B. 1965 in Sweden, Ingvar Kenne is a photographer who splits his time between Sydney and New York.
His work includes CITIZEN, which opened at the National Portrait Gallery and The Hedgehog and the Foxes. His work The Ball (2015-2017) examines Australia's Bachelor and Spinster Balls as a culturally unique coming-of-age ritual.
You have been a photographer for over 2 decades. What was it that first compelled you to start taking photographs?
Going all the way back, it started with my interest in bird watching as a young teenager. After a while I wanted to find a way to capture what I saw through the binoculars onto film. My dad setup his old darkroom stuff in the sauna and that was the start of it all. The photography became the passion and I spent less time walking the woods. For many years it was just a hobby around studies and work until I was lucky to get into a Bachelor of Arts photography major at University of Gothenburg. Maybe that was the point when I became a photographer, since I have done nothing else since.
The Ball takes a look at the alcohol fueled coming-of-age rituals in Outback Australia. How did you go about assimilating into such an obscure subculture? What was it that drew you toward this subject matter?
My friend Simon Harsent is familiar with what I do and suggested I have a look at Bachelor & Spinsters Balls – rural gatherings originally designed to overcome distance and loneliness in the bush. I had previously documented Karaoke bars in several countries, taking a look at horse racing culture in the project A Day At The Races and published a book (The Hedgehog And The Foxes) on a couple of days spent with adult film star Ron Jeremy and his relationship to his fans through a series of parties – all projects in settings with people congregating in dense numbers, bottle in hand.
With the Balls, it became immediately clear that these country throngs were to me completely alien. I have no real interest in alcohol, or cultural events based on it, though I seem to end up in that space frequently. The anarchy in movement and intensity of repeated and heightened human emotions is spellbinding and keep asking for further scrutiny.
Also realising that, I have never been capable of photographing the familiar very well. It turns out to be quite the opposite. I find myself attracted to the complete unknown – when I am the migrant, in life and in what I photograph. Usually there is a large dose of fear attached, of committing to be involved in what I am yet to witness. The role of the photographer becomes the prime (perhaps only) reason I am there, as well as being a shelter. I can be on the inside, while maintaining a strangers status.
The way you have shot this series is different from your past works, with flash utilized to create a brutally clear image of the debauchery. What was your decision behind this style? Were you accepted as a facet of the happenings, or more of an outsider looking in?
It is not totally new approach as mentioned above. The previous project had a similar visual style, with flash on camera being right amongst the action. Though if I am known for anything I guess it is my portrait work in CITIZEN and Chasing Summer over the last 25 years documenting people from 60 odd countries in context of their environment, aware of camera.
I have no clear definition of style before I attempt anything new. My process is a very insular pursuit, like I am working in a private vacuum. The photographs, and the conversation they engage me in afterwards, is what carry the process forward and the only thing that really interest me. The images all have to hold up to my further scrutiny in isolation. I found myself gravitate to when the square frame seem to find a moment of suspended harmony, chaos paused, without a singular way of viewing it. Here, the multitude of bare human desires, despairs and loose limbs on display kept on coming at a frantic pace. The safety in numbers, their awareness of me, momentarily forgotten. I feel a bit reckless in that I don’t harbour much awareness of the cause and effect through the process in taking the photographs. The narrative is coming to me at the very end of the game, camera down, sifting through work and creating sequences, hence the construction of why and what has been accomplished, if any, is in some ways lacking in care and created in theory after the fact. Any attempt on my part to outline a rationale always falls way off my own mark, and it feel dishonest reading back the failed bid of a hypothesis on the page. In the end the conversation with the photographs alone, seem satisfactorily absolute.
In the case of Bachelor and Spinsters Balls and the nature of the times we are in where the subject matter is a generation who wants to be seen, tag and share their experiences, almost like a new currency, 95 % of the images I took was for the crowd - I became part of the dance and invited to document anything I wanted, my role as a photographer constantly called upon. And by sharing some of their images on facebook a level of mutual trust was built.
If I would have chosen to shoot on film I am sure a great deal of suspicion would have occurred to why I was there and what images I “took’ away without them having any knowledge of what they were. And beyond the obvious financial cost to shoot 10,000 plus images over two years on film, capturing The Ball digitally was the only way for me.
The environment at these events are obviously intense and I certainly had a hard time to fathom what I was witnessing the first time I showed up. You walk into a dusty show ground of up to 1500 people and the spectacle is frightening. Being much older and clearly not there to party, I was tested and at the receiving end of much attention. My level of anxiety always turned out to be unwarranted and I felt totally accepted into the crowd. The subculture seemed sharply defined, the bond and acceptance complete. I can hardly recall any aggression amongst the dwellers and certainly none towards me, which surprised me, they are in it together, implied rules appear set.
What projects are you undertaking at the moment?
The past year has been a time of wrapping up several projects, so I haven’t spent much time labouring on a complete new body of work. I have several long term projects on the go and CITIZEN, for one, is ticking on, as it has for the past 20 odd years and I look forward to extend the narrative, without pause and urge. I enjoy repeating the criterion of the square, the universal becoming clearer by duplicating the encounter of the foreign, maybe even experiencing a modified version of the anthropological event called First Contact. I find that by the continuous adding to the diversity of place and person, while applying the same approach and parameters, it gradually becomes more and more of a democratic equaliser.
For about 8 years, together with three close friends, I have also chipped away on a feature drama film called The Land, as director and cinematographer. We have recently finished it and starting to enter festivals. It was shot in the most private place I know – a piece of bush I have, surrounded by National Park north of Sydney. I have been going there for 15 or so years building a rudimentary shack. It was a very slow process teaching myself how to handle a chainsaw, without access to electricity or running water nor any prior knowledge of what to really do and in the process learning to exercise a healthy dose of patience while isolated in God’s country. The photographs I took out there were part of that meditative experience. Since it has now become an accidental film set, I am hoping to put together another book – The Land, The Film, The Set Build, 2005-2018 - as a companion piece to the motion picture.
What is your favourite film stock to use?
When I jumped on a motorbike in the mid 90’s to travel around the world I grabbed a couple of hundred rolls of FUJI NPH 400 ISO film. I have stayed faithful to that film stock ever since.