Kontinent photographer Moa Karlberg’s widely published series ‘Hundred Times the Difference’ will be exhibited at the Gallery Espace Arlaud in Lausanne, Switzerland, between 1st of May and July 3rd, 2016. This powerful body of work was carried out with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation. It was first published by ‘The New Yorker’ in September 2015 after which it received a lot of attention in the international media. We met up with Moa for a chat about her upcoming exhibition.
Could you please tell us a little more about this project?
A few years ago, I started photographing Swedish women in labor. I was fascinated by the intense emotions surrounding this life event and how this expresses itself across the women’s faces. Witnessing a delivery is an intimate and authentic situation, which is particularly suited to documentary work. As the parents-to-be are so focused on what they’re doing, the photographer becomes a ‘fly on the wall’. As a photographer I love to work in these situations.
After having documented several births I was impressed not only by the resources available at Swedish Maternity Wards but also the skill-set of the midwifes. I realized how fortunate Swedish women are to give birth in this country.
As I started looking into maternal mortality rates around the world, my eyes were opened to the global injustice in this field. Research shows that the majority of the fifty most dangerous countries to give birth in are all located in Sub-Saharan Africa. ‘Hundred Times the Difference’ came about due to the fact that I wanted to visualize this global injustice by depicting similarities while emphasizing the differences. I was then offered the opportunity to go to Tanzania where the maternal mortality rate is a hundred times higher than in Sweden.
This series is exclusively made up of black and white portraits without any further surrounding context. What made you decide on that particular visual language?
I wanted the photos to show similarities rather than differences. Regardless of the practical circumstances, all women go through the same physical phases during labor. The images were taken in different light conditions and with different colors present; in Sweden everybody uses the same white gowns and sheets, whereas in Tanzania the fabrics are covered with colorful patterns. So I chose to remove all colors.
My focus was on the women’s facial expressions and their emotions. The photos show similarities between the women (a shared humanity), and the accompanying text focuses more on the differences in maternal healthcare between the two countries.
The women you featured in this work were in Sweden and Tanzania. Did you have to approach the subject differently in each country?
For practical reasons, yes. I was able to work at a slower pace in Sweden, where I could contact mothers-to-be in advance and be on stand-by around their due date. In Tanzania, however, time was limited, it was more about getting in touch with the right authorities. I had to get access to clinics where I would ask women on the spot if they would participate.
‘Hundred times the Difference’ has been published internationally in the news media. What do you think has been its main appeal?
Although many people are aware of the disparities and inequalities in global maternal healthcare, few react emotionally when presented with the statistical data in a traditional way. This is why I started thinking how to explore and present research in a innovative way that appeals to people’s emotions. In the series ‘Hundred Times the Difference’, repetition plays a big role visually. The photographs need each other, I never present them as single photos.
Before I did this project, I didn’t really know what women in labor would look like, what their facial expressions would be. I suppose most people haven’t seen that before. I mean, everybody has seen some kind of birth photos, but not visualized this way.
It strikes me when looking at your different bodies of work that a lot of thought, research and time goes into them. Do you consider yourself more of a documentary photographer than photojournalist?
I try to do what feels important and what stays in my mind. Every now and then I have ideas that just won’t leave my head unless I realize them. Sometimes it takes a long time to carry out a project and sometimes it goes faster. My projects are not always journalistic, however, they are always documentary in nature. I don’t think one should limit oneself to labels.
You have a varied body of work covering a number of issues from around the world. What do you consider to be the common thread running through it?
I’m obsessed with the authenticity of people’s expressions, so I guess that’s the overall thread. In retrospect, I see that many of my projects have been linked to social inequalities and women living lives different from my own.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I just started a project together with one of the Swedish women from ‘Hundred Times the Difference’. She has an interesting personality and is about to give birth to her 9th child. I will help her produce her video blog about her daily life in order for her to connect with mothers of many children. In 2015 I was awarded an education grant from the Swedish Journalist Union, which enabled me to pursue a documentary film workshop at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in Cuba. This new project is a great opportunity for me explore the documentary format in a different medium. Stay tuned!
For details of Moa Karlberg’s forthcoming exhibition, please visit:
Interview by Malin Sjöberg
View more of Moa‘s work here: