Ilja C. Hendel was born in Frankfurt / Main, Germany in 1971. He began his career in photography in 1997 doing reportage and portraiture for a regional newspaper in southern Germany. He also has experience as a picture editor for the German nationwide newspaper die tageszeitung. In 2006 he moved from Germany to the Norwegian capital of Oslo, where he currently lives. He mainly takes photographs for companies, corporate publishing houses and leading magazines in Scandinavia and Germany. Besides his daily work, he also does photographic projects for the German Goethe-Institut on language and science.
In 2012 he received the Hansel-Mieth Prize, together with the journalist Nicola Abe, for his first Bastøy reportage published in Der Spiegel. A reportage about “wood detectives” for the German Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection was recently awarded the best reportage at “Deutscher Preis für Wissenschaftsfotografie” His latest reportage on Bastøy Prison Island appears in the latest issue of LFI, which he describes in his own words below.
Q: Can you provide some background information on your Bastøy Prison Island reportage for LFI? What’s it about? What inspired the idea?
A: I did a reportage on Bastøy Prison Island for the German news magazine Der Spiegel in 2010. On this island, located in the Oslo Fjord in Norway, are 115 inmates, punished for serious crimes, guarded by at least four unarmed guards. When I talked to these guys, I met some of the big names in Norwegian crime history. At the same time, I was very impressed by Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, chief of the prison, and how he treats the inmates: “I treat them with respect,” he said, “and don’t ask about their deeds. If they treat me the same way, they can succeed in society after their release.”
But this place, which can look like an idyllic society, is a tough place for those living there because many of them have to learn to be responsible for their lives for the first time. And that is not always easy after a criminal career and many years in a closed prison. The overall aim is to release them as citizens that can be part of the society and not getting into crime again. The numbers prove the concept.
A couple of weeks after my first visit on the island, I got an email of one of the guards. “Are you coming back?” Quite a strange question. Since then, I had been thinking about visiting again and then I got the opportunity in cooperation with LFI.
Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot your reportage for LFI?
A: I used the new Leica M with an Elmarit 28 mm ASPH., a Summicron 35 mm ASPH. and a Summicron 50 mm.
Q: What made this equipment suitable for this project? What characteristics do you enjoy?
A: To take photographs in a place, where in the beginning nobody wants to be photographed, the gear is quite important. The M is this friendly small thing, especially when it is used with small lenses, and not the huge black box covering your face while you try to connect with someone. But still, the M is not discreet. Every time I am out taking photographs with the M or M8.2, I get questions about “What kind of camera is that?” or “Is it a Leica?” But I like it. It opens opportunities when the potential model is interested in the photographers gear.
Beside this I could not repeat the stunning quality of the M-System, especially of the M. I feel that I control the camera and not that the camera controls me with too many programs.
Q: I presume you had official permission to shoot at Bastøy, but how did you gain the trust of the prisoners, and get them to cooperate with your documentary project?
A: I met them with the same respect and politeness as I do when taking pictures of ministers, businesspeople, artists or other ordinary people. Besides that, the M attracts attention. Not only on Bastøy, but almost every time I am out taking pictures with it. People get curious and start to ask questions about the camera. It’s good start to open up with them.
Q: Of the Leica M lenses you used for this project, which one did you find the most useful, and when did you use the others? Also, since these images were evidently shot in natural daylight, what was your typical ISO setting, and did you shoot any pictures in low light at high ISOs?
A: In this project I mainly used the 28 mm and the 50 mm. The 28 mm was very useful to show the surroundings. One of my intentions was to show the island as an arena for the inmates. The 50 mm was useful to get a more concentrated view on the scene and the persons.
A feature I very much like with the new M is the Auto ISO function. It works perfect for me. In this case, a typical ISO setting was between 200 and 400. But some of the pictures in the LFI magazine where shot with 2000 ISO also in ambient light. Even in my commercial photography I am using the M with up to 2000 ISO without any doubt. On the contrary, I like the texture in the files exposed with between 800 and 2000 ISO.
Q: There is a certain matter-of-fact quality to the images in your Bastøy portfolio. One may not even suspect they were of a prison island without the story behind them. They somehow convey an underlying feeling of sadness and hope as well as tranquil serenity. Do you agree, and if so was that your intention?
A: If you are hearing about a documentary on a prison island then it is easy to think about Alcatraz and dramatic settings. The scenery on Bastøy is very different from that. It was not my intention to make it understandable on the first glance where we are. As it is written in LFI, the chief of the prison says: “I treat the inmates with respect … if they treat me with respect there is a good chance that they manage to overcome their criminal past.” The underlying question is how to change a person. My intention was to show the prisoners living on Bastøy Prison Island on their way to a non-criminal future. You get the point, if you describe it as an underlying feeling of sadness and hope.
