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Before she became the supermodel we all know, Helena Christensen fell in love with photography. It started when she was young, when she was poring over her grandparents’ black-and-white photo albums. In her late teens she traveled around the world, capturing the memories she made with a film camera. After that, she began modeling, but she always saw it as a way to one day pursue a career as a photographer.
She has exhibited her photos internationally, having trained with masters like Mary Ellen Mark, and has been commissioned by organizations like Oxfam and UNHCR. When we spoke with her, she had just returned from a visit to a refugee camp in Rwanda with UNHCR.
She described her relationship with her subject as one of trust. When she works, she keeps the images of the photography greats in the back of her mind—photographers like Helmut Newton, who provided the inspiration for the shoot with her by Kat Irlin for this story. Christensen also had the chance to model for Newton, and remembers feeling at ease with him, thanks to his ironic humor.
Christensen opened up to us about the different roles she plays, in front of and behind the camera.
WHITEWALL: What first drew you to the camera?
HELENA CHRISTENSEN: When I was little and visited my grandparents, I would look through their old black-and-white photo albums. They had such a beautiful aesthetic, in light and composition. I think that’s when my first love for photography was born.
WW: You’ve said that you hitchhiked around the world when you were 18 and 19 and that’s when you started photographing. What do you remember capturing then?
HC: I took a lot of pictures of people and nature on my way around the world, but most were pretty generic, not that great, really. But I used a proper film camera for the first time and learned a lot about the technique.
WW: How do you think it changed the experience of travel for you?
HC: You can bring all your memories and glimpses of your life back with you when you forever freeze them with a camera. It opened up the world to me, because I started searching for little details everywhere. It made me more visually curious.
WW: Did you know then that photography was your passion?
HC: I think the real affinity for photography came later, when I started working with the legendary photographers and found myself to be getting a photography education while modeling. I was inspired by their passion and creativity.
WW: Your modeling career started after that trip. Did you keep up photography while modeling, or was it something you rediscovered?
HC: I decided to give modeling a go so I could pursue a photography career. So I can thank modeling for kick-starting my professional photography career.
WW: Having been so often on the other side of the camera, what do you enjoy about being behind the camera?
HC: I was behind before I was in front, and I’ve done both careers alongside each other. I enjoy them both for different reasons. I can disappear into myself and be in a zone when I model, whereas I have to concentrate in a different way as a photographer.
WW: How would you describe the relationship you try to have with your subjects?
HC: I think that trust is the most important bond to establish between you and your subject. It doesn’t even have to be with words; even just tender gestures are enough. It’s beautiful to see someone unfold in front of your camera.
WW: What kind of connection do you want to create?
HC: You want the person to be happy with their portrait, so I try to make them open up and show a certain vulnerability, which also then shows their strength, and this combination makes them interesting and beautiful. It’s sort of a quiet connection between you, a mutual understanding.
WW: What kind of experience do you want the subject to have?
HC: A feeling of having given something personal, of having opened up and performed a little silent act.
WW: And, ultimately, the viewer?
HC: If the viewer looks at the image and feels something, if it stirs something inside of them and catches their eye, then that’s a great honor.
WW: You’ve worked with organizations to take photographs around the world. How do you like to connect with people whose culture or even language aren’t your own?
HC: I have worked with the UNHCR for the last four years, and so far we have been on three different missions. The last one we just returned from. We visited a refugee camp in Rwanda. It’s a wonderful and very interesting way to learn about other people’s stories, by photographing them and talking to them, either in their language or via a translator. I always ask if I may take their photos unless I’m at a distance. There is always pride in their eyes when they sit for a portrait.
WW: Where have you photographed that you’d love to revisit? Where has been the most memorable?
HC: I would like to go back to Nepal and take photos. It’s such a magical country, and the people are stunning. Peru is a photographer’s dream—always very memorable to visit, and the images linger on your mind for a long time.
WW: You’ve said that people are more guarded than before in having their photo taken. How do you get people to open up? To feel safe? To build trust?
HC: You just have to be yourself and perhaps make them laugh. It’s a very special feeling to make someone feel beautiful, because they see a little part that is very real and raw of themselves in the portraits, so by being real and raw yourself, sometimes that create the trust.
WW: Who have been some of your favorite subjects? What about the experience stayed with you?
HC: My son and dog are my favorite subjects. I can shoot them again and again, but my son won’t really let me anymore. The dog is also a bit over it and turns her head away when I approach her.
I once photographed the king of Dubai riding through the desert on his horse. I was next to him the whole way, hanging sideways off a jeep, driving full speed through dust and sand clouds. I was pretty scared and my adrenaline was going crazy, but it was an amazing experience.
WW: What is the most challenging aspect of photography for you?
HC: I hate when I miss a moment. I can think about it for days, sometimes weeks after. In a way, I almost grieve about the missing moment that forever is gone.
WW: Who or what have you photographed recently that you’re still thinking about?
HC: The people in the refugee camp in Rwanda. There was a particular little girl carrying her baby sister around that I will never forget. She had the most beautiful smile and looked at me with such love and trust in her eyes.
WW: What project do you have your eyes set on next?
HC: I am shooting a fashion store for the magazine D’SCENE and I’m always taking pictures upstate.
WW: The shoot you did for us is an homage to Helmut Newton. Can you tell us what it was like to be photographed by him?
HC: I loved Helmut. He was so smart and funny. He was quite ironic—my kind of humor—and I think it took the edge off and made you less inhibited.
WW: What impact has his work had on you personally?
HC: I am a great fan of his work, constantly inspired by the images. I feel so honored to have worked with him. I always keep his images in the back of my mind when I shoot. His female subjects were so sensual and powerful, so inspiring.
Male model, Douglas Joseph
Makeup by Shawnelle Prestidge
Hair by Nastya Miliaeva
Photographer Assistant, Ros Hayes
Stylist, YAEL GITAI www.art-dept.com
Stylist Assistant, Valeriya Buscarello
Thank you to Albright Fashion Library