Art of Solitude
Norwegian contemporary artist and photographer Anja Niemi on the empowering effect of embodying a different version of ourselves
Photography by Anja Niemi
Throughout her spellbinding work, Anja Niemi celebrates the ‘other,’ whether that’s a faceless character or a foreign land that jolts the senses. The artist and photographer swears by total solitude for her creative process and ‘sport’ is often the subject – but not as you know it. A horse rider is suspended mid-fall, a shamed boxer lies crumpled on the floor and an immaculate cowgirl hides behind her wig. Her images blend fact and fiction; reality and performance; the familiar and the strange. Here we speak to Anja exclusively about identity, fantasy and her series ‘The Rider’:
Glorious: You have a meticulous eye for detail and primarily work solo. It’s a big task to take control of photography, art direction, props, set and styling, all whilst featuring in the images. Apart from photography, are those skills you specifically acquired or did you refine them through your practice?
Anja Niemi: I’ve been using myself in my work for over 20 years. Since I am more comfortable when I am alone, I started playing out my own characters. I think everything – including my photography – has slowly refined along the way. Some things come naturally to me, and others I have to work on. The biggest challenge when you work alone is that you can’t see what you are photographing. It takes time to get it right. It involves a lot of small tweaks on focus and repeating the same thing over and over, but it’s a small price to pay for being alone with my own idea.
Glorious: When you think of a new series, how long does it take from inception to the final product?
Anja Niemi: About a year. It’s a slow process for me but I like taking my time, collecting costumes and forming a storyboard before making it come to life.
Glorious: We love the series ‘She Could Have Been A Cowboy,’ tell us a bit about the creative process surrounding it?
Anja Niemi: For ‘She Could Have Been A Cowboy’ I flew to Colorado, rented a car and drove through the American southwest with my cowboy costumes and camera gear in the trunk. I had a map with all my locations marked from Colorado through Utah to Arizona and ending up in Las Vegas. I created the story scene by scene, like a very slow silent movie. The series shifts between reality and fantasy; a combination of what she is and what she wants to be. At the end of the story, it’s not really about being a cowboy. It’s about wanting to be another.
Glorious: I think many people feel they want to be another. Tell us more about this – is this something you feel in your everyday life and you’re able to fulfil through your work?
Anja Niemi: This character was inspired by a friend who so naturally lives her life the way she feels it was intended, regardless of what other people might think. Most of us have something we wish we could do or be, but something prevents us. Behind the grandness of the southwestern landscapes and the cowboy costumes, there is a nod to everyone who lives a life different from the one they actually want.
Glorious: In ‘She Could Have Been A Cowboy,’ role play seems to be a key theme of being trapped in the everyday and yearning to escape. Can you talk about this and what it means to you?
Anja Niemi: Since I work alone, my characters are naturally by themselves – they all have that in common. In my work I have been focusing more on the relationships we have with ourselves rather than the ones we have with other people. In ‘She Could Have Been A Cowboy,’ there is a sequence of 36 images depicting my character trapped in her own existence. This past year has made us all feel more solitude than we are used to, and this might have made my characters more relatable than ever before.
Glorious: Do you, in a way, live out your inner fantasies through the surreal worlds you create and roles you dive into?
Anja Niemi: There is a great satisfaction in turning yourself into your own ideas and becoming your own fantasy. Even if it is only for a short time.
Glorious: In most of your work, such as ‘The Blow,’ there often seems to be an element of challenging gender stereotypes and breaking the binary. Is this something you think about and consciously explore?
Anja Niemi: I have always wanted my characters to have gender neutral issues. I want them to be relatable – regardless of sexuality or gender. More than being female characters, they are human.
Glorious: Why are the characters in your photos often faceless? It seems this is often intentional, why?
Anja Niemi: Most of my characters are faceless. I want them to be symbols rather than real people. By removing the face, our most personal feature, the character becomes more relatable. They could be anyone. I use them to catalyse conversations about identity, conformity and the relationship we have with ourselves.
