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ďťżSocieties in black and white

Sunday, July 6th, 2014

Veins curl in a gnarled arm like the bark on an old tree trunk. A refugee girl’s bright, alert eyes are windows to a homeland she has never seen. A transgender person posing for a formal portrait looks confidently straight into the lens. A victim of an acid attack, her face horrifyingly disfigured, is a testament to the depth of greed and injustice in our world.

Photo:Jan Møller Hansen

Photographer Jan Møller Hansen denies that he goes out deliberately seeking these images of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. He says photography is all about telling a story, and the stories of those living in the margins of society represent real drama. And Hansen, a diplomat-photographer tells those stories of the excluded and voiceless through stark black-and-white images.

“You can get closer to the person with black and white, the images are more powerful because there is no colour to distract you,” Hansen explains, “you can concentrate on the texture, features, tone and dynamic range of the image.”

He is self-taught, and what started out as a hobby has now become a powerful way to document and show the reality of the dark underbelly of our societies. When posted in Bangladesh, Hansen ventured into the teeming slums by the railroad tracks, the shelters for victims of acid attacks, the metal-strewn beaches where supertankers are beached to be dismantled for scrap.

“The life of a diplomat can get a bit boring with expats and clubs, and photography was a bad excuse for me to meet people I would otherwise never get to meet, connecting with them and telling their stories,” Hansen says.

When Hansen was posted to Nepal, he was happy to be back in a country that he knew well from a previous stint 20 years ago as a volunteer. But this time, he was returning with his new hobby, and whenever he has some free time from his work at the Danish Embassy, Hansen is off with his camera bag, taking pictures along the recycling shops along the Bagmati, refugee settlements, abandoned cement factories, or brick kilns.

One of his most striking and pictures is a long shot taken at Pashupati of a mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby. The picture won‘s 2013 Photo Award on Documentary (People’s Choice) and is the kind of photo that Hansen says “hits you in the gut”.

A mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby.

A mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby. Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Through black and white pictures, Hansen puts the physical frailty of human beings in vulnerable situations in sharp contrast to the uncaring, unfeeling, unjust world around them. But even amidst all this squalour and suffering, you see the triumph of the human will, the spirit of survival.

A Pakistani refugee attending school in Kathmandu.

A Pakistani refugee attending school in Kathmandu.
Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Hansen just contributed to a ‘Refugee Stories’ exhibition of black-and-white portraits of urban refugees in Kathmandu from Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Somalia. What comes across from those portraits are not despair and hopelessness, but stories of families focused on finding a future.

Jan Møller Hansen (right) with Kunda Dixit. Photo: Milan Poudel

Jan Møller Hansen (right) with Kunda Dixit.
Photo: Milan Poudel

“People ask me why I am always negative,” Hansen says, “I am not. The people in my pictures may be poor but they have a lot of dignity. And they all have stories of survival.”

Kunda Dixit

Read also:
The first day of Dasain
Forget us not 
State of statelessness

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14 Responses to “ďťżSocieties in black and white”

  1. nepalikukur on Says:

    Unfortunately, the photo that won Hansen an award is probably one he should not have taken or published. A powerful image, no doubt, but without consent (one assumes) nor the imperative of reportage (e.g. conflict), this is mere voyeurism.

  2. Bandana Shah on Says:

    I want to ask the photographer as well as the blog writer, what is their message via capturing and posting this photo. Is it ethical to capture people in their moment of grief without their permission? For once try putting yourself in the shoes of the lamenting mother.

  3. Genisha Chhantel-Kaucha on Says:

    This is a beautiful capture but if I was that mother, I wouldn’t have been happy at all. In fact, I would have so much rage in me, I would have been hell bent on destroying this photographer for whatever she/he is worth.

  4. Erin Lynn on Says:

    I’m also not sure about the ethics of this photo; id be enraged if this was captured of me and I did not approve the photographer.

  5. D Rai on Says:

    Totally agree with Nepalikukur on this. The picture of the grieving mother – it hits you in the gut alright but what right has anyone to amplify someone’s grief through the public domain? Hansen’s ethical judgement on this particularly photo is seriously doubtful!

  6. Mabindra Regmi on Says:

    This is not good. I know we are losing privacy through facebook but I think this is going a little bit too far.

  7. ap on Says:

    six responses. none of them in favor of the photographer, nor the editor…something Kunda should respond to…ethics, privacy, dignity…where are we going with these?

  8. TD on Says:

    As much as photography is a powerful story-telling tool, I cannot help but wonder what happens to the subjects of the photograph after a nice gallery exhibition has been organized. It makes me think of Facebook activism that is so rampant these days when people seem to believe that just ‘liking’ a photograph can bring change. I’m sure the photographer has good intentions, but taking pictures of the suffering and making a public exhibition of it is actually demeaning if you aren’t actively doing something concrete about it. I hope in the future to hear more stories of how he is helping the lives of the subjects he captures, now that would be genuinely inspiring.

  9. Saurav Satyal on Says:

    This is not ethical for sure. Nepal has no privacy

  10. Deepak Shrestha on Says:

    I hope the one who posted this picture got consent from the family in the picture. RIP

  11. Kunda Dixit on Says:

    It’s always a fine line when discussing the ethics of the pros and cons of candid street photography. Journalism schools get students to debate it and conclude there is no hard-and-fast rule in striking a balance between privacy and the portrayal of the reality of daily life. Every image must be judged on a case-by-case basis.

    This one is borderline, which is probably one of the reasopns it is so powerful. Photographs of grief and bereavement are especially sensitive. The image of a mother on the death of a baby is heart-breaking, as this one is. But Jan has approached the subject with sensitivity, not sensationalism.

    The excruciating grief of the relatives brings out the compassion and humanity in all of us — feelings that are getting rarer and rarer in this materialistic, uncaring world. Yes it is extremely disturbing, and some of us react to that distress by questioning the intentions of the image maker.

    The photographer has used a long lens, so as not to intrude. Pashupati funerals are inherently public events where private loss is shared. Nepal’s infant mortality rate has improved but it is still very high. We employ statistics to talk about it (86 per 1,000 live births, etc) these numbers are numbing and desenstise the inconsolable individual tragedies of each of the 40 children who die every day across Nepal due to preventable causes. Tomorrow another 40 will die.

    This one picture made many of us cry. It burned our souls, and hopefully the shared grief will stir some of us into action.

  12. Jan Møller Hansen on Says:

    Dear commentators,

    I fully understand your reactions and feelings. I was far away for the scene and had no interference what so ever. I was not the only one who took a photo. But it raises a lot of ethical questions about photography. I don’t believe and feel that the photo shows disrespect for the mother or family – on the contrary, one feels with the grieving mother. As a viewer one connects with the mother and the family. People whom I have never met wrote to me and told me their personal stories of death in the close family – they wanted to share their feelings long after it happened.

    Every day one see images from around the world with tragedy, sorrow and death. I think it’s part of our life as human beings.

    I understand your sentiments – but as a photographer I shot what I see. It was an important moment that I could not let go.

  13. Sandhya Sharma on Says:

    Dear Mr. Dixit/ Hansen,

    Now we know that the photographer had not taken the consent of the family to take the picture, let alone publish it, how can it not be an ethical issue?

    In Nepal, the funeral is public so that people can come and mourn with a family.Not to take picture and publish it. Please learn and respect the culture of the country you are visiting.

    How would you feel when there is a death in your family and some one took the pictures and published it without your knowledge?

  14. Rajan Shrestha on Says:


    Justifying the use of the super zoom lens to “not interfere”, is just but lame. Ethics at its worst.

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