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Interviews

July 2009

Since his schooldays Magnus Wennman has wanted to take photographs and he has pursued a career path with a passion that is mirrored in his uniquely creative images. That passion still drives him and has seen him honoured with many prestigious awards, including Picture of the Year 2009 and Photojournalist of the Year 2009 in his home country of Sweden. Doug Harman spoke to him about his work, chasing Barack Obama, and his penchant for deliberate underexposure.

Since the age of 17 Magnus Wennman has been a working photojournalist. His life and passion is photography - a passion that was first fuelled while he was still at school. "I always wanted and needed to be involved with creative media at school," Magnus explains, "and it was photography that I grew to love. I knew very quickly, being around creative people and photography specifically while at school, that it was what I wanted to do… become a photographer."

Magnus admits that, even at school, he developed a ‘look' that has become a kind of ‘trademark'; an almost ethereal or dreamlike quality underlies his photography and really gives his images a unique ‘Wennman quality'.

"I've not had anyone call them ‘dreamlike' before, but certainly, when you look at my images you immediately recognise them as mine," says Magnus. "I developed a technique of deliberate underexposure that has just grown, as a natural progression, within my work. You can see it in my pictures. I much prefer my images underexposed rather than overexposed. You can see they often look dark - even portraits - and this gives a certain emphasis to them that I love to have."

© Magnus Wennman

Kim Mi Kyung from Korea uses all her mental and physical strength to lift the massive weights at the ladies Weightlifting final in the Asian Games in Qatar. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM zoom lens.

It is this underexposure that also helps add a sparkle to Magnus' pictures; helping to provide quality and giving a graphic, even structured look. This underexposure technique grew within Magnus' photography while he worked at a local newspaper - Dalademokraten – in Sweden from the age of 17. It was here that he built on and honed both his technical and natural skills.

Magnus explains: "I moved to Stockholm and I worked for a year at Expressen - one of the main Swedish evening newspapers - and then moved to one of Scandinavia's biggest newspapers, Aftonbladet, a paper for which I have worked for about eight years now".

It was while working on Dalademokraten that Magnus was introduced to Canon camera kit. "The other photojournalists (at Dalademokraten and Expressen) all used Canon, so I got to use it… and quickly grew to like it. Today, my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera is my best friend; I love it," Magnus explains with relish.

"Apart from at school, where we all used Olympus film cameras, I've always shot on Canon gear and the 1Ds Mark III, fitted with the EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM zoom gets used for around 95% of my work; that body and lens combination I find to be the best 'fit' for most photography," he explains. "I have other Canon bodies - when I'm shooting sports I switch to a faster camera, and that's where the EOS-1D Mark III comes in." With its 110 frames at 10fps firing rate it's an ideal tool to have in the armoury for shooting sports action.

Magnus reveals: "When I shot at the last (football) World Cup, I shot around 3,000 images per day, so the number of images – and work – soon stacks up in that environment. I also have 5D Mark II body, but to be honest, I've not even taken that out of its box yet!"

© Magnus Wennman

‘Surfin' Sweden' - Mölle is one of few surf spots in Sweden where surfers from all over Scandinavia come to ride the 'soft wave'. Swedish surfer Freddie Meadows rides it here. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM.

For his Aftonbladet assignments Magnus travels all over the world and covers many major stories, but he still mixes his vacations with photography projects. "I have my own projects and good examples are the work I've done on beauty pageants; I decided four years ago I'd like to do such a project, although to be honest, I don't remember what really got it started."

He explains: "I knew I'd like to do something over a longer time period. I took a vacation, went to the United States, and decided to shoot the ‘Miss Senior Sweethearts' beauty pageant. It's a pageant I'd first seen on the internet for ladies 58 to 86 years of age who compete to become the most beautiful senior ‘Miss'."

Magnus adds: "At first they were surprised that a young photographer from Sweden was even interested and had come to the States to photograph them, but the ladies were fantastic to photograph and shooting that contest remains one of the best things I've done. The ladies were all really happy with the results and I made such good friends that, even today, I still have contact with some of the ladies."

© Magnus Wennman

Miss Senior Sweetheart of America contestants Doris Ulrich, 69; Ruth Gibson, 74; and Francesca Piscottano in the dressing room before the talent part of the pageant. Shot on EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM.

