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Mads Nissen on assignment in Colombia with Hasselblad X1D & H5D

Photographing the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, Mads Nissen took the X1D & H5D from the palace to the jungle. 

A combination of three things drives Mads Nissen’s love of photography: creativity, curiosity and social awareness. And it’s this potent combination of skill and passion that made him a natural choice to photograph this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceOn his way to Norte Santander, one of the areas far most affected by the armed conflict, President Santos is being brief on the current security situation on ground by General Maldonado. Inside the Presidential airplane. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center 

“I’ve always been visually curious, I grew up in a small countryside of Denmark, and at that time I thought it was a very boring place. I was really curious about the rest of the world, I wanted to see other places and see how other people lived,” Nissen says. He found that photography gave him the opportunity to explore the world and be creative for the sake of it, but crucially, it enabled him to tell the stories of people whose voices often go unheard or ignored.

“Already when I was 12 or 13 I was politically aware, I became engaged in campaigns against racism and so on. I come from a home where my family would discuss the state of the world and I just felt from a very early age that I needed to do something. I was aware that there is inequality in the world and my work is often a reaction to that.”

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeacePortrait of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos from inside Casa de Nariño or Palacio de Nariño, the official home and principal workplace of the President of Colombia. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

Nissen’s award-winning work has taken him on a photographic journey that has brought him international acclaim, such as winning the first prize in the World Press Photo contest 2015. However, when approached to photograph the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, as part of its permanent exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Nissen knew this would be among the most momentous work of his career as a photojournalist.

Choosing a camera to match the gravity of this assignment was a critical task for Nissen; he typically shoots with a range of cameras, using everything from his iPhone or Canon DSLR to his classic Hasselblad 503 CX. But for this project he specifically wanted to shoot medium format.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceA demonstration with several thousands participants, mostly young people, raise their concern for more violence and their urgent support for a peace deal. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

“For this project I had a vision in my head. I needed the great quality of the medium format, but in a compact package that allows me to capture the intimacy that is key in my images. If you’re shooting reportage/documentary style as I am, you want to meet people at eye level. I want the authenticity in each situation, and for that people need to forget about the camera. I want to connect as just another person, not as a photographer and that’s much easier when the camera is as small as the X1D.

“It’s not that big cameras are bad, you just need to be aware that people will react differently depending on which camera you choose. This camera gave me the great Hasselblad image quality that we all know, but with an unprecedented discreetness.”

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceThe last military outpost of the national army before entering an area dominated by the FARC-guerilla. Soldiers on guard. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center 

Nissen feels that cameras can sometimes create a real barrier between himself and his subjects, but he found that working with the mirrorless X1D allowed him to step out from behind the camera and be more present in each moment. Whether walking through the opulent Presidential Palace, Casa de Nariño in Bogatá, or capturing candid portraits of FARC rebel soldiers in the humid Colombian jungle, the X1D satisfied Nissen’s need for maintaining a low profile. And the resulting images from his Nobel Peace Prize assignment are proof that his discreet photographic approach delivers a raw intimacy that creates a vivid sense of place.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceDimas Banuera, 62, a fisherman with the neckless of Jesus Christ that he got as a present from his daughter. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

“When The Nobel Peace Center asked if I wanted to photograph this year’s exhibition I was instantly positive. The Nobel Peace Prize, for me it’s by far the biggest prize in the world. When you go through The Nobel Field next to my own exhibition in Oslo and see all of the past winners, you realise that it represents the history of humanity. It’s quite an honour to contribute a small part.”

Carrying a huge amount of expectation and pressure, this assignment demanded a lot of patience from Nissen, as he had to pick his moments with the President, and work around his understandably large entourage and busy schedule.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceInside the hidden FARC-guerilla camp of Frente 51. David Espína, 23 with his lover Andrí Rivera, 31. The two have only recently got together.  | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center 

“When he does something, you follow,” Nissen said, “there is always this entourage of people, and you can’t interrupt him, so you just follow and get the moments you get.”

Using only the 45mm and 90mm XCD lenses, Nissen was able to capture a great amount of detail, preferring the wider angle of the 45mm to give him a window-style view into the exotic location. He also refused to use any additional lighting, relying on natural or ambient light only.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to Peace
Sharid Popayan, 1 year, with her mother Nasly Martinez, 19, at the funeral of her father. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

“You need to be discreet, you can’t photograph with a flash, and you know, even if I could, I wouldn’t. I’m not interested in perfect light. To me, perfect is authenticity; to me that is far more interesting.”

It may have been ideal in terms of size but choosing the X1D for this project wasn’t without some hesitation for Nissen, as it was the first time he’d used a electronic viewfinder.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to Peace Drinking, gambling and dancing. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

“Honestly I was sceptical, because photography is about seeing the light and the subtleness of how it falls in a room or on a face. So the electronic viewfinder was my biggest fear. But surprisingly I adjusted easily to it and after a very short time I totally forgot about it; that’s how I like my camera. I want my camera to be an extension of my arm, so the less I think about the camera while I’m shooting, the better.”

Nissen was impressed with the X1D’s colour representation, the high level of detail it could capture, and the dynamic range. He recalls one instance in particular during the Nobel assignment that the camera’s strengths made a significant difference. It was in Colombia, close to the equator where the sun is really harsh in the middle of the day, and he was photographing the President wearing a white shirt.

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to Peace
Alexandra Mazo, 12, with her cellphone on her way down the mountain after finishing school. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center 

“This is really a challenge now right? This is tough. Usually what I would do is set my exposure to the highlight and the shadows would just be black, because if you don’t do that everything else will burn out. But with this camera I could still get a high level of detail in the shadows without the highlights burning out. I remember seeing my images and the histogram on the back of the X1D for the first time and just thinking: ‘oh my god, this is amazing!’”

Nissen said that the pictures he’s able to capture with the medium-format CMOS sensor of the X1D are “less flat”, conveying a greater sense of depth, and significantly higher ceiling for digital image noise, and he used these features to his advantage throughout this assignment. Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceInside the remote FARC-guerilla camp El Diamante. Tatiaya Saens, 23 years, 10 years with FARC holding her M16 weapon in her hands. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

“Some people say that it doesn’t matter about the camera; it’s all about what’s in front of the camera, and that’s partly true. But in order to capture what’s in front of the camera, the camera does matter and I really learned that here [in Colombia] because as I said, I was able to make new pictures, which I would usually not be able to make. With the X1D I already see possibilities with projects that I didn’t see before. I shot pictures with this at ISO 3200 and up to ISO 6400, which was typically an issue before.

“Also, with the depth that it can produce, I found it really interesting to work with because you can allow yourself to take three steps back in the situation and still have that great, almost 3D look within the image. It doesn’t become less intimate just because you’re further away and in documentary photography that is key.”

Hope Over Fear - Colombias path to PeaceColombia is believed to be one of the most landmine contaminated countries in the world, and it still records some of the highest numbers of accidents per year. | © Mads Nissen / Politiken for Nobel Peace Center

Nissen believes that whenever the right camera with the right technology comes along, it changes the way photographers tell their stories.

“Suddenly new possibilities are there, which were not possible before. Like when the iPhone came, it wasn’t just another telephone, it changed the way we communicated with each other. People say that photography is a language, well with the Hasselblad X1D, it’s like you get a new vocabulary. And that allows you to make much more refined and complex expressions.”

The day after accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, President Juan Manuel Santos opened the exhibition, “Hope over fear” at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, which includes the work of Mads Nissen. The exhibition will be open to the public until 26 November 2017.

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