At the age of 58 Madlén Hjelmroth decided to quit her job and travel for a year. Her interest in people’s life conditions brought her to choose traveling slowly, mostly by bus and train. Seven months into the journey she has walked the streets and tiny alleys of many places in Asia, stayed at a Buddhistic nunnery in Myanmar, been invited to people’s homes along the way and constantly seeking out an opportunity to interact with locals.
Photography to Madlén is a passion and a way of telling stories. Text and photo supporting each other. Madlén started out with art, mainly painting and sculpture, but her interest in traveling brought the world of photography into her life. Now only using mobile devices for shooting and editing.
This shop made me think of back home, of one of my dearest friends, of her salon. Same check squared floor made me think of her.
How did you start with mobile photography?
Late September 2011 I flew to New York City. Getting off the air shuttle at 11 pm, I faced that amazing atmosphere and the city lights and wanted to take a photo of it. My camera was at the bottom of my backpack, so I decided to take a photo with my mobile. That was the first photo I took with the mobile and during my tow weeks stay there I occasionally used the mobile instead of my Nikon D300. When I got back home, looking through my photos, I realised the quality wasn’t that bad and for a while I used both my DSLR and mobile. One year later I went on a photowalk with some friends and decided to try using only my mobile. Since then my DSLR has been parked in my closet.
What model of smartphone do you use?
Currently I’m using an iPhone 6s. It is easy to quickly start the built in camera and the quality of photos taken with it can be printed out in at least 60 cm on the largest side. I once tried another brand for a couple of weeks, but it didn’t hold the standard I was used to with and iPhone. Than, I switched back. The iPhone 7 Plus is interesting but too big.
What does inspire your works?
The light and shadow play is intriguing. But also the fact that you have to get close to the subject when shooting with a mobile. I do a lot of street photography and this gives a great opportunity to communicate. Even though I prefer not taking candid shots, communication is vital.
After a cold ride on a motorbike from Sagaing to Mingun, my driver and me stopped for the mandatory sightseeing, by lunchtime after visiting all the beautiful pagodas I saw a path leading to the beach. I saw this man from afar, driving his motorbike with one hand and with the other one leading his horse, taking the horse for exercise, double horsepower and a man.
How do you describe your style? Do you think it was changed over time?
My stile has definitely evolved. Looking at the masters did and do it, and giving myself different assignments to improve my photography, I have forced myself stepping out of my comfort zone. Street photography is so much about being observant. To look for and see what is happening around me when walking the streets. I am very intrigued by photojournalism. Steve McCurry and Cory Richards are two favourites. And especially now, while traveling for a longer period of time, I try to document the conditions under which people are living. Telling stories with my photos has become important to me.
I saw that you have a blog: you talk about the experiences after you decided to quit the job and travel for a year. Could you tell us more about this adventure?
Since I was a little girl I dreamt of experiencing, to see for myself, what I read about other countries and how people live their lives. First hand experience adds dimensions one can never perceive in any other way. Sounds, smells, tastes, a smile or the energy and a city’s personality. Originally I had decided to do this journey after I retired, but I realised one shouldn’t wait doing some things. Many people my age are so focused working on their retirement plan, that they forget to live. Never postpone an adventure. You don’t want to regret not doing it. I have been on the road for 6 months now and will continue for at least six more. Traveling light and experiencing a lot. (A Walkabout Around The World)
The Mya Sat Kyar Monastery is inhabited by 100 monks and 300 novices, all Buddhists monks and nuns eat twice a day, breakfast and lunch. The monks are not allowed to prepare their food, so they have to rely on the alms they receive every morning walking the streets of Sagaing. Here they stand in line waiting to enter the big dining area in the monastery.
What kind of cultures and lifestyles you met (and captured)?
People and human conditions are my main interest. We are all so alike. We want the same things in life. Love, roof over our head, food, the best for our children and so on. The only things that differ are the conditions we live under. You see how resourceful people are and the different ways the things are done looking at the conditions in every country.
This was my neighbourhood for a few days. Back to vibrant Yangon, I arrived at 5 AM and had a coffee at the bus station. The day started in a good way when a taxi driver joined me, directed me to the city bus and also paid the coffee. The beautiful people of Myanmar. This house opposite my hostel was so full of life. Watching the people inhabiting it, living their lives was like a movie.
You sent many pictures of Sagaing, could you tell us more about this place?
Sagaing is an important religious and monastic centre. The 8 000 nuns and monks constitutes 12 percent of the population of Sagaing. Monks rely on receiving alms every day and nuns two times a week. One would think that people’s generosity would be worn out. But on the contrary, the gesture of giving is very routed amongst people here. I had the privilege of staying 10 days at the Sakyadhita Thilashin Nunnery School and twice I went with the nuns collecting alms and saw that even the poorest gave whatever they could abstain from. Sagaing is not yet touched by tourism at all and therefore one of the most authentic places I visited in Myanmar.
What’s the place or scene that struck you mostly so far?
The most exciting and interesting culture I’ve been to on this journey is that of Myanmar. The country is still quite authentic considering its fast advance into the modern world. Yangon, the capital city, is a big city in tiny clothes. Old and new try to make a way of living together. But what struck me the most was the people. I’ve rarely met such genuinely kind people.
What is the process behind your images and how do you post produce your content?
I use the iPhone to shoot and edit, and the iPad just to edit. In my opinion Lightroom is the one and only app to use for editing. Since the built in camera shoots in jpeg, the editing has to be done delicately not to loose information. Lightroom provides a wide range of editing processes, but I try to edit my photos as little as possible.
Do you have any specific project about the collection you’re creating?
Yes, many. But one particular project is the story about the religious centre of Sagaing in Myanmar. It was an extraordinary and unique experience and I want to share those moments. Another one is about a family in Kolkata. I tried to capture the life they lived in their back yard. Since it is very hot, most of their activities, working, eating, sleeping and socialising, are carried out in the back yard. Fascinating to see.
Thank you very much Madlén! It was very interesting to listen to your story, your journey and relive it through these shots. Keep shooting and best of luck with your adventure!