The impetus behind the shoot came from Magnus' desire to photograph a slice of classic ‘Americana', but also as a result of his desire to document the need for old people to be recognised as still being very valid people in society. "Miss Senior Sweetheart became a project about older people who needed to be, well, ‘confirmed'; they still have that need to be recognised and seen as people, whether fat, gay, young or old - everyone has that need," says Magnus.

As a direct result Magnus decided to shoot a whole variety of beauty contests, to take a peek into the lives of people competing in these pageants. ‘Beauty From the Outside' is a shoot from the Body Fitness pageant, where women compete in both muscle building and how feminine they look. However, ‘Mommy's Little Doll' is a contest for the most beautiful kid and is part of the Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant, held in Austin, Texas - more than 100 babies and children take part. "The winner collects $5,000," says Magnus, "so competition is fierce."

"In each such contest," explains Magnus, "there's something uniquely American to capture. Nothing like these contests exists in Sweden; the whole pageant culture is so different to anything in Sweden, it seems to be more of a moral issue (not to hold them) in Sweden."

Magnus doesn't draw the line at pageants with people. The World Dog Show, the largest ever dog show in Sweden, inspired Magnus and his ‘Dogstyle' story was the result. "This competition decides the most beautiful dog in the world," Magnus explained. "And for the record, the most beautiful dog in the world was a Sealyham Terrier from Pennsylvania, USA," he reveals.

© Magnus Wennman

‘Dogstyle' - the World Dog Show is a beauty pageant and the English Bulldog, ‘Draco Malfoy', is the world's most expensive dog. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM; 1/250sec at f/5.6; ISO 100.

"The English Bulldog (and a contestant at the show) called ‘Draco Malfoy" became the world's most expensive dog, he was bought a year ago by his owner for over €60,000 - a remarkable price - and is presumably named after the Harry Potter movie character?" ponders Magnus.

Magnus' determination to get the right shot is visible throughout his work; be it one of his personal projects or for his Aftonbladet assignments. Typical of his style of coverage is his work covering the election of President Obama in the USA. His story ‘Obamaland' is the result, and these images have won him yet more awards in his native Sweden.

He recalls: "I had the privilege of going to the States for about seven weeks covering the US election; three weeks during the Primaries at the conventions and then I went back for a month to follow Obama before, and up to, the election. You simply cannot overstate how historic an event Obama's election was - for the world, but particularly for the Americans. One of the things I wanted to capture was the people's emotions and feelings around those election events and Obama."

© Magnus Wennman

‘Obamaland' - Lavita Mitchel bursts into tears as news of the Obama victory spread in Grant Park in Chicago: shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III.

That feeling comes across in Magnus' pictures as does a ‘feeling' of almost evangelical zeal in his shots of the American public, particularly in Chicago on the night of Obama's election victory. How did it feel to be there?

"You could really feel that this was something very, very special, and my shot of Lavita Mitchel, as she fell into tears as news of the Obama victory spread shows that." The shot captures a black woman's emotion at the moment the USA voted for its first black President. In March 2009 Magnus' work won him the Picture of the Year 2009 and the Photojournalist of the Year 2009 awards in Sweden and he collected five other prizes, including awards for his reportage, sports, and portrait photographs.

"The shot of Lavita Mitchel was taken in Grant Park, Chicago, at an amazing moment," Magnus remembers. "It was taken just as it was announced Obama had won the election amid 200,000 people watching giant TV screens of the election coverage. It was a warm night; everything was just perfect. Lavita Mitchel started crying and I took my pictures. I don't think she saw me at all, and I stood right in front of her; she was too wrapped up in the events. She didn't look into the camera once."

He reveals: "I was in a hurry - right after that shot I had to get to the other side of Grant Park where Obama was due to make his winner's speech. I started running to get there in time and then I realised that I didn't get Lavita Mitchel's name. I had to run back and, amazingly, I managed to find her again, even among all those people. Then I had to run back through the park again to shoot Obama's victory speech."

© Magnus Wennman

‘Obamaland' - Obama shakes hands. After a marathon primary season and a general election campaign dominated by the economic crisis, American voters did something that would have been unimaginable not too many years before; they elected a black man to the presidency. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens.

