Celebrating a greater meaning of life: Interview with Royal Photographer Steen Brogaard

SteenBrogaard2.jpgRoyal photographer Steen Brogaard taught himself the art of photography as a young man on the streets of Copenhagen “fighting for justice”. After several years as a “self-proclaimed ninja” and underground photographer, Brogaard landed a job as a press photographer for one of the most read Danish Magazines Billed Bladet. The young talented artist entered the Royal scene in 1992, when he became Crown Prince Frederik’s personal photographer. He later became Prince Joachim’s photographer of choice for private and public events. Other notable clients include, among many others, Danish National Television DR, Danish television TV2, Hello Magazine, Nordisk Film, LIFE Magazine, Unicef and WHO.

BB: Steen, why did you decide to go into photography? What’s your story?

SB: The time is the early 80s. It’s recession, no future, youth occupying empty houses and fighting in the streets, anti-apartheid demonstrations, the art into the streets not on museums.

In the center of Copenhagen I had established a darkroom in the basement of Greenpeace Denmark’s headquarters. The deal was that the rent be paid with photography.

I had my share of high speed inflatables. Working with wanna-be journalists, -layouters, -printers and -photographers who work to publish the weekly underground-paper “København”. Everything was very anti-establishment.

Imagine a tall, slender guy, always dressed in a black coverall and an earring of gold, glasses John Lennon-like. That was me, a self-proclaimed ninja from the provinces now fighting for justice and exposing the hypocrisy of the bourgeois. At least – this is how I saw myself, truly believing that my camera would take me to the epicenter of power, where the new world was born.

I had just quit university. A six week study to Sri Lanka, at the age of 20, had shown me the beauty of photography and made it impossible to return to the books.

The new world was never born and my friends all left “København” to become real journalists, photographers, and so on. Eventually I got an internship at the glossy magazine Billed Bladet. The internship taught me to tie a tie, and I got a few connections and a glimpse of a world of celebrities.

BB: Can you expand on your caption “Tales through photography”?

SB: I have always loved to tell stories. At school, my papers were always read to the class. I’ve just changed my tool from pen to camera. The catch-line is a promise that I try to have each and every one of my photographs to give a hint of a bigger story.

BB: Where is your photographic art exhibited?

SB: Right now I have my exhibition Tales From The Top Of Europe somewhere on the way to Brazil and a similar set on it’s way to Shanghai later this year. I just concluded a winter-depression-exhibition Sub-stans, currently exhibited in a gallery in Denmark. And of course the most current work is at show at my sister-site mosthigh.dk (named after a song by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant).

BB: At what point in your career did you become a photographer for the Royal family? How did they “discover” you?

SB: I first “met” the Crown Prince, when I was sent to Skagen (Danish jetset resort), when working for Billed Bladet in the late 80s, to cover his holiday. I remember his haunted look, when he saw us coming over the hill to spoil his volleyball-game. I didn’t feel comfortable by this invading of privacy and  promised myself not to do that ever again. Hmm.

I think he will say that I have haunted him a lot ever since :-) – but it has been by invitations! After my time on Billed Bladet, a friend of mine urged me to send my portfolio to the court, as she knew the Crown Prince was looking for his own photographer. I really didn’t want to get involved; it was too big, too frightening. But she didn’t take no for an answer – I sent my portfolio and next time I met the Crown Prince was in New York, making my first photographs of him with his consent.

BB: What about photography do you love most?

SB: To meet people, get in touch, talk – and suddenly you’re there, not exactly behind their masks, but you see somehow, who they really are. Or could be… To take that picture and to show it to them afterward.

BB: As a preferred photographer of the royal family, you presumably spend a lot of time with them. Is it pure business or did you get to know them personally during the process?

SB: I don’t think you can make personal pictures of people without getting to know them – or us getting to know each other. You give and you take. You deal with trust. Royals have cameras pointed at them everyday. The very least you can do is to try to make their time worth their while, have lot of laughs and get the job done.

