Spotlight on Bettina Hansen

 

bettina07

Originally published 01/07/2012

 
TID:
 
Bettina, thanks for taking part in our ongoing project. In the wake of all the discussions about cell phone photography, we thought it would be a good time to do a post about it. You've got a nice body of work going in Hartford, CT. Please tell us more about it.
 
BETTINA:
 
Since moving to Hartford in the summer of 2009, I started seeing pictures that I wasn't making. It was the most maddening thing. Usually, I would be driving to work, or at grocery store, and these pictures ate at me like an uncontrollable itch. Working for a newspaper, we get so used to taking pictures that have 'news value,' ones with a caption that goes something like this, "So-and-so does such-and-such for this reason…"
 
I didn't want to rely on a news peg or narrative for some of these images. I just wanted to respond to what I was seeing without having to explain it. I wanted the pictures and the people I was photographing to speak for themselves and tell the story of the city.
 
TID:
 
How did you approach this project and why?
 
BETTINA:
 
In fall of 2010, we got camera phones at work. Specifically, Motorola Droid 2s. The camera was pretty decent, and I had always been inspired by the work of people like Shawn Rocco who was using cellular phone cameras to make beautiful images. At that time, I was also introduced to the work of Vivian Maier, who brought a tenderness to street photography that I had never seen before. Street photography had always seemed cold and distant to me, but her images were imbued with a warmth and understanding that I loved.
 
bettina03
 
Also around that time I had been hearing of Tumblr, which is kind of like a visual Twitter. All of these things, between the technology and the pictures that I was inspired by, gave me the idea to use the phone as a walking camera around Hartford. The first time I took out the camera phone to do some street photography was in New York City, and I was hooked. The thing I like about shooting with it is that people are so much less intimidated by a phone. It was easier for me to get candid moments on the sly and also to engage with people and take their portrait when I saw someone interesting. It's a quiet way to make the quiet pictures I'm drawn to.
 
I should add that I use the Droid app Vignette to shoot these images. I like it because it doesn't look as extreme as the toning of some other vintage film phone apps. I just set it on square bordered shape and 'Ilford' black and white setting, and it's good to go. I also set the exposure and contrast to fit the situation. Another nice feature of Vignette is that it has a blind mode. The screen goes black, and you just touch anywhere on the screen to activate the shutter, which makes shooting from the hip much easier. It's never foolproof, but I've gotten a little better at maneuvering the quirks.
 
TID:
 
When did you start making the images?
 
BETTINA:
 
I started shooting these pictures in January of 2011, in the midst of the most depressing winter I've ever lived through. Connecticut got almost 80 inches of snow in six weeks, and I felt isolated and lonely a lot. I started taking walks around my neighborhood with the camera phone, just exploring. It helped with my seasonal affective disorder (it's real, people) and helped me to feel creative and engaged again. It gave me an excuse to explore the city on foot, and to stop for pictures that I saw from my car window. It was also exciting to be looking for pictures constantly - on my way to get coffee, doing laundry at the laundromat, even out at the bars. As long as I was in Hartford, I felt compelled to make these images.
 
http://hartfordonthephone.tumblr.com.all photos copyright Bettina Hansen 2011
 
TID:
 
How did they make you feel "creative and engaged" more so than in your normal daily work?
 
BETTINA:
 
I felt more engaged because I was going out as my real self, as Bettina, not as 'The Photographer from the Courant.' Walking alone gave me both personal time to reflect and also to meet people in my neighborhood. It was a little nerve-wracking sometimes, to just introduce myself to people without the professional credential, the title that you get from working for a news organization. It was thrilling. When I walked away with a nice image, I felt real pride. Sometimes I would go walk and not make any pictures at all. But the beauty of it was that all of the pressure and nervous energy to create came from inside of myself and not from an editor or a deadline. Normally I work best when I'm under those constraints. But this was different.
 
TID:
 
Can you tell us about a moment that surprised you?
 
BETTINA:
 
Driving down Capitol Avenue to get to the Courant office, I often saw the same homeless man pushing a full shopping cart. He moved very slowly and I was always curious about him. Finally one day I decided to stop. I pulled over the car, walked up to him and introduced myself, and asked if I could take his picture. We chatted for a couple minutes, and he was very kind and obliging, and asked if I could take it with 'Tweety.' A little confused, I nodded, and from his cart, he brought out a shoebox. Inside the box was a bunch of scarves and fabrics. Slowly, he unwrapped a small stuffed Tweety Bird doll, which he tenderly cradled next to him. I was so touched that I remember tears rolling down my face as I took the picture. Every time I see him now, I wave and say hello, and think of how special that moment was.
 
 
bettina05
 
TID:
 
What have you learned about people in the process of making these images?
 
BETTINA:
 
I learned that people are generally excited to be a part of something when you show interest in them. Especially in shooting those portraits, walking up to people cold on the street, it can be rather awkward. But the little things like making eye contact, showing confidence, seeking out a person who seems open to it… It never surprises me to get shut down by someone who doesn't want their picture taken, but it always surprises me at how many people graciously comply.
 
