Jan Møller Hansen is a self-taught, award-winning photographer, who specializes in visual story telling and social documentary. Photography, he says, helps him get closer to reality – he aims to expose the viewer to “the endless facets of our facinating world”.
Jan Møller Hansen, you were born in Denmark but you live and work in Nepal. How did you end up in Nepal and what made you stay?
During the past 25 years, I have worked in diplomacy and international development assistance. I have worked in many countries in Asia and Africa, and with long-term postings in Nepal, Vietnam and Bangladesh. That’s why I’m there at the moment. But I might return to Denmark soon, as my posting has been discontinued here in Nepal. During my free time, I did spend considerable time on photography here in Nepal.
When and why did you decide to become a photographer, focusing on social documentary?
I lived and worked in Dhaka in Bangladesh from 2007 to 2012 as the Deputy Head of Mission at the Danish Embassy there. During these years, I worked closely with politicians, business leaders and representatives from the civil society in Bangladesh. I never really came to terms with the great difference that exists between groups of people in Bangladesh. The injustice and exploitation of people were appalling and always bothered me. It was and still is very difficult for me to accept and understand that a society can function like that.
What I was told by political and business leaders did not match that which I saw with my own eyes. They seemed so detached from people and reality. The poverty, marginalization, exclusion and exploitation I witnessed every day for five years brought me into photography. Dhaka is one of the most congested and chaotic mega cities of the world, but also a very exciting and fascinating place. While we lived in Dhaka, I could not just spend my free time in the expatriate clubs of the city. I had to do something else, and I wanted to experience by myself how people live and manage under such difficult conditions. For me, photography became a very important instrument and tool for learning and exploration, and it gave me an insight that I had never experienced before. It became a way of expression. Through photography, I enhanced my understanding of people and their lives. I learned about our complex and fascinating world. Photography is a very complex and challenging form of art, and a great personal challenge. And unpredictable! That’s what I like about photography.
As a diplomat I lived a privileged life in a bubble and my personal circles were very much confined to a small group of privileged people within that society. But photography helped me expand my personal circles and enhanced my understanding of society and people. Photography also became a way of dealing with the frustrations that naturally will be there when you try to solve all kinds of complex challenges. However, through photography I was able to keep a belief in what I was doing also as a diplomat and development worker. Photography gave me a tremendous respect for the people of Bangladesh. I am very impressed with what they manage to accomplish with very little and in an environment where they are being treated really badly. Photography and the interaction with people gave – and still give – me a lot of positive energy. The story goes on, but that’s how I got into photography. I am fascinated by the stories behind the images. That’s what counts.
Your specialty is visual story telling. One of your recent stories about the Rautes got quite a lot of attention and was published in various magazines. How did you come up with this project and how did you prepare for it?
I came to Nepal for the first time in 1985 when I backpacked through Asia. I became very fascinated with the country and its people. It was exotic and different. Later, my first job also happened to be in Nepal in the early 90s, and I have now been back for the past three years. I know Nepal well and speak the main language, Nepali. At some point, I heard about the Rautes, who are the last nomadic hunters-gatherers of Nepal. I got hold of the anthropological research that has been done about the Rautes and read a recent and fascinating book by an American researcher. Then I decided to go and meet them. They originate from ancient times and are aborigines. Extraordinary and very fascinating people. They do not want to become like you and I. They have their own language, culture and beliefs, and do not want to assimilate. That fascinates me! When you meet extraordinary people, you get extraordinary experiences and images. So I took my car and went to meet the Rautes. They migrate and live in temporary camps in the forest. I had teamed up with two excellent local journalists and a social worker from the area, and they assisted me during my stay. It was a great experience and the way I like to photograph.
Could you tell us a bit more about your experience as a photographer?
My experience with photography is that it is very difficult to predict what it might bring with regard to opportunities and experiences. Five to six years ago, I made the more or less unconscious decision to start taking pictures more seriously. At that point, I didn’t know why I did it and how it would develop. One idea and experience brought about the next. And it is still like that. In the future, I hope to be able to team up with professionals like editors, journalists and photographers, who have worked in this business for many years. That would be a dream come true.
Are you currently working on a new project?
Right now, I am in a situation where I have to re-think and develop new ideas and projects. Next week, I will attend a master class in visual story telling in Dubai, and then I have plans of visiting some of the most remote parts of Nepal. I don’t know what I will see and whom I will meet. I am also very open to other good ideas in case people contact me. I also have some plans of realizing a new book and some exhibitions.
Do you also collaborate with NGOs and other organizations? Can you recommend this to other photographers?
During the past 25 years, I have worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, Danida, as well as CARE and Action Aid Denmark as part of my job, but never as a photographer. But there is a lot of interesting communication and public diplomacy work with development organizations that require good visual stories and material. Visual stories, images and videos are very important for such organizations in their public communication and fundraising work. Many of these organizations do not necessarily have the stories, images and videos needed to get their intentions and messages across. These organizations need professional communicators and photographers, who understand their mission. I think it’s great that an initiative like Photocircle combines photo art with social development.
You can browse through Jan Møller Hansen’s stunning pictures in his gallery on photocircle.net – and support our social projects if you get one for your own living room walls! For updates, news and anecdotes, make sure to follow him on Facebook.