can. I will also be having an exhibition shortly.
Looking back at your photographic career, and even just time being alive, what’s the hardest lesson you’ve learnt?
You should never let others down, but it's also important not to disappoint yourself. The price for that is high. I have learned to listen to my inner voice and just do what I feel comfortable with. Life is to short, you know! If you look in your cars mirror it says "objects are closer then they appear." Think of that... I have learned that what you seek may be closer than you think.