Often returning to his subjects to observe the effect of time on a story, Ola Torkelsson is first and foremost a photojournalist, but also writer, videographer and sound man. He likes to work independently. From the intrigues of US politics to some of the darkest elements of the war on terror, from protesters in Cairo to refugees in Europe, he covers a diverse range of subjects. Kontinent caught up with Ola as he prepares once again to return to the US to continue his work on the election.
You’ve recently come back from the United States where you are documenting the 2016 election and the general atmosphere among the American voters. This will be the third American election that you’re covering. Please tell us how it all started? Originally it all started because I have a great interest in politics and the US is a fascinating country. 2008 was the first time I went because I wanted to experience a US election. I was in New Hampshire, the second state in the primary elections, covering Barack Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ campaign. During this time I also traveled around 17 states and did a project portraying over 65 Americans and their thoughts on politics at that time. It was published in the Swedish newspapers SvD and Sydsvenskan. MSBNC, USA, picked up on it and bought it for their site. They thought it was a different and interesting angle. Then I covered the election in 2012, and now it’s time for a new election and I ‘m going back to meet people from all over the country. Perhaps I’ll meet some of the people I met in 2008 and see how life has changed for them.
Where does your interest in American politics come from? I find politics very interesting. I’m interested in the game, the way things are achieved and the way in which they aren’t. We are very influenced by the US in Sweden, yet, unlike here, American elections are very emotional, and then of course everything in US is on a massive scale. It’s a very diverse society in many ways, this can, of course, be both good and bad, which I find fascinating.
Tell us a little about the atmosphere in New York when Barack Obama won in 2008. People probably thought that he could walk on water. I was in Harlem on election night and people were completely enthralled, overjoyed, and so proud. It was of great significance for African-Americans/ progressive Americans.
Initially, there was a quiet, solemn mood. There were long queues, people stood waiting, no-one was in a hurry. Then in the evening when the news came, people cheered and many cried. At that time in Harlem there were no cars, people were in the streets.
Now, in 2016, it’s election time again and there’s a lot of criticism of Obama. This generally comes from the white middle-class and the workers, who feel forgotten and left behind. When Obama ran for president he promised that he would do a lot for the average American, for the black community and for the workers. However, much of Trump’s success is as a result of many people feeling, especially among the white middle class and the workers, that no one speaks for them.
You have been to and photographed at Guantánamo, Cuba, on two occasions, (2008 & 2013). How was it working there? I have traveled and worked in a lot of places around the world as a photojournalist and Guantánamo is the most surreal place I’ve ever been to. When you first arrive there, you’re given a special tour of the military base. At first glance, it’s like any ordinary American military base with a McDonald’s and all the things you might associate with such a place. Then you go two kilometers with a jeep to a prison where people are held 100 meters from the sea, yet most of them have not seen the sea for ten years. The prisoners are not accused of anything. Many will probably not be released, and those who refuse to eat are forced-fed with a tube through the nose.
One of the promises that Obama gave in 2008 was that he would close Guantánamo as soon as he got into office. Why do you think that Obama has not managed to do this? Throughout his time in office, Obama focused very much on the Affordable Care Act, or, as it is known colloquially, ObamaCare. Now, however, it seems that he is doing a final push, this year for example, it’s been Cuba and Iran. He has nothing to lose right now. On the whole, it has been difficult for him in Congress, he has not been able to do much.
Regarding foreign policy, you’ve also been and done ‘Drones USAF’. Can you tell us more about it? Former president, George Bush Jr. was heavily criticized for using (armed) drones when it came to potential terrorists and suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it is actually Obama who has used this to the greatest extent. Obama has extended this program.
A few years ago, in 2013, I visited the primary training-center in the U.S.A for drone operators and pilots. The operators/ pilots walk around in their flight suits, they enter into these small containers where they sit down, just like a pilot in an airplane, and operate the drones. It was an interesting experience. We’ll certainly be seeing more of these drones being used in many different ways.
How is it to work as a photojournalist in the US? Generally, it is pretty good. The Americans are fascinated that Swedes are so interested and are so well informed about the US elections. When I tell them that the election is featured every day in our newspapers, they often say “I can imagine that you Swedes generally know more about the US elections than the average American.”
What do you hope to achieve in the next couple of months? Eight years ago, before the 2008 elections, I met many different American voters in different parts of the country and heard about their lives, hopes and dreams.
I plan to reconnect and meet some of the same people that I met in 2008. It will be exciting to see now, eight years later, how their lives have changed during the Obama years.
During your career, you have done many interesting stories – ‘Drones USAF’, Guantanamo, the US elections and also some projects in the Middle East. Where do you find your stories and how do you proceed? The foundation for me is to try to read as much as I can, I always try to keep up with what’s happening. I read lots of books and different newspapers from across the world. Regarding my own work, although it may sound trite, I very much believe in the old Swedish expression “to mirror the small in the big and the big in the small.” The work on the American electorate is very much in this style, it ‘reflects the election in one person’s life’. It asks ‘how have these eight years been for you?’.
Please define your view on the role of the photojournalist / documentary photographer in today’s society? What does photography mean to you? It is easy that the work becomes polarized these days because things move fast in the media, but nuance is important. Photojournalism for me has a lot to do with nuance. It is important to emphasize things and contribute to a nuanced discussion in order to show that the world, society and humanity is complex.