Although Magnus doesn't set out to win awards - just to do the work he loves - he admits it's nice to be recognised for all his hard work. He says: "It was amazing to be able to do this job. Getting recognition helps, after all would you be speaking to me now if I had not got the awards?"

"But this assignment, following Obama, was different. Everywhere Obama went there were hundreds of thousands of people on the street waiting for him; it was simply amazing," says Magnus. "I think coming from Sweden, I was a little bit removed from it all, unlike the locals - enough to see it differently, perhaps to how Americans experienced the events, and capture that in my shots."

Perhaps it is this we see in Magnus' shots, particularly in one stunning, yet somehow graphic shot of Obama, silhouetted by the US flag a shot that makes a big impact (see the lead image with this article). As Magnus recounts, getting that shot was a slice of luck and a source of frustration.

"As a photojournalist coming from Sweden, I didn't get as good accreditations as I would have liked; so I didn't get placed (to photograph the events) as well as I'd hoped to be. We could not travel with the travelling press (with Obama) for example, so I could not get as close to him as I'd have preferred," reveals Magnus.

He adds: "But for that particular shot Obama, hand outstretched with the crowd and flag beyond, they just told us to stand in one place, on a raised dias behind the platform Obama was to stand on. Fortunately for me, it was a great place to stand, allowing me to get that shot."

Interestingly, although shot in colour, Magnus knew the entire story would be black and white. "Although I reported back home every day, it was after putting the story together, I adjusted the shots (in Photoshop). I knew the story would be in black and white before I left for America. Having said that, the shot of Obama against the flag looks great in colour too."

The work involved in the Obama assignment was enormous, in the last week of his time covering the Obama election campaign alone, Magnus travelled to a new city every day in an effort to keep up with the soon to be President; but even this wasn't as easy as it may sound.

© Magnus Wennman

‘Beauty from the Outside' - in Body Fitness one doesn't only compete in muscle building but in how feminine you look. What kind of swimsuit you're wearing matters. Malin Soderqvist spent 5,000 Swedish kronor for this custom made swimsuit. Shot with the EOS-1Ds Mark III and EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens.

"We didn't know until one day ahead of Obama travelling – at the earliest – which city he would head to. When you remember that he was travelling to maybe two or three cities every day, this made it very tricky to plan our travel and the shoot for each day. We had to book flights - perhaps from one end of the country to another - almost at the last minute; so we had to be quick!"

But it paid off, even though there was a chance they could arrive to late to get a shot or even end up in the wrong city. Magnus explains: "There was a lot of exhausting flying all over America but still, it was one of the most fantastic things I've done in my career. It was amazing to be there and witness such an historic event and, when I'm old, this will remain one of the best things in my life, I'm sure."

So, will Magnus be following up on Obama's election success? "I would like to go back and keep working with this story, although I don't know when or how yet. We are in the planning stages of just such a trip to the United States to do a follow up on the election. Obama's election was such an historic moment - it made a big impression on me. Going back to follow it up is the most natural thing for me - I would love to do it."

© Magnus Wennman

‘Mommy's Little Doll' - a lot of decoration make-up and fake hair, and a mother who expects her daughter to win. The four and five year olds are waiting for their big moment on the stage. Shot on the EOS-1Ds Mark III with EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens.

We will look out for that story, and many more, from a precociously talented Swedish photojournalist who, despite being only 30-years-old, already has packed 13 years of frontline experience into an astonishingly successful career.

Technical

Magnus Wennman's equipment:

Cameras:
EOS-1Ds Mark lll
2x EOS-1D Mark lll
EOS 5D Mark ll

Lenses:
EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF50mm f/1.4 USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM
EF300mm f/4L IS USM
EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM

Biography: Magnus Wennman

Magnus Wennman

Magnus Wennman has been working as a photojournalist since the age of 17 when he started his career with a local newspaper, Dalademokraten, in Sweden. Since 2001 he has worked as a staff photographer on Scandinavia’s biggest daily paper, Aftonbladet. Magnus concentrates mainly on feature and news stories and has worked in more than 50 countries. He has prestigious photo awards, both in Sweden and internationally.



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