MATS ALFREDSSON

The Confessions of a Street Photographer

By: Filip Svensson | September 14, 2021

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

To dare to get close. To be able to get close. To capture and preserve the moments when we are as humans, the most. To many, street photography is an unknown genre but to the initiated it is and artform that spans the epochs, puts perspective on life and allows us to get close to what is human.

I meet Mats—who has photographed on streets and in public spaces all over the world, published books, and has exhibited in Sweden as well as in the USA—on a gravelly yard outside of Borås. We have just ate. The sun is shining, the chairs are hard.

 

The coffee tasty.

– The theatre of the street is constantly unfolding before us, we just need the eyes to see it, Mats states and I feel it all starting to sink in. That it is not only about easy motives for someone aimlessly wandering about with their camera on an afternoon, but about something more.

 

Something bigger.

 

Mats refers to well-known street photographer Bruce Gilden who noted that, ”When you can smell the street, it’s street photography. When you feel as if you are there, it’s street photography.” But that it is also about capturing the times, about human behavior, about how we react. And that it doesn’t matter where on the planet we are—because we have the same human behavior everywhere.

 

An apparently timeless aspect of what becomes a time capsule from the now. ”But you also do it to have a hell of a good time,” Mats laughs with his Gothenburg accent and brings us down to Earth.

”At one point someone asked me: Are you a voyeur, or a participant?”

– I try to get as close as possible to what transpires. At one point someone asked me: Are you a voyeur, or a participant?

”My style of today leans towards me being more of a participant than a voyeur of the moment. Which doesn’t mean that I intrude or that I change anything, but rather that when I take an image the people who see it should be able to feel that they are there, in the event, in the moment. It’s almost like you’re able to reach out and touch the motive—touch the moment.

Proximity and presence infuse the portfolio of Alfredsson. And a certain darkness. But at the same time a curiosity for the peculiar and an eye for love—traits that in themselves feel very human.

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

Our conversation gravitates toward people and the encounter with the camera. And to how capturing the untouched before it is gone can actually be done.

 

– You have to be quick. You have to read the moment from the onset, that there is a moment to be photographed. And when the first image is taken, the subject becomes aware of the camera and then the moment is gone. Because then the subject starts to pose, act, or laugh nervously or something. Like you said, ”the untouched moment” is gone. That was a very good expression by you, it really is the untouched moment. Then again, it happens that I just shoot until the person looks up and meets my eye. That exact 1/10th of a second can be very good. And one second later it is gone.

”I still have days or moments when I’m out shooting and I feel like I’m worthless”

– It really sounds like there is an art to Street’, I think out loud. ”Yes, this is an artform and like with all forms of art, you need to practice. I have done this for some 16-17 years, but I still have days or moments when I’m out shooting and I feel like I’m worthless. >>

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

>> That I don’t know anything, and that nothing is working and I don’t dare to lift my camera, and I feel like ’It will all turn to sh*t today’ and so on. Days like this you just have to accept. But the more you keep at it; the more you practice, the better you get. You can get comments like ’you had a hell of a luck capturing that precise moment.’ But in reality the more you practice—the luckier you get. You learn to compose your image in your mind before you take the shot.”

 

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

When we touch upon the subject of composition, we fall helplessly into impossible question of makes a good image, and what differentiates two seemingly equal images from each other.

”Not everyone has the ability to see it”

– It’s hard to know when it’s a good image. But it’s the same thing here, the more you practice, the more you’re able to feel that ’this is good.’ You can have 10 similar images, but only one is good. In such case it’s the tiny details that makes the difference. I’d like to put it like this: not everyone has the ability to see it. You need that gaze, the photographic eye in order to sense the difference between a kind of good image, and a good image. It could be a glance. The motion of a hand. A finger. A strain of hair caught in the wind. It’s the tiny, tiny details that turns a so-so image into a good one. And a mediocre into an awesome one.

 

Perhaps we will be able to delve deeper into the impossible later on, I think to myself. ”But you must not forget that it is humans you’re photographing” continues Mats, finding his stride. ”It’s important to have respect. Ethics and morality comes in here. I trust my gut instinct, that something feels right. If it feels all wrong, to instance exploit someone in a vulnerable position for instance, then you don’t publish that image.”

We arrive at a topic all street photographers encounter sooner or later: Someone getting offended by having their picture taken.

”That can provoke”

 – It’s extremely important to document. This is what I always say, and this is important: it’s necessary to take this type of images. And that can provoke.

We return to the bigger perspective and Mats broaches the notion that looking at images from the ’50s, ’60s, and so on can be so rewarding. To be allowed to step into that time capsule. To feel how things were. The clothes. The haircuts. The environments. The smell of the street, as it was then. And if you bring this up with the one being offended, ”then you have turned the perspective,” Mats says. And the person can feel like a part of something bigger.

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

”Because if not, what do we have to leave to posterity?” Mats wonders. ”How did it look where we are sitting now, if there are no images? Or if all images are selfies?”

 

I sense there is a seriousness about this. That the passion is not just about photographs, but about that bigger thing. A perspective that started when the first street photographers hauled their boxes out and met reality, to long after we—I, you who are reading this, and Mats—have left this life.

