Danish photographer Nikolaj Svennevig has returned to a more basic type of photography to great effect.

By LE DIEM on July 10,2017 11:42 AM


Photos: provided by Nikolaj Svennevig



One day Nikolaj Svennevig, a photographer from Denmark, was sent a video on how to build a matchbox camera. He was very much inspired by it, as he was by coming to live in Vietnam shortly after graduating from the Danish School of Journalism. He discovered new elements to his profession in Hanoi, returning to one of the earliest types of equipment for photographers: the pinhole camera.

After making his own pinhole cameras, which have no lens and just a tiny aperture, or a pinhole, which effectively is a light-proof box with a small hole in one side, Nikolaj turned away from the high-tech devices that have flooded the world and replaced our imaginations.

His recent ‘Process’ exhibition was a collection of photography that captures light on a receptive surface inside a dark box, which is known as the ‘camera obscura’ effect. It shows his passion for rediscovering his art, his patience during production, and the wealth of delayed surprises from his shoots. He shared his ‘process’ with The Guide.


Was ‘Process’ your first exhibition in Hanoi?

I had two exhibitions in Hanoi before ‘Process’. But I think this one is by far the most interesting. Not only to the audience but also to myself, since it’s not an accumulation of masterpieces or other great works. It’s simply just a show of an artist’s sketches and his process. Of course, there’s some very interesting photos in between. But I hope that my message from the exhibition will reach the audience. Which is something like, start experimenting with your creative passion and it will take you on your own inspiring path. If it resonates with you, it will also resonate with others.

Why are you interested in pinhole cameras during this digital time?

With the pinhole camera, you are letting go of control. There’s no way to know exactly what comes out of your experiment, and I find that extremely inspiring and motivating to continue to explore. The fact that you build your own camera and experiment from the very beginning of the process turns everything into play. When we remove ourselves from the digital assistance it activates a forgotten knowledge inside us, and I think everyone should do this on a regular basis. Find something non-digital to explore. Then you can put it on Instagram later to get your fix.


Was a matchbox your first pinhole camera?

Yes. A matchbox was just so simple and easy to build, plus you have multiple exposures when using film. But the whole idea of turning an everyday object into a camera like that I find inspiring.

What others have you made?

After matchboxes, I went on to big coffee cans and cigar boxes. I’m going on a two-week trek to the Himalayas and will bring a shoebox and some gaffer tape. And a matchbox camera. You can basically make them out of anything for light-proofing and put a pinhole in it.

How long did it take you get your first successful picture with a pinhole camera?

Well, the first shot I had was successful. Of course, I look at my pictures and say to myself, this one is better than that one and so one. But basically, every photo I take, no matter what camera, I regard as successful. For me the success lies in whether I learn anything from it, and most of the time I learn more from mistakes than successes.


What have you learned from pinhole cameras?

Play and experiment. Don’t use it as a normal camera. Don’t assume it works like a normal camera. Just build one, go use it, learn from it. And then, since you don’t know what the camera is actually capturing, move your head as close to its perspective as possible. Use your imagination.

I guess that’s why Vietnam looks different in ‘Process’. Were all the pictures shot in Vietnam?

Yes. I’ve lived in Hanoi for four and a half years. The city is very special to me. Many of the photos are from Hanoi or surrounding villages and from a motorbike trip to the northern province of Cao Bang.

What are the challenges of photography in Vietnam?

The language. I don’t speak Vietnamese so it’s difficult to really explore and get to know more about the culture and stories that people have. Every time I move around inside or outside the city it feels like I’m moving through parts of a great unknown history. Visually there’s so much stimulus, but also in terms of the people. I wonder if young Vietnamese really know this. How many crazy stories lie around waiting to be heard. Maybe photographed. Hopefully I’ll explore more.

What was your most unforgettable story?

Every time I’ve gone out to shoot, it has been a little of an exploration into the unknown. I don’t have a ‘most unforgettable’, but generally lots of great experiences from doing this. I encourage anyone who likes photography, or people’s stories or adventure in general to do this regularly. Just go somewhere. Don’t plan too much. It’s a cliché I know, but the best experiences are not planned.

So is there a plan for the next part of ‘Process’?

Haha, you could say that. Honestly, my next ‘plan’ is to explore more and see what comes out of it. Let the results from the day-to-day work point me in a direction. In this early stage, too much planning will just obstruct the flow of the process.

Besides photography, what other things interest you here?

My dad has been living outside of Hanoi for more than 15 years, so that was one of the reasons why I chose to come to Hanoi. But besides this, I have surrounded myself with inspiring and creative people, each doing their thing, on their own search for something and up for collaborating within or on the boundary of their creative field. So life in Hanoi has been great for exploring myself, finding my niche, which I now think I have in pinhole photography.

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