In still lives and portraits, Casper Sejersen reinterprets the script of Nymphomaniac.
By Remi Coignet
Belongs to Joe, by Danish photographer Casper Sejersen and author Cecilie Høgsbro, is a book created on the set of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013)—a powerful, erotic, and at times, deeply disturbing movie about Joe, a woman who defines herself as a nymphomaniac. She tells the story of her sexual life, from childhood to maturity, to a man who takes her in after finding her injured. This serves as the framework for a powerful reflection on addiction, art history, mythology, and even fly-fishing. Belongs to Joe is by no means an illustration of the movie, and is even less a by-product of it; instead, it is a standalone work inspired not by the film but by its scenario. This work, unique in its own right, nonetheless manages to remain faithful to the charged, transgressive ethos of its source. Sejersen, who is known for his work shooting fashion for such magazines as Dazed and Purple, spoke about the creation of this uncommon book.
Rémi Coignet: How did you get in touch with Lars von Trier?
Casper Sejersen: I was hired to do the commercial campaign for the posters and promotional material. I saw the casting, and I thought I should not just do the campaign. So I asked his producer [Louise Vesth] if I could do a kind of behind-the-scenes book about the film. And she said, “Forget about that. Lars will never allow anything like that. He’s not interested.”
And then she sent me the manuscript, because Lars wanted me to read it before I did the campaign. I read it in one day and was totally blown away. Then his producer called me back and said, “Now Lars thinks it’s his idea, this behind-the-scenes book, so you are allowed to do it.” I responded, “Yeah, but Louise, I have read the manuscript now—I can’t do a behind-the-scenes book after that. I can’t do pictures of actors in trailers putting on makeup. It will be too light. Now I want to do my own art project, not based on the film at all, but based on the manuscript.” She just said, “No, that’s an art project—he will never allow it.” So I told myself, “OK, forget about that.”
She called me two days later and said, “OK, Lars thinks it’s a brilliant idea. He only has one wish: that he not be a part of it. And he will only see the final result. So you can do whatever you want. We will support you, but it’s your own art project.”
RC: Was the writer Cecilie Høgsbro involved in the project from the beginning?
CS: No. First I did the pictures because the film’s promotional campaign was shooting in Cologne, where they filmed. I think I went there eight times because the actors were there at different times. I set up a studio in Cologne, where I did the pictures for my book. And when I came back to Copenhagen, to my own studio, I did all the still lifes. Some of them are my interpretations, and some are the real props from the film. So it was a mix of that and the nature pictures in the book. Those are not the locations from the film. I could see that all the inspiration for the walks that Joe has with her father in the film came from the area where Lars lives, north of Copenhagen. So I shot in this area where he did his own walks. I was trying to dig into his brain—to find where he gets his thoughts from, his ideas and inspiration.
RC: And how did the script and text come into the work?
CS: When I got the idea for the book, I could see that there were so many routes and so many pictures you could do. I was really quick to lock down the specific pictures I wan to do for the book based on the script. I made that list and made the pictures. After I did all the pictures, I showed the to Cecilie. So first she saw the pictures, and then she began, as I did, with inspiration from the script. We wanted to have some things that were our interpretations of the script—some things that were really kind of factual, almost scientific, and others that were fiction, which were our take on it. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. And then Greger Ulf Nilson, the designer for the book, had the clever idea of using different typography to show the different layers. Greger did the layout the same way that Cecilie did the text and I took the pictures. He is really a graphic designer who thinks; he set up the rules before he started, so once he started to lay it out, there was only one way for it to happen.
RC: The aesthetic of your images—the colors and light—is completely different from that of the movie. Why?
CS: Louise, the producer, asked me if I wanted to see the dailies. My answer was, “No, I don’t want to have any interference.” I wanted to use what I think can be the power of still photography rather than film—because if I had tried to do it the same way as the film, it would have just been a superlight version of it. So from the beginning, I had in mind that the photos I wanted to do should be shot almost like pictograms. So if it’s a fist or it’s a gun or it’s a tree, it should be a kind of pictogram version of that—I wanted to do it very simple. So it has this aesthetic from a science book or from an encyclopedia, for example.
RC: How did the actors contribute to the book, and how did the work with them happen?
CS: Again, from the beginning, I made the choice that I would only photograph the main characters. So it’s just Joe in her three states: as a child, as a young woman, and as a mature woman. And then I wanted to use Shia LaBeouf as a stand-in example of a man. I didn’t want to use him as his character in the film—he should just be the picture of a man, and the same with the one picture of Stellan Skarsgård. I wrote letters to the actors, and especially to Charlotte [Gainsbourg], to explain my vision to her. And she was really supportive. Stellan got on board right away. The parents for the young girl got it. Stacy Martin also got it immediately after talking to Charlotte. Shia has this Hollywood background, so it took a longer time to convince him. He thought my project was a celebrity project, and I was just using his name. But in the end, it worked out.
RC: The book is divided into several chapters—even physically, with the herbarium in a smaller format and thinner paper, and the forest pages printed with glossy, varnished images. Does that echo the chapters of the movie?
CS: Yes, in a way. I think it was both a choice and not a choice. Not to compare myself with Lars at all, but maybe I work in a similar way. As I tried to explain, I have to have some rules before I do anything. Also, I could see that Joe is just a collector in the film, and it’s all about low forms of collecting. I told Greger that it would enhance different collections in the book if they had slightly different aesthetics.
RC: The movie, which is brilliantly done, uses a classic narrative: in one room, one person tells a story to another, and then you have flashbacks. Belongs to Joe deals with the same issues as the film, but in a more metaphorical way. Does the weakness of photography in telling a story become a power if you focus on the concepts behind the story? You were talking about pictograms; I would say concepts.
CS: Yes. I think photography can exist outside of time in a way that allows you to dwell on something. You can have a picture of a specific expression on a face, or specific objects. Then you can just look at it again and again. I’m not saying that I like photography better than film, but there are differences between what they can and cannot do. The power of photography is that you can really dwell on the small details. And, for me, that has so much power. You can just add so many things, whereas when you see a film, it’s all about the music, the voices, the edit. And that makes film really powerful. But then you have these frozen moments, where you have to use your imagination about what’s happening just before or just after: is she pained here, or is she pleased? In a film, you will know in another way, because you can also hear a voice, and you can hear the music. The power of photography is that you have to use your imagination a little bit more.
RC: I get the feeling from your work that, even when actors are being portrayed, they look like still lifes.
CS: Yes, exactly. That was also really a specific choice, because you could have done this book in many ways. If I had been another photographer, I might have done it more reportage-style or more candid. So it was really an important choice to go as far away from what film can do as possible, to try to have a really new take on the material.
RC: What was the reaction of Lars von Trier to the final result?
CS: Lars is not a man of many words. He liked it. I got the sweetest and shortest letter from him. It was just one sentence: he just said, “I love the book,” and that was it.
Rémi Coignet is editor-in-chief for The Eyes magazine. He is the author of two books, Conversations and Conversations 2 (2014 and 2016, The Eyes Publishing), collections of his interviews with distinguished photographers.