by Eline Benjaminsen

© Linda Bournane Engelberth from ‘You can call me a gypsy if you want to’

Since I discovered the work of photographer Linda Bournane Engelberth (Oslo, 1977) back in my teens, I’ve been enamored by the cinematic square frames covering socio-political topics. We met up in Oslo and talked about her methods of access, her ambivalence to social media and her career up until now.

What made you decide to become a photographer? How did your practice evolve? 

Linda Bournane Engelberth (LBE): When I was eighteen I moved to Mexico and ended up staying there for two and a half years. At one point I was living with a Dutch photographer and she inspired me to get a camera. After acquiring one at the Mexican black market I started to do street photography.

I decided to return to Oslo to study photography there. At the start I didn’t know in what direction I wanted to go. After school I assisted a photographer that did commercials and fashion. That really didn’t work out; I was too concerned about how skinny and young the models were.

After finishing my studies I worked as a freelancer for a year, doing all the jobs I could get. Women magazines, real estate… I was a single mother and needed to pay my bills. But it’s so important to know that that’s not where you’re going – to know that you’ll at some point break away from that.

Later on I started working part time for Klassekampen (Norwegian left-oriented newspaper). It provides me the time I need to work on my own projects.
I used a long time to find my own way of photographing. At some point I decided to spend half a year of shooting with no other intention than to find a visual approach. I watched a lot of movies. One movie in particular that really changed my expression and became a turning point for me was ‘Silent Light’ by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas. I really loved the aesthetics of this film; so much it actually changed my photography.

And your practice now - how would you describe it?

LBE: I like to photograph places with issues that people don’t know much about. And if they think they know a lot about it, I like to dig deeper. The approach I have now is becoming more personal, maybe also more political.

© Linda Bournane Engelberth from ‘You can call me a gypsy if you want to’

I’m interested in how things connect; imagine if you take away religion and all other influences such as money and the country you’re born in… if you go down to the basics, I think we’re all so similar. That’s what I like to investigate. 

In the project ‘You can call me a Gypsy if you want to’ you followed Roma people in Oslo back to their homes in Romania. Can you tell about the process behind the series? What was your approach and how did you go about access? 

LBE: The project started out when I began noticing Roma beggars on the street, passing them on my way to work. Since Romania became part of the EU in 2007, the streetscape in Oslo drastically changed. Rumors went around that they, Roma people, were working for the mafia and so forth… and I just got very curious about who they were and what their life was like back home. 

It was important for me not only to show their suffering - but to embrace every aspect of their lives, so that people could see similarities and recognize themselves in them. I further aimed to make the point that not everything about their lives are Roma issues – it’s about poverty. Poor people do exactly the same everywhere, and then you have traditions that are special for Roma. But often there’s an assumption that it’s in their culture rather than about poverty-questions. I’d also steal and roam containers, and I think anybody would, being in a similar situation. That was my approach. Knowing this, and that I was not looking down on them, gave them the trust to show me how they were living.

© Linda Bournane Engelberth from ‘You can call me a gypsy if you want to’

Are there any photographers that have influenced your work?

LBE: Yes, many, although I don’t think that they have inspired me in my visual expression.

I always admired the way Sophie Calle was thinking. Others are Mike Brodie, Wolfgang Tillmanns and Cindy Shermann. 

Any preferences in terms of cameras and format? 

LBE: I mostly work with 6x6 format on a Hasselblad. 

Why do you choose to use analogue photography?

LBE: I discovered that analogue fits my personality better. I’m a slow photographer, and I like the quiet moments. To me it’s simply a very different expression than digital. 

© Linda Bournane Engelberth from ‘You can call me a gypsy if you want to’

What are your thoughts around photography in the era of digital and social networking?

LBE: I have ambivalent feelings concerning that. It’s maybe obvious that since I work with older photographical techniques I prefer slow over fast. 

I see that for many photographers social networks like Instagram makes it possible to spread information with more ease. However I also see that slow and quiet is disappearing and that society is becoming increasingly fast and rough. Kids, by example, have a tendency to become over-stimulated by social media, and are having trouble concentrating on one thing at a time. So I’m a bit old school regarding this. 

Three books that you recommend? 

LBE: ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ by Richard Billingham, can it get any better?

‘On Photography’ by Susan Sontag is a book I think everybody should read. It’s questioning a lot of problematic themes around photography and helps to build critical reflection towards your work.

‘A Period of Juvenile Prosperity’ by Mike Brodie.
‘Walden’ by Henri David Thoreau is a novel that has had a great influence on me.

Any show you’ve seen recently that you found inspiring? 
LBE: ‘Erde, Wind & Feuer’ by Damian Heinisch on display at NoPlace in Oslo.

© No Place, Oslo. Installation view ‘Erde, Wind & Feuer’ by Damian Heinisch

What are you working on at the moment?

LBE: After my mother died two years ago, I felt as if I didn’t have any family left. I didn’t grow up with my father thus I never knew his side of the family in Algeria. This project is a kind of research into my own background. I’m mixing archival material, family stories and my own photography. It’s a huge project - probably one that I could work on the rest of my life.

Any plans for the near future?

LBE: Hopefully I’ll be making the Algeria project into a photo book. That’s my biggest goal right now - to dig deeper into that project. 


Linda Bournane Engelberth