Documenting death

Swedish photojournalist Katarina Premfor on her poignant personal portraits

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Photojournalist Katarina Premfor talks about her exhibition of works that document her father’s illness and eventual death.

In June 2011, Swedish photojournalist Katarina Premfor’s father suffered a stroke. During his rehabilitation, she started taking pictures of him to encourage and illustrate any small improvements he achieved during the lengthy process of his recovery. After a year-and-a-half, Premfor showed her pictures to a photographer friend who asked what she planned to do with her footage. Sadly her father eventually passed away but with the support and consent of her family, Gulf Photo Plus and friends and colleagues, Premfor bravely decided to share her experience with the public.

A hesitant and conscientious soul, Premfor’s decision to showcase her photos provoked many emotions. ‘I have been so nervous – I had no idea about people’s reactions. I went through all these different scenarios
– are people going to be accusing me of being sensationalist and ask me why I have done this?’

Yet, these initial fears proved to be unfounded. Premfor’s exhibition has in fact succeeded in highlighting people’s personal experiences with illness and loss. ‘In the end I had this amazing response where everyone came up to me and shared their own stories. Everyone who came to me opened their hearts. Everyone has a story. We don’t see a lot of old people. If you go to Barasti or out to dinner you don’t sit there and say, “I’m so sad about my father dying”.’

There are parts of the exhibition which Premfor refers to as ‘the breaking point’. One such portrait is a picture of her widowed mother alone.

The image captures the isolating trauma of the loss of a companion and clearly resonates with an individual’s own experience of loss and bereavement. Premfor says while many people have had an intense emotional reaction on first seeing this image in the exhibition, most return to the room to finish the story. ‘They came back after a while. I felt awful. I didn’t intend to make everyone break down,’ explains Premfor.

The images in the show are accompanied by matter-of-fact text that Premfor wrote herself. Having worked as a photojournalist for both a newspaper and later for NGOs and UNICEF, Premfor’s pictures have a quality that transcends regular family snaps. While she’s aware of her professional eye, the pictures were taken organically and were never intended for public consumption. In the many hours that she spent by her father’s bedside, her camera was both a comfort and a welcome distraction as she was able to occupy her attention away from upsetting events and endless hours of fear. Her father even used the camera in an attempt to improve his dexterity as part of his rehabilitation.

Ultimately, this thoughtful show is the opposite of sensationalist. It’s a heartbreaking account of a very real human tragedy and a highly personal experience that exposes both the vulnerability and fragile nature of life. In a city where the population tends to be young and the lifestyle for many Western expats is relatively luxurious and carefree, this kind of challenging work is one of the significant reminders that after everything, we’re all still human.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Pappa’ at Gulf Photo Plus, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz (04 380 8545).
Runs: February 22.
Artist: Katarina Premfor

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