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31 aug


Niels Ackermann – “It’s like a dream”

When Niels Ackermann first came to Visa, he was just another visitor, trying to hobble round the town on a badly damaged ankle. His return sees him not only exhibiting but picking up one of the festival’s premier prizes, the Rémi Ochlik Award for the best young reporter.

© Yiannis Katsaris © Yiannis Katsaris

‘White Angel’, the story that Niels is showing, has quite literally changed his life.

“Coming here in these conditions, it’s like a dream”, Niels says, smiling the smile of a man who can hardly believe his luck. “I arrived yesterday and I’ve had so many meetings, I haven’t been able to see anything yet. When I was registering, I could hear people whispering ‘It’s him!’” Niels is determined not to let all the fuss go to his head, however. “This project changed so many things in my life, it’s hard to enumerate them all. In terms of my career, it’s a very quick leap forward. But I don’t want to get used to the attention. For me it’s still something exceptional. What matters is what you produce.”

He’s equally level-headed about what the prize money will mean to him. “It’s important to keep the money I’ve received from awards as special resources. I put it aside for exceptional things that may happen… new photo projects, for example. I pay my bills with the regular work that I do. That’s how I pay for my independence in Ukraine and focus on longer term projects. The benefit of these awards is more the opportunity to show the work to a larger audience, have some amazing exhibitions and meet some great people.”

Niels is Swiss and first discovered Ukraine, where his Visa show is set, back in 2009. “I was travelling around with a friend and we wanted to go to Russia, because we were fascinated by Russian iconography and architecture. But it was too much fuss and too expensive to go there, so we decided to try Ukraine, which we knew nothing about. And we fell in love with the country… the people were so open-minded and generous.”

© Niels Ackermann/Lundi13 © Niels Ackermann/Lundi13

Slavutych, Ukraine, June 1, 2013. Zhenya and Yulia with their witnesses, Irina and Artiom, at their wedding ceremony in the City Hall.

The story that Niels’ exhibition tells, of life in Ukraine after Chernobyl, came about just as fortuitously. “If I’d come looking for a story about Chernobyl, I would probably have ended up in the same place as many others. I came across Slavutych by chance – a city in a forest just 40km from Chernobyl, that was planned after the disaster and appeared in 18 months – and I was interested in how young people live there. What are their hopes and, most importantly, how do they see their future, as the city has no clear future?”

The focus of the story is Yulia, a young woman who Niels met in a park. “The story I wanted to tell is about life and love and the transition that you make when you become an adult and have to decide what you want to do with your life. I was 25 when I started this, so it was legitimate for me to do work about youth. The project started quite wide, but progressively Yulia’s life became more interesting and the focus narrowed.”

© Sean Miller

CPN interviews Swiss photojournalist Niels Ackermann about his Rémi Ochlik Award winning story. Please click on the image above to watch the video.

Niels will be returning to Slavutych, but anticipates looking at it from a different perspective. “When I go back, I hope that Yulia will be living somewhere else, because she deserves more freedom than she can get there. If you dream big, Slavutych quickly becomes too small, and she dreams big. But I will go back to see how the city develops in order to survive.”

One story Niels is very unlikely to cover is the on-going conflict in Ukraine. “I’m a small independent photographer within a small structure. We’re not AFP or Reuters or even one of the big agencies and we don’t have the resources to compete with them, so we have to produce different stories. I had calls asking if I would go to Maidan (the central square in Kiev, where major confrontations took place) and they never offered anything. If you had some pictures they liked, they would take them and maybe pay you in six months, but they wouldn’t assign you. They want to put all the responsibility and the risk on the photographers, then get the pictures for a ridiculous sum. I admire those who do that work, but I prefer to focus on other stories that give another perspective.”

Visa pour l'Image 2016