BB: Do you use assistants when you take your photos?

SB: It depends on the job. At large, official photo sessions, such as a christening, where the whole family participate, I use a couple of assistants. Other shootings are more intimate. I try to keep it as simple as possible and prefer to work all by myself if it’s possible. My assistants have been photographers from my studio and interns. People I trust 100%, some of them well-reputable photographers themselves.

BB: What sort of techniques do you use when you take photographs of members of the royal family? Do you take a large number of photos and pick the best? Do you give them instructions?

SB: Actually there’re not many instructions to give, as the royal family is very professional in their attitude towards photography.

I talk a lot, and I try not to stumble over any cables! The time schedule is often very tight and I honestly don’t think of how many exposures I make, I move around a lot. Some sessions are more formal than others – usually I want the session to go with the flow, so to speak.

BB: Do you think it is more difficult to be a photographer for the Royal family than being a photographer more generally?

SB: Every time you make a photo of the royal family you make a photo of an icon. So you’re well ahead even before you start shooting. The surroundings and your models are beautiful, so why getting stressed? Hmm.

Each photo I make is a battle, like catching a ball. You never know from where the ball will come. Will you still catch the ball? If not – thousands of people will see your mistake, including all your customers. And your mother. Thus the pressure of expectations is much worse compared to on a normal session. Still, I find myself enjoying the fuzz more and more during the years. The fear isn’t that overwhelming anymore.

BB: What has been one of the most rewarding photo sessions with the Royal family?

SB: Waiting with newborn Princess Isabella. She’s sleeping, and I have been there for hours. There’s no one around. Suddenly she awakes and looks right into my camera. It’s like she sees the world for the very first time. And I am not out of film…

BB: You have taken pictures of the royal twins and their older siblings. Is it difficult to take pictures of babies and children?

SB: There is no such thing as an easy picture! The thing with children is you can’t rush them. You have to play by their rules.

BB: Most of your photos of the Royal family appear to be portraits and non-action shots. Do you also take action shots of the Royal family?

SB: I have always tried to work action and the unsuspected into my formal shots. From time to another I follow the royals abroad, where I work in the field together with my coll
eagues from the press. Apart from the adventures of being on the road this gives great pictures, where the unsuspected element defines the decisive moment.

BB: Can you give an example of a photo you are especially proud of or happy with?

SB: I made a shot for a book, where the Crown Prince is getting dressed. I feel it’s a photo of a man taking on his destiny.

BB: What do you think countries, like America, that are not a monarchy are missing out on? What’s the great thing about monarchies? Are the members role models for the country’s families?

SB: The Danish royal family is a carrier of Denmark’s history through 1000 years. It’s about continuity and heritage. One must remember that the royals can only be royal, if they understand that balance between intimacy and distance. If not, then they are vulnerable in the role they should play. They should be role models, despite not having the same terms as we do. They can not choose their religion, their job or their spouse (without permission of the government), these three things is something we all take for granted. The royals are actually extras in a theater, where the population sets the stage, and if we ask them to go left and jump, they are expected to ask: How high?

BB: Other Danish-Americans are frequently emailing me to share the fact that they, too, are big fans of the Royal family. Why do you think the Royal Danish family is so popular?

SB: I think the Danish Royal family manages to keep a balance between being formal and informal. Perhaps in this fast changing world it’s comforting to know, that some things remain the same. I remember the Crown Prince saying in an interview that the Crown Prince is forever, meaning that his title isn’t bound to him as a person. In celebrating the royal family we somehow celebrate a greater meaning of life. Life that goes on for generations even though we as individuals all have to pass.

BB: What are your dreams for the future?

SB: I just started reading Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. I can’t really tell yet if it is discouraging me or if it makes my passion for photography grow. I don’t believe my camera will change the world or take me to the epicenter of power anymore. Instead I focus on making pictures, saying – Look – this is also part of our world, isn’t it great/sad/fantastic/ depressing? Or saying – look – what if the world is like this?

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