On the Other Side of the Glass:
An Interview with Sonja Hesslow



To Swedish fine art photographer Sonja Hesslow, preparing and editing her images outweigh the actual photography process – she loves searching for props in thrift shops, folding paper pyramids for days and creating magic in Photoshop: ‘If I had to choose between being only a photographer or a retoucher, I would definitely choose retouching, because that’s where it all happens in my images.’

Sometimes the boundary between two realities is thinner than anti-reflective glass; an invisible window to a world where everything is slightly different. Sometimes it is thick as a lake frozen solid, where you have to wait for the ice to melt before you can reach the surface and know you are breathing the right air.

Six years ago, Sonja Hesslow’s reality consisted of working as a substitute nursery teacher. Then winter came. Her reality froze and the Boxing Day sales marked the start of a new one, when Sonja bought her first DSLR camera.

‘I hurried home after work every day and it was dark and I didn’t have any flashes, so there I was, trying to get enough light out of some lamp.’

During these nights, Sonja realized two things: She didn’t have time to photograph – and this had to change. It was impossible to get accepted into a Swedish photography school with only a few months of experience, but at a photography fair in Gothenburg, she got in touch with Medieskolerne, Media Collage Denmark, who promised she would get accepted into their photography program as long as she could find an internship.

‘I had to find a photographer who was willing to take me on as an apprentice, and it was a bit stressful to call around, saying: “Hi, could I be your assistant for four-and-a-half years?” But I found a place, and began my studies after just six months. I think they saw potential in my creativity, because I’d only been using Photoshop for about three months by then, and it looked terrible.’

‘Super Powers’

Once Sonja was able to make time for photography, her skills developed fast. She realized how much she enjoyed it: not only taking photographs, but also building surrealistic scenes out of thrift shop finds and handmade props. Creating worlds instead of capturing the real one. Using her camera as a tool to collect fragments before combining them into new realities in Photoshop.

‘I basically devoted every weekend to this, and squeezed as much knowledge as I possibly could out of my classmates and teachers. So when I graduated, I was awarded a scholarship, and I was definitely one of the best Photoshop users in my class. Because I just made up my mind to learn this stuff.’

An art relay

Last autumn, during the last term of her program, Sonja exhibited her work at Affordable Art Fair, an international contemporary art fair held in Stockholm and around the world once a year.

‘I got some great PR before the fair, and Nordea Private Banking Magazine wrote about it afterwards, mentioning me as the top one out of five artists at the fair, and one of my images was described as one of the most talked about. Experiencing this before I’d even finished my studies was probably one of the reasons why I had the courage to really give this a go.’

Sonja’s success at the fair, where she sold 75 images, has also helped her focus exclusively on personal art projects over the past year. In the project ‘Art from the Start’ she is working with Patricia Trambevski who is designing clothes, Anna K. Larsson who is singing and writing lyrics, and Gísli Grétarsson who is composing music. Together they will depict six Nordic mythical creatures. Their work process is like a relay, where each work of art takes shape while it is passed from person to person: from fabric into photographs, from photographs into words, from words into tunes.

‘Vittrande dans’, a part of the art project ‘Art from the Start’

In another project, Sonja brings a blank canvas to elderly people and asks them to tell her their life stories in paint – someone who has experienced a lot of love might choose mainly red shades, while someone who has spent their life at sea might go for blue – and then takes a portrait of the person with their painted canvas as a backdrop.

‘I realized there are so many elderly people who are just spending their days alone in a retirement home and have so many stories to tell. Since none of my grandparents are alive, I enjoy getting a glimpse into the lives of other elderly people, while they get to paint and spend time with someone for an afternoon.’

Quality over quantity

Sonja certainly has no shortage of ideas. They pop up everywhere; in dreams, in emotions, in a broken lamp shade left outside her neighbour’s front door. Sometimes she even feels stressed by the fact that she doesn’t have time to turn all of her ideas into images.

sonjahesslowquote‘When I see people publishing three new images a week, I might think: Well, how many images did I produce this year? It is easy to measure your success by how much you produce. Did I make five images or did I make a hundred? But I have reached the conclusion that it’s okay. I make few images, but I really put my heart and soul into them.’

She sells all of her images in small limited editions and raise the price for every sold copy, as the remaining copies get more and more exclusive. This process might be frowned upon by some art gallery owners, but to Sonja, it is a no-brainer.

‘I ask myself: Do I want to sell loads of cheap copies, more like Ikea art, or do I want to sell fewer copies to clients who really want my art on their walls and are prepared to pay for it? I respect myself when I can actually charge a fair price for my art. And that’s also why I print my images on top quality paper and frame them with anti-reflective glass. It really is a craft for me, so I’d rather pay for the production than go for whatever I can get my hands on.’

The fine balance of being self-employed

We are sitting in a bright, colourful workshop studio in the Skanstull area of Stockholm, where Sonja’s desk moved in among sketches and workbenches a couple of weeks ago. She shares this place with four jewellery designers and one architect. It is the last week of September, and summer is in its final death throes. Slipping through the windows, the light is thawing the chilly floor in warped snow-white diamond shapes.

Renting a workspace was another important investment for Sonja. Her boyfriend is working shifts as a fire-fighter and is often at home during the days, which means she finds it easier to focus here. It also reminds her to set boundaries and not work too much; when she leaves her office, she is free for real.

‘The Thinker’

‘I often feel like I haven’t done enough, like I should be at work for eight hours every day even if I’m finished after six or shouldn’t take a day off on a Wednesday. But in reality, I am completely free to plan my own workdays. That’s a big struggle for me: being kinder to myself. It’s difficult to find this balance. What’s okay? Is it okay to exercise for two hours on your lunch break when it wouldn’t be okay in a normal workplace? That’s why I’m making monthly and weekly schedules and lists of all the things I need to get done in a day. Once I’ve crossed all the things off my list, it’ll just have to be enough.’

On Sonja’s desk there is just enough space for a Macbook, an external screen, a pen tablet, a pencil holder and her schedules. For now, she keeps her camera equipment at home.

‘I find this place inspiring, but then again, I only have a desk. I have this dream of getting a studio of my own, where there’s room for all my photography stuff and crafts stuff. A place where I can cosy up, sort of like a creative community.’

When I meet Sonja, she is in the middle of preparing this year’s edition of Affordable Art Fair. She has just enrolled in a distance course for self-employed artists and her plan for the year ahead is to do whatever she can to be able to keep working on personal art projects. Looking further ahead, she sees exhibitions, lectures and some form of teaching, but most importantly, peace. She looks forward to feeling more grounded. Finding stability.

‘I feel like a lot has fallen into place over the past year, but there are still things I get stressed about. I’m quite harsh with myself and sometimes I just feel like such a scatterbrain. I’m sending price lists back and forth and I’m struggling to get everything organized, while other people feel like I know exactly what I’m doing. They think: “How nice to find someone who is so dedicated and focused and has everything under control”. So maybe it’s not as bad as I think. I tend to think the worst. I suppose I just have to learn to stay cool.’ icon-dot-circle-o

‘My Secret Friend and I’
‘Charging My Batteries’
‘Be Strong’
‘I Will Wait for You’

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