“When I photograph, I try to use my instincts as much as possible. It is when pictures are unconsidered and irrational that they come to life; that they evolve from showing to being.” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol has developed an expressive, somewhat abrasive style of monochrome photography that focuses on the search for love in harsh surroundings whilst highlighting the quest for acceptance and the universality of human emotion.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, 1976, Aue Sobol was formally educated at The European Film College, then was later admitted into Fatamorgana school in Denmark- a college famed for its progressive and experimental teachings in photography.
It was here that Aue Sobol developed his now-famous photographic style, which eventually led Magnum Photos to recognize his talent and recruit him to the agency.
Aue Sobol’s work has been driven by a desire to find light in darkness. Experiencing the trauma and pain that comes with the death of a parent in early adolescence, Aue Sobol has said of his father’s sudden death “It was a traumatized period which was filled with darkness and fear. Once I realized that I was able to isolate my emotions and communicate them through my pictures, I felt like I had found an ability which was unique and which I wanted to explore further.”
Aue Sobol’s drive to find light in moments of shadow and doubt has driven him to the furthest reaches of the planet. Immersing himself fully in the cultures he has come to document, his work transcends the limitations of traditional reportage or documentary, often by encapsulating a personal, subjective element of life as it quietly unfolds.
In 1999 he went to live in the Tiniteqilaaq on the East Coast of Greenland and subsequently spent the next three years there, working as a fisherman and photographing the everyday life of the townspeople. It was in Greenland that he fell in love with a local woman and eventually published a book titled Sabine, which chronicled their life together in this period and which was subsequently nominated for the 2005 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize.
Aue Sobol’s following large-scale work began in 2005, in Guatemala, where he traveled to make a documentary about a young Mayan girl’s first journey to the ocean. It was in 2006 that he met the indigenous family Gomez-Brito, a family of Ixil Mayans living near the village of Nebaj in a remote mountain region, inaccessible to outsiders until modern times.
The Ixil Mayans long maintained their traditional beliefs and way of dress and worked on small plots of land that belonged to their family for generations. Welcoming him into their lives, the Gomez-Brito family subsequently allowed Aue Sobol to stay with them for a month and tell the story of their daily existence. This series won the World Press Photo Award in the Daily Lives Category the same year.
Following these immersive experiences, Aue Sobol traveled to Tokyo to make work for the next two years, creating a series that culminated in the monograph I, Tokyo. The series documented the underbelly of a glowing metropolis, torn between modernity and tradition, and was awarded the Leica European Publishers Award in 2008 and published internationally.
After Tokyo, Jacob made a monograph entitled By the River of Kings– a record of the people and sights along the main river that runs through Bangkok. Later he began photographing along the Trans-Siberian Railroad and then spent the next 5 years photographing the remote Russian province of Yakutia. He has also been working on long-term projects in the United States and Denmark, and for his entire working life has had a particular interest in couples across the globe
“To me the camera has always been a tool to find and depict love to a point that it became an obsession. How close can I get to a love that feels true in my images?” – Jacob Aue Sobol
Aue Sobol’s work is visually stirring, lacking in the softness one initially associates with intimacy, but powerfully striking nonetheless. His work teaches us the importance of having an affinity to a place, of forming personal connections with your subjects and of striving to encapsulate feelings rather than facts.
Aue Sobol has said of himself: “Though I am a shy and inhibited person among strangers, I do not wish to be an outsider. I am a social human being and my photography is a social gesture; I am reaching my hand out to the surrounding world and the people I meet.”
This ‘gesture’, is viscerally evident in his work, which often gives the sense that the photographer is not present, or is at least part of the surroundings owing to the fact the subjects seem totally at ease, or even, unaware of the camera at all.
Jacob Aue Sobol was the judge of our 2023 Black & White Photography Award you can view the results here.
All images © Jacob Aue Sobol