Glorious: Do you see your images as empowering to women and do you feel any responsibility to produce imagery that can be seen as such?
Anja Niemi: I feel the responsibility, even more so as I am getting older and have two daughters. I think my characters are getting stronger in every series. ‘The Rider,’ which is still in production, will show a lot of strength and encouragement.
Glorious: What/who has been the main influences in your work?
Anja Niemi: My stories and characters are built up by fragments of everything that has made an impression on me. As an artist I think you unconsciously process your experiences and create something that’s your own because the combination of elements are unique to you.
Glorious: What do you shoot your work on and how much editing happens? I know you ditched digital for the ‘Short Stories’ series and produced this project on Polaroid. Did you enjoy the unpredictability of the Polaroid process and the immediate outcome? Or do you prefer the freedom editing allows?
Anja Niemi: I shoot with a Hasselblad X1D. It’s a good combination of compact size and large medium format files. I make big prints but need to keep my equipment small because I travel alone. I miss analog and I often dream of going back. When I first started working as a photographer, it was all film and Polaroid. I was so in love with it all; measuring light, testing it with the Polaroid and waiting to see the result. For me, the one major advantage with digital is being able to program my camera to shoot more than one frame at a time. This way I can get into my role and only go to my camera now and then to look for necessary adjustments.
Glorious: Do you follow any sports closely?
Anja Niemi: I love watching dressage. It’s so magical seeing a kind, well-balanced rider dancing with her horse companion performing a perfect piaffe and passage.
Glorious: Sport is often featured in your work. From boxing (‘The Blow’) to horse riding (‘She Could Have Been A Cowboy’) and your series ‘The Rider.’ Your site is about horses. Are horses a big part of your life?
Anja Niemi: A riding accident as a child scared me away from riding most of my life, but when my daughter started riding a few years ago, I realised that I had been missing something. Every time I was in the stable with her I felt so much joy, and realised I wanted horses back in my life. I now own a beautiful Hanoverian with my sister and it has changed my life. My main task is to overcome my fear, become a confident rider and keep this lovely guy happy and healthy. As a photographer I naturally felt drawn to this new part of my life, so I started working on a new character, ‘The Rider.’ I feel like everything has been infused with horses and I wanted a place where it could all fit naturally together, so I started the Instagram account @thehorse.anjaniemi It’s a nice way to connect with like-minded horse girls and cheer each other on.
Glorious: How was your experience working with animals while shooting ‘The Rider’ and relinquishing some of this control?
Anja Niemi: When I started the production of ‘The Rider’ I realised I had to change almost everything about the way I worked. Horses are wilful and fast and I wanted to photograph them on their terms, without being too dominating or forceful. I ended up spending my summer in the meadow, inviting the horses to roam freely in and out of my frame. I gave up some control but what I got in return was really rewarding.
Glorious: Do you see horse riding being used as a theme throughout your work in the future, or are you looking to explore other subject matters?
Anja Niemi: I purposefully ended my story of ‘The Rider’ before she had achieved what she wanted. Progress takes time, so I wasn’t looking for her to succeed right away. I am working on The Rider Vol. 2 to see what happens next.
Glorious: Are you working on any other series?
Anja Niemi: “She Could Have Been A Cowboy’ was a story about wanting to be another. The next series is a natural progression: the character will be everything that the other one wanted to be. She is following her heart. I want it to be encouraging, she is living the life she actually wants – something my previous character couldn’t do. I will start production this September in Utah, Montana and Wyoming. I will be collaborating with female riders and ranchers, shaping my character together. I’ve tried to find a solution for so long – how to incorporate somebody else in my work and have it make sense. Until now, it just hasn’t: But these women are already part of my character, they are the inspiration. I look forward to seeing what happens when fiction and reality connect. I think it is going to be quite the journey.