Q: After having covered Bastøy twice, what are your feelings about this unique Norwegian concept of a kinder, gentler prison, and how do you assess its advantages and disadvantages for society?
A: Thank you for raising this question because that’s the nucleus of this reportage. If a society is talking about how to deal with criminals, then there are in the extreme to choices. On the one side, the punishment for the deeds the criminals have done and on the other side, the question of how to change the person in a way to not commit crimes in the future.
If you are not taking the extreme death penalty as punishment then a prisoner will be released into society after sitting in prison for many years, as the guys in this reportage. Imagine sitting in a prison cell, getting food three times a day, having one hour in the prison yard, being either alone or together with other prisoners, not missing the fact that there is a lot of gang building in prisons. How does this person manage to live a civil life afterwards, not being forced to take responsibility for their daily life for years?
The unique concept of Bastøy is, that the prisoners should learn how to live a civil life, preparing them for the life after their release. We are only talking about the last one, two or three years of their sentences. No prisoner will be instantly sent to Bastøy and most of them have been in prison for many years before.
And not to paint an image of an overall liberal Norway — Bastøy is the exception. The overall majority of prisoners are sitting in closed prisons with surveillance, walls and fences. And recently the Norwegian police was criticized for holding suspected criminals under the age of 18 for days in isolation cells without proper process.
Q: This image of an intense-looking man in a kitchen setting is very compelling and the out-of-focus elements in the foreground lead your eye directly to the subject. Can you tell us something about this image, and did you deliberately shoot it at a wide aperture to achieve this effect?
A: This scene in the kitchen is one of the first pictures I took in this project and the guy in it was one of the first ones who agreed to being photographed. In a kitchen there are always a lot of things laying around that aren’t relevant to the topic. In this case, there was one thing I wanted to be integrated in the photograph, the knife. Because that is something you would never expect to find in a prison. I took two exposures before from a upper position. But they became too confusing because there were too many items lying around. Therefore I got on my knees, shooting from a lower angel to separate the guy from the background and still get the knife with it. The blur on the left and the right is framing the main topic. I usually shoot with wide aperture, even with wide angel lenses since I like the depth coming in to the image from the marginal blur and bokeh. In this case, I used the 28 mm at 2.8.
Q: This image of a man on a bicycle riding down a tree-lined road is beautifully composed and conveys a sense of expansiveness and freedom, the very antithesis of a prison. Can you comment on this, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Going around on Bastøy arouses a feeling of being in a world written by the Swedish children book author Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking, Children of Noisy Village): the wooden houses, horses, bicycles, ecological farming. In a way a free world and in between the inmates with their histories and on their journeys, out of their past in crime.
In this background this image becomes quite symbolic. The guy on the bicycle is on his way to meet his girlfriend from the other side of the fjord, coming to a visit. In the left, one of the houses, the prisoners live in, far behind the shoreline of the mainland. Even if I am now interpreting the image in that way, the idea was in my head when taking the picture. The idyllic surroundings frame the nevertheless demanding way of getting away from crime.
Q: It is clear that the man with the bucket has a relationship with the sheep that entails carding, stewardship, responsibility, and even love. How important are such things in re-integrating these prisoners into society, and do you believe that these are essential elements in the low recidivism rate of prisoners who have been through the Bastøy experience?
A: There is this note from the Norwegian parliament in 1914 saying that “we have observed that people who have faced an experience of unbalance benefit from being together with animals and working with them.” Something of that is of course behind the concept on Bastøy. There were several prisoners talking in a very positive and protective way about the animals they have to care for. The man in the picture told me, that the sheep also would come if I was the person calling them. But still I had the impression that he was proud of himself that they were actually listening to him. I met another guy in the stable passionately washing and cleaning the floor and the horse boxes from the muck, saying that the horse should have a nice place to be in the winter.
I am not a psychologist, but it seems to me that the experience of being responsible for animals, taking care of them, can help to develop and to increase empathy in the long run not only for the animals but also for the society.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years? Do you plan to explore any other genres besides editorial, reportage, and portraiture going forward, and do you have any other documentary projects on your agenda for the near future?
A: I want to develop a kind of honest photography, even for commercial purpose. Most of my professional jobs are assignments for corporate clients and I prefer to do the job with the M with a documentary approach. And I get credit for that kind of work from my clients. If I should talk about the next three years, then it is to evolve this niche.
Thank you for your time, Ilja!
– Leica Internet Team
Please find Ilja’s full reportage in LFI 8/2013. Also available for the iPad. Learn more about Ilja on Facebook, website and blog.