Today we’re sitting with Katarina Premfors. A longtime photojournalist, commercial photographer, and resident of Dubai, Katarina is committed to using photography to tell stories that create a positive social impact; she is a founding member of the Photographers for Hope collective. When she’s not shooting personal projects around the globe, you can find her featuring work with clients like the New York Times, PetaPixel, Greenpeace, United Nations, and Dubai Tourism, among others.
Gulf Photo Plus: How long have you been shooting here in the UAE?
Katarina Premfors: I have been in the UAE since May 1992, and I started off with a job as a staff photographer at Gulf News. I convinced Gulf News to give me a job and told them I had loads of experience when, in fact, I had only worked for my high school newspaper and assisted a portrait photographer in Rhode Island, US.
GPP: 1992! So you’ve been shooting here for more than half the life of the country - what are you going to do with all those photos?
KP: I recently decided to pull out all my old negatives and transparencies since May 16th of this year marked my 25th year of living in Dubai; I wanted to go through all my old aerials, landscapes, and other images. The idea was to edit and go through them with some Emirati friends to possibly archive. The problem really is that there are never enough hours in the day, and with two young kids, I find with very few hours to do anything as frivolous as go through old images.
GPP: But you still manage to keep busy with travel for projects that matter to you. Any favorites from the places or projects you’ve taken on?
KP: I get enamored with every place I go to and want to move there. I do love Afghanistan, and I wanted to travel there since I was an 11-year-old girl living in Islamabad. I finally did, and I traveled to Badakhshan, Bamiyan, Kunduz, Mazar-I-Sharif, and Herat. It was a very special trip for UNICEF, but I wish I were a better photographer back then. Recently I also did a trip to West Papua, which ranks up there as one of my most memorable experiences; Photographers for Hope raised a lot of money for Greenpeace during that trip.
GPP: Why do you think projects that have a positive social impact are so important to you?
KP: Images draw attention to issues. The images we shot for Greenpeace on deforestation in West Papua and Sumatra convinced a long-time donor to give Greenpeace over half a million dollars.
GPP: Can you tell us more about the collective that backed that trip, Photographers for Hope?
KP: Photographers for Hope is an initiative led by photographers who believe in the power of images to support positive social change. We want to use our passion for photography to tell stories that will inspire action and foster a stronger global community. The idea for the group was born out of the need for images from organizations that are committed to improving lives of the poor and disenfranchised.
GPP: How have you been able to bring your years of photojournalism experience to bear on your commercial projects? Do you find they overlap?
KP: Yes, absolutely. I think the way I shoot for my photojournalism is real, and that is what commercial clients believe they need (at the moment, anyway). When we shoot commercial images, we set up scenarios and give models stories and give them time to ‘live’ in that world. Then, when they are unaware and act real, I photograph them. Interestingly, my architecture photography has remained a constant style and has not been affected either way. Usually, it’s just me alone on a rooftop, watching the light change.
GPP: When you’re considering taking on a photo project, whether personal or commercial, what aspects do you look at before you decide to commit?
KP: For the commercial photography, I always make sure I have all the tools I need (i.e. the information to do the job). So I make sure I know about the client’s expectations, and I manage those expectations. I usually work with a team, and I work very closely with the producer and client. I like being involved right from the start. Coming up with ideas is part of the job I really like. For photojournalism, I tend to work alone, and it is a lot more personal and in-depth. I research, I lose sleep, I worry, and the edits are much harder and much more tight as each picture needs to tell a story singularly or as part of a series. I enjoy writing the captions as well. It’s a bit like I enter another dimension and another persona. With commercial photography, I am very sure of what I am doing, and the end result is clear. On the flipside, with photojournalism, I am never quite sure of the outcome, and I question everything.
GPP: You’re a big champion of analogue photography, so how do you decide when to shoot analogue and when to shoot digital? Do you have a preference?
KP: I have not shot much film lately, but I have plans for a darkroom, and I am going to do a series of portraits on my large format Speed Graphic and ‘radioactive’ Aero Ektar aerial lens. I love the way film slows me down. I take better pictures; fewer pictures.
GPP: Even as you get back into film, rumor has it you recently invested in a more modern piece of tech – a drone!
KP: Yes! It is so much fun, especially when an eagle swoops down to check it out. I am in complete wilderness at the moment in Sweden, and I think that is what I want the drone for most. Landscape photos. For aerial shots in Dubai, I fly in helicopters, so the drone is more for my own personal fun. Plus, I can also do some photos with my family where I am actually in the pictures for a change!
GPP: Any new projects in the pipeline?
KP: I always have lots going on. In my head, on my computer, on my walls, in my camera, unedited projects, undeveloped film, discussing new projects with my collective, Photographers for Hope. I have invited myself to photograph the hunting season in Sweden. I am very interested in Swedish culture (not having lived here since I was very young). And I am doing an in-depth, long-term project which probably will not be finished for a few years. All I can say is that it’s about marginalized people, and I am trying to tell it in a sensitive, unbiased way, which is very hard. Luckily I have a great community in Dubai of fellow photographers (thanks to GPP) that I can talk to and double-check that what I am doing is right and not exploitive or self-serving.
Learn more about Katarina's work here.
Learn more about Photographers for Hope here.