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Rikard Österlund is a Swedish photographer based in Rochester, Kent. Österlund moved to the UK in 2001 where he completed a BA (hons) in Editorial & Advertising Photography at Kent Institute of Art and Design. He also holds a PGCert in teaching creative arts.
The main focus of his work is on portraits and advertising for commercial clients, however in this interview Rikard shares his Kickstarter campaign for his book project Look I’m wearing all the colours, a project exploring the relationship with his wife Zara and the impact of her invisible chronic illnesses. You can back Rikard’s campaign up until 1st June.
What is your background in photography? How did you get started and what kind of photographer would you describe yourself as?
I was a teenager when I start taking pictures of friends, bands, self-portraits. I remember skipping PE classes to spend time in the school darkroom, printing the images I’d made. In 1997 I saw an exhibition by Swedish photographer Anders Petersen and it left a lasting impression. My hometown Norrköping had a shop where you could by international magazines and I remember buying copies of Dazed & Confused and i-D magazine, getting inspired by the freedom their photographers seem to have. In Sweden most magazines seemed bland in comparison. I spent some time assisting photographers in Gothenburg but soon I decided to move to the UK to do my photography degree. In 2001 I moved to the UK to study Editorial & Advertising photography and those three years were an intense experience exploring a lot of different types of photography. My course work was entirely autobiographical, but on the side I made fashion images for other students. When I graduated I was offered a teaching job so I lectured part-time whilst building up my client list. I currently divide my time between commercial clients shooting portraits and lifestyle and my own personal projects.
How did you meet your now wife, Zara, and at what point did you become aware of her illnesses?
We had many shared friends but hadn’t actually met until I saw her modelling in a friends fashion show at the university where I worked. I was at the other end of the catwalk taking pictures. We met up soon after and it didn’t take long until we moved in together. I knew about Zara’s conditions from early on. Some of my friends had described them to me, but it was like Chinese whispers and no-one actually had any idea of what was going on.
Has it always been instinctual for you to photograph those around you, including relationships? How did Zara first feel about this?
Yes, I think so. But when I was younger it used to be more arranged – I would book a time to take some pictures – it has slowly become more intuitive and part of day to day life. I no longer feel obliged to use a certain camera, but am happy to photograph with whatever camera I have nearby. The shutter woke her up once when I photographed her sleeping, she looked really beautiful. Looking back at photographs is like a travelling back in time, not just to a specific event, but to a state of mind, an emotion.
How did the project Look I’m wearing all the colours come about?
I didn’t think about it as a project to start with at all. Me and Zara where talking one day and agreed that it would be good to document the flair ups. After that conversation I felt more able to bring the camera up to my eye on the hard days. That was the only conversation we had until a few years later when I felt it was time to compile some of the images. It was important for me to show everything, the great days and the hard. I wanted it to look like life and not a Instagram curated thing. So initially I chose images based on their individual strength rather than how they worked together. The first time I did an edit of what has become the book was at a Self Publish Be Happy workshop in early 2016. It was the first time I showed any of the images (20 of them) and it was a nurturing environment to work in. After that I continued working on it and showing people who didn’t know me and Zara to make sure the ebb and flow of the book translated. I am forever indebted to Swedish photographer Anna Clarén who has been a guiding light whilst working on the edit. It became evident that the core of the project is a love story.
What do you think you’ve learnt about invisible illnesses throughout your relationship?
The first thing is how common hidden, invisible conditions are and that despite this there is a stigma attached to them. It is believed that one third of the population live with a hidden condition. Travelling into London can be exhausting and we need to have regular rests. Asking for a seat on the Underground can be a challenge with a hidden condition, no sling or crutch to ‘evidence’ your condition.
I have also learnt how incredibly complex it can be to live with a hidden condition. A chronic pain can easily leave you feeling out of control of your own body and in turn cause isolation and depression. The response and reaction from people can aggravate and worsen your mental wellbeing. Since it is rarely spoken about it is easy to feel like you are the only person going through this.
How has photographing Zara — both the intimacies of the relationship, and the flair ups etc, impacted your understanding of living with illness, or your relationship (if at all)?
It has helped me a lot, when you are in the middle of a situation it is hard to see clearly. It is hard to understand the emotions and why something is happening. Looking back at the images afterward has allowed me to get more clarity and understand Zara’s pain more than I would’ve been able to without the photographs. We have both been very open with each other from day one. Zara used to write very personal and exposing poetry and my personal projects left me quite vulnerable at times. So we never really questioned photographing the intimate moments, it just happened. Obviously you never have the intention of showing them to anyone else.
Why has it been important for you to produce a book of this project, and what advice can you offer to other photographs interested in making their first photobook?
I believe that art and storytelling can have a profound impact on our perspective. When I showed the book dummy in an exhibition last year people responded to the images and several people living with fibromyalgia said how much the book mirrored their life. I received a message yesterday from a lady telling me that it ‘really helped my daughters understanding of what I go though as I hide my pain, smile and try and carry on’ You know when you hear a line in a song that explains how you’ve always felt about something but weren’t able to put into words?
I have always made little photobooks for myself and have done the design and print production for a few clients too, but this will be the first widely distributed book of my work. So I am familiar with the different stages of editing, design, paper choices etc. The most difficult thing is to understand is what your story is and then work out how the book can emphasise and carry that story. Oh, and read the colophon pages in your favourite books (to get the details about paper stock, the printer, publisher etc).
How does Zara feel about the project and book?
The first time she saw it was when I had printed the book dummy, so I was very nervous! She sat on the floor in my office and looked through it. It felt like hours passed. After a while she said that she thought it was beautiful and full of all her favourite things. “I think it is the most beautiful and romantic thing I have ever seen, full of hope and love because, despite all of the horrible things we have had to go through, we have always done it together.”
What do you hope viewers take from the project?
I am hoping that they will connect to the story and that there will be some recognition. It is important for both of us to get the story out there, to let people know they are not alone. It would be great to create a crack in the stigma.
Where can people get a copy of the book?
People can make this book a reality by backing it on Kickstarter. If you go to the page there is a short film where you can see more images from the book (stay to the end of the video). A signed copy is £35 incl UK postage – until the 8am 1st June 2018.