Writings"I'm Nothing"

By Mette Sandbye


Published in Weekendavisen no. 21, May 28-June 3 2010

Copenhagen Photo Festival officially lasted only a week and is over now. But apart from its own programme the well-attended Festival functioned as an umbrealla under which a variety of Copenhagen's exhibition sites housed widely different photographic exhibitions. And several of these will remain open for a long time. One of these is photographer Tina Enghoff's exhibition SEVEN at the National Museum of Photography. A major theme of the Festival's own main exhibition ”Day/Night” was photography which at one and the same time combines the highly staged with the documentary, with a focus on stories and subjects from ”real life”. Something similar describes Tina Enghoff's exhibition which has been made in co-operation with integration consultant Uzma Ahmed Andersen. The exhibition consists of a series of large landscape photographs, with a female figure, made partly anonymous, appearing in each. The photos are beautiful, expressively poetic and very emotionally evocative in their own right; but they furthermore address ”an issue”.
Since Danish photographer Jacob A. Riis photographed and wrote about the living conditions among poor immigrants in Manhattan around 1900 and was instrumental in bringing about social reforms to actually better their conditions, it has been this very kind of humanistically oriented documentary photography which Riis helped found that has had a history of and monoply on depicting the life conditions of the down-and-outs and oppressed, while advocating social and political change or at least informing about social injustice. It is, however, far more rare to meet this photographic endeavour in an artistically staged form as the case is here. With her project ”Possible Relatives” from 2003, Tina Enghoff focussed on the many lonely Danes to die isolated from the surrounding world, with the only memory they leave behind being the death notice for ”possible relatives” which the authorities insert in a newspaper after their death. In large, starkly realistically formal colour photographs Enghoff presented the homes of the deceased with a quiet focus on details serving as clues to these people's lives and personalities.
The social and political theme of SEVEN is the so-called ”seven years rule”, introduced by the Danish Government in 2001 in order to put a stop to marriages of convenience. The rule means that women who have come to Denmark via marriage with a man with a Danish citizenship can be expelled if they are divorced within their first seven years of marriage. As a consequence of this rule, a considerable number of women are in actual fact living isolated and in a state of virtual serfdom to the man who brought them here and whose goodwill they are totally dependent on. Together with Uzma Ahmed Andersen Tina Enghoff has visited several crisis centres for battered women around the country where these women have gone after finally deciding not to stay in their violent marriages, living, as they do, with the threat of being sent back to the country from which they came and where they will typically live as pariahs with prostitution as their only way of survival. Some of these women's stories are presented as interviews in the accompanying book, and, at the exhibition, in a video made in co-operation with Anders Refn, in which single statements from seven of these interviews have been edited in a more fragmentary manner. In these, the women in different ways explain how they feel like nothing, have not been allowed to learn Danish, are without knowledge of their rights and social possibilities, and have therefore been locked up in violent marriages which they have often been forced to bear because children have been involved. They also tell their stories of how their husband deliberately and explicitly has used the fact that he had the absolute right of disposal over them for seven years.
This is powerful stuff indeed about tragic but invisible women's lives in our midst. But how is this ”translated” into a photography – and should it even be so, one might object. Is it not better to write a feature about the subject? Others have no doubt done so ; but Tina Enghoff is a photographer, and I feel that it is commendable that she employs her personal artistic language to discuss current social issues, however hard this may be, and that she actually succeeds in so doing. Each photo has come into being as an active collaboration between the woman being portrayed and the photographer, in which the two of them together have found a location and a pose which convey associations to a symbolic state of isolation, confinement, fear and escape. Several of these deliberately unfocussed photographs resemble film stills, ranging from horror films to French New Wave. A woman dressed in black is seen as if thrown to a forest floor, crawling or entangled in branches, as a black bundle, or in a strange fairytale forest of frozen plants or straws, not unlike Anselm Kiefer's mythological German landscapes. A few are more idyllic in their moods, such as the women gambolling in a field of red poppies. The pictures have no titles; but we are informed about the woman's nationality, age, the year she came to Denmark, if she has children, if she is still married, if she has been expelled, or if she is living in hiding from both her husband and the authorities.
Each picture thus addresses an abstract, emotional and more general symbolic space, while at the same time making one aware that the posing woman in actual fact represents a real fate among us whose life conditions and basic human human rights we, as as surplus society, might well try somewhat harder to improve. Quite concretely so.