Thursday, 14 June 2012

Books: Jan Nordstrom's photo essays ~ Every breath we take


A book is a book is a book, did you say? I thought my definition of a book were formed enough, until the postman rang my doorbell some weeks ago  ~ and four books by the Swedish photographer-painter- poet Jan Nordstrom waltzed into my life, making me redefine what books are all about.  I’m still trying to figure out all that makes his books special. 

Jan’s books have his poems, and his photographs. But they are not glossy, touch-with-care coffee table books. Nor are they standard-sized volumes that you pick off a bookstore shelf, scan, then toss away.
For there’s a certain fine-tuned sensibility underlying his books that blew me away. Completely. This includes the brilliant photography, the edgy design, the focused intent, the subtle paintings, even the text in translation. It all comes together in undeniable harmony.

Take my favourite of the four, to begin with.


Frihet (Freedom) teases me with its cover blurb in English translation: “The story of Erik, Mona and Ruben. For those who live close. About the people who nurse and help. For those who carry hope as an inner world.” 

I open the book. And I stumble upon Eric, just 10, in a wheelchair. He’s at Kalmar country hospital with his mother Marina and his baby brother Axel in a pram.  This is a poetic, pictorial document of his life from 2002-2004.
Eric has been battling leukaemia.  He has been through chemotherapy. He dreams, one day, of playing football with his friends again.  And so he does.

A few pages later, I enter the world of Mona.  A sweet, smiling couple dance in a living room.  Who are they?

In Jan’s words: “Tuesday, November 19, 2002./ The living room./ Dance for a while./ Love each other. / Mona Iveby, 59, and her beloved Bengt Ohlsson, 64./ Mona has neoplasm./ It can no longer be cured./ Only curbed./ Love and the will to live carry them now…”

Through sensitive, gentle pictures Jan makes us look through lenses we have never tried. We follow Mona’s journey. As a nurse helps Mona with a shot of morphine to tackle her pain. As Mona dabs on lipstick, a gesture of self-healing. As she paints every Wednesday, for little things gain great meaning as dusk comes knocking at life.  As the couple drive away to a fairytale island cottage on Oland. By 2003, Mona and Bengt fly away to a cottage in Madeira. It almost makes you believe in miracles in real time.

With courage, with infinite grace, Mona says, “I believe that you need to take risks if you want to live life to its utmost.”

And then there’s 79-year-old Ruben who, post-surgery, realizes, “So little is needed to make someone happy. A smile…”

Jan’s images speak even more eloquently than his text.  An unforgettable hug between Mona and her Bengt, their first in two years, his eyes closed in remembrance.  A part-portrait of Ruben rowing, the deep blue of the sky backdrop in sync with his eyes and his shirt. Eric, back with his peers, his infinity smile a promise of sunshine days to come.

This is a moving testimony to the human spirit ~ and to trained caregivers who heal with their gentle touch, their presence, their ability to understand.

I can understand the impetus for this book only because I’ve met Jan Nordstrom. Way back in the fall of 1999, at Kalmar in southeast Sweden, by the Baltic Sea, where he lives and swims in the icy waters at dawn. The city has a population of over 36,000.

We met when 20 of us from Asia, Africa and Latin America were chosen to participate in a seminar on ‘Women in Journalism’ in the idyllic small town.  Jan was the official photographer and course assistant  ~ and we returned home with portraits that we still look back on with wonder and tenderness.


Karlekheten (Loveness) left me just as wonderstruck. For, through poetry, photographs and paintings, Jan evokes l-o-v-e.

I catch my breath over a semi –blurred, full-cheeked, soft-lashed baby in profile in the right-hand corner of a double-spread. He draws my eye in, as gently as a caress. On the blank page opposite, ant-like words crawl into the stillness:  “life cannot be put on hold.”

An image from 'Loveness'
 Jan’s books are as much about his personal talent, as they are about what we’ve come to associate with a Scandinavian sensibility: teasing minimalism, deliberate restraint, evocative layouts that enhance.

What illustrates this in Karlekheten?   

~ A faceless, dramatic black-and-white painting, with the words: ‘you touch my inner being/ in the dreams I have hidden.’

~  A hand emerging from a shirtsleeve, its fingers touching gnarled bark: ‘what do we leave behind?’

~ The love story of Astrid, 84, and Sven, 95, immortalized in a photo-essay, through arms wrapped protectively around each other as they lie side by side, through the tangible love in their eyes as his hand touches her cheek.

It is in the unspoken, the unwritten, the internally visualized that come to life through Jan’s visual and verbal prompts. Each enriches us in intangible ways. That’s what makes this book so precious, priceless beyond counting.


Glod (Glow) visually shares Kalmar’s luminous past, its glassmaking traditions. As Jan couches it, “So I returned/ Back to the land of glass./ To the knights and wizards of my childhood./ To those who blow life into glass./ To the pride in their eyes. / To the glow./ To the treasure of glass.”

The accompanying visuals are stunning. Black at the centre across a doublespread; to the left, a figure enters the building; to the right is a slatted gate in front of an orange wall, a street lamp lights all. A hand in focus between two fiery panels, as the molten glass is gathered.  Lush green leaves; in the top corner of the frame, a man in a red shirt sips from a glass. In the last quarter of a pitch dark frame, Michael blows the slender beginnings of a vase.

Each frame in this mainly non-textual book is lyrical, even painterly, culled with tenderness. This photo-essay truly glows from within with imagination and insight.  


In Jan’s fourth book, “Tillsammansheten” (Together), I did not have the benefit of an English text. Over its pages, he follows Kalmar FF’s A-league footballers through the season of 2010-11. Being a football fan like him, I was enchanted by it.

For not a single frame would fit into a sports magazine or football reports in a daily. Dagens Nyheter , Sweden’s biggest morning paper, chose it as one of the best books of 2011. 

 Here’s a teaser trailer of what we see on his pages:

Black, hazy figures jumping in the air against a fogged skyline and skeletal trees…

A huddle of red-kitted heads with a pearl grey backdrop…

The toss onfield, viewed through a sea of football-boots with long socks on…

A tantalizing double frame: half a male face in profile looks in from the right edge; facing him is a smudgy maybe-face at the edge of the left. ..

A feathery blue sky; at its base is a tiny player in red; two balls bounce  ~ one above his head, one behind him…

The drama of the locker room, the nitty-gritty of coaching sessions…

The beautiful game comes alive in a million aspects through this poetic, singing tribute from Jan. The power. The joy. The glory. And the sadness of its flipside alike.

Until these books arrived at my door from Kalmar, I knew Jan Nordstrom as a gentle, caring soul, a fine photographer. But the sheer span of his undeniable talent has swept me off my feet.

Now I know for sure that a book is a book is a book, often predictable and recognizable, but not when couched through the eyes of Jan Nordstrom.

Skol to you, my friend Jan!

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More information on Jan’s books, mainly in Swedish:

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