”It’s a very pretentious thought”

I ask Mats if this is the mindset of most street photographers, that it is in fact something of a calling. ”No,” Mats replies and continues, ”and perhaps most shouldn’t think like that either. You do it because you’re damn interested in photography. You want a different way to take pictures. Capture people…”

 

I feel the cup in my hand.

 

Notice that the place has gone quiet.

 

Perhaps it’s the children a couple of tables away that have stopped wreaking havoc, perhaps it is our conversation that is approaching the untouched.

 

”I have done this for so long, and I think I’m serious enough, so what I’m hoping for is for people to look at my images in 50 years from now. Not all of them, but a few of them at least perhaps. It’s a very pretentious thought…”

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

”I believe it’s very human to feel like you want to be a part of something bigger,” I reply while noticing my own silent yearning.

 

To leave something behind… Mats begins but holds his thought for a moment. ”It’s very egotistical to think that you should leave something behind. ’Who does he think he is? Taking images that he believes people will want to watch in 50 years…’ But it’s like with everything—just coincidences. If someone takes the initiative, if someone is still interested. Or it all becomes nothing… but it can happen!” There is now a fire in Mats’s eyes. ”And this is what I’m talking about; I love to look at the images of Vivian Maier who shot in Chicago in the fifties. Her amazing images now showing the entire world what things looked like back then. I love those images! And to look at them… it inspires! And it will be the same in 50, 60 years. People will be curious about how things looked today. How people were, and how people behaved.”

 ”In order not to make things too pretentious—it’s also one hell of an ego boost”

But then again… continues Mats, feeling his feet losing grip on the veritable ice rink that is the home of the law of Jante; a heavily ingrained version of tall poppy syndrome. ”I mean, in order not to make things too pretentious—it’s also one hell of an ego boost to feel that you’ve achieved a f*cking good image. To feel that you’ve nailed everything. The composition, the moment, the lighting, that everything was awesome. That makes me happy. So it’s my happiness in the moment, as well. To be able to feel ”Wow, this is my best image this year.”

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

”Do you have an image you feel like ’this is my best image ever?’” I ask, sensing the air between us becoming lighter.


– That’s a f*cking hard question! Mats exclaims as we both laugh. ”I have a few images, in particular a couple of images I shot a few years ago which are very fond to me, and will stay with me for the rest of my life. But then the question is, which could be difficult for me to be the judge of, is it my best image? There are so many things to consider. What do you want to get out of the image? What does it convey? Who does it speak to? But I have a few that I’m quite in love with, I do. Absolutely.”

”It has to chafe a little, disturb a little, perhaps annoy a little”

– I’ve been meaning to ask you what it is about these images that makes them special to you, but it feels like you’ve sort of ducked that question already? ”They make me happy!” Mats replies with certainty and ponders: ”But it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly it is that makes an image good. You could put it like this, according to certain criteria perhaps, is it an image that tells a story? Is it an image that I can see myself having on my wall and live with for like 10 years? >>

Photo: Mats Alfredsson

>> In other words, is it an image I can imagine looking at over and over again? That type of image is right up there. It has to make you feel something. It has to chafe a little, disturb a little, perhaps annoy a little.

”Now I want to ask you in a way that might chafe a little”

– We’ve touched upon this subject… I open carefully. ”That which chafes… and something that chafes a lot of people, and perhaps even more so for us with the law of Jante, is the thing with the pretentiousness—perhaps—in art. So, now I want to ask you in a way that might chafe a little: Do you believe that street photography is getting the artistic recognition it deserves?

 

And I think I see it chafing Mats.

 

But also that he likes it.

 

– This is what I think; it has gotten better and better. Often you celebrate the recognized old masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Vivian Maier and so on. But it’s like it is with everything, they are people who have made an impression and then passed away, and they gain more and more recognition as time goes by. And become more sought after. I’ve sold quite a lot of street photography, to private collectors as well as public places like hotels and restaurants. And they have been curious about this particular genre. So I think it has become a lot better in the last few years. >>

Photo: Mats Alfredsson
”A hopeless mission”

>> But I have been told that ’street photography isn’t something you can sell to people,’ that it’s a hopeless mission because who would want a picture of a stranger in their own home? Which is true—for the one who is not really interested in photography. But if you’re genuinely interested, and understands the genre, it’s not true. There is an interest in having this type of images in your home. But you have to understand the genre. Which brings us to the fact that I’m highly involved in a project where we’re organizing the first street photo festival in Scandinavia (Gothenburg Street Photo Festival), with the explicit purpose of developing the nordic street photo scene. To get more people interested, to get more people to understand it––and to get more people to talk about it. To cement the brand, so to speak. And with that, we will also build the acceptance for having this types of images in your home. But of course, you have to be interested in photography.”

 

Life calls and our brief encounter is over. We leave the gravelly yard as if nothing has happened.

 

After having met this peculiar man, I have a lot of impressions to digest. And the more I step into these moments, captured in this fascinating genre, the more I realize that I have discovered a world within a world.

 

A raw and naked version of our own, where the masters make the time stand still.

Photo: Mats Alfredsson