The other thing that surprised me in shooting those portraits was how people instinctively knew that it wasn't a smiley sort of portrait. Usually I would take one picture, show it to them, move in a little closer for the second picture, show it to them, and then move in for the close-up. More often than not, after seeing the first two pictures, they get a feel for what I'm trying to do. Afterwards, I will get their email or phone number so I can send or text them the picture. This is another thing that's nice about shooting this on the phone. The ability to share pictures with subjects and post to Tumblr immediately has been wonderful.
 
 
 
bettina11
 
TID:
 
What have you learned about yourself?
 
BETTINA:
 
While I value my alone time after a long day of work, I am a true extrovert. My depression last winter came from spending way too much time alone. The wonderful part about shooting this project was that it forced me to just be around people. Coming home after a walk or meeting a new person felt exhilarating. It reminded me that the best medication for myself is to draw energy from other people, being around people is the reason why I fell in love with photojournalism in the first place. It also taught me that a project doesn't have to be all consuming to be successful. This is a project that I did in between everything else. I think the reason why it stayed fresh for me was that I never worked on it too much to burn myself out.
 
TID:
 
In the end, what do you hope to achieve with these images?
 
BETTINA:
 
From the day I moved to Hartford, it's been a struggle. I never felt truly welcome here. Drivers are aggressive, parts of the city are plagued with devastating poverty and violence, yet less than a mile away, you can see large, gated expensive Victorians and huge insurance companies. Hardly anyone smiles at you on the street. It can be difficult to make friends. However, from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to live in Hartford. Most people run to the suburbs and come in for their 9 to 5s. A reporter who used to cover Hartford neighborhoods told me that the people here never cease to 'delight and frighten' her on a daily basis. That is so true.
 
My personal goal with these pictures has been to explore Hartford, and reflect how I feel about the city in a visual way. It's often called a city with an identity crisis - the underdog. Although it is constantly compared to the other two cities it's sandwiched between (New York City and Boston) hardcore Hartfordites know that it's really not that bad here, once you make some friends and get used to it. Colin McEnroe did a great column about this very thing a while back. Like a lot of cities, Hartford just wants you to participate. Show up, show interest, and you'll be appreciated. I hope that's what is reflected in these images. I don't want it to look like a scary place, but I definitely want to show that it is gritty and beautiful at the same time. I love the history and diversity here, and that is what I have tried to focus on with these images.
 
 
 
bettina10
 
 
As far as the project itself, I'm still shooting pictures; you can follow me on Tumblr at hartfordonthephone.tumblr.com and on Twitter @bettinahansen to see how it progresses. It would be nice to do an exhibition in a local space at some point, and maybe put together a small book depending on how things go. But the immediate plan is just shoot more, and to come up with a title. Most of the pictures have been concentrated around the three neighborhoods I feel most comfortable in - the West End, Frog Hollow and Parkville - and I've talked to a couple people about walking together in the neighborhoods that I haven't explored as much.
 
The first response I almost always hear from people upon looking at the photographs is, 'You shot these with your phone?!?' The instrument you use to shoot with doesn't change what makes a good photograph - light, distance, composition, moment. It's all fundamentals. What is important is how the photograph makes you feel, and the story that is conveyed within.
 
 
http://hartfordonthephone.tumblr.com.all photos copyright Bettina Hansen 2011
 
 
Damon Winter's iPhone photographs from Afghanistan caused a stir when they placed in POYi, but they started a great conversation, and he had an excellent response to critics who questioned the ethics of the post-processing of the Hipstamatic app used:
 
"At the heart of all of these photos is a moment or a detail or an expression that tells the story of these soldiers’ day-to-day lives while on a combat mission. Nothing can change that. No content has been added, taken away, obscured or altered. These are remarkable straightforward and simple images."
 
My thought is, if technology has advanced to this point, why not use it? The advantages of using a cell phone to shoot these pictures far outweigh the disadvantages. It is unobtrusive, safer when walking down shady streets and makes me much more approachable than if I'm loaded down with gear. I know that I would not have shot these pictures on my SLR, and I like that. The images transcend the process.
 
 
bettina13
 
 
TID:
 
How do think people react differently to the different mediums?
 
BETTINA:
 
With a cell phone, I am able to get pictures that are far more honest and real. When shooting on the street, people are very distrustful of cameras. For candids, I can be discreetly taking a picture while in line at Walgreens or walking into Stop and Shop and no one around me knows. This is kind of a scary thing, because in the wrong hands, the ease of taking someone’s picture without them knowing is powerful. I wrestled with the idea of trust and the justification behind these images early on, and always strive to show people in a genuine light, without judgement or ridicule. The covertness with which we can shoot cameraphone photos has spurred ridiculous sites like ‘People of WalMart’ because making fun of people is really easy. That makes me sick to my stomach.
 
For the consciously framed portraits, I approach each subject with my normal spiel, “Hi, my name is Bettina, I’m a photographer doing a project about the people and scenes around Hartford. You are (insert interesting, beautiful, etc.) can I take your picture?” and, depending on the neighborhood, about half the people I ask brush me off, but the other half say yes, usually with either a chuckle or a wary eye. I’m used to this kind of approach, working for a newspaper, but have far less success when I’m out shooting features on the street during working hours. A big DSLR and a press credential is intimidating and official, while everybody and their cousin has a cameraphone in their pocket. It’s a camera of the people, and there is familiarity and trust in something that anyone can use. I found that at first, people were surprised and amused, but after showing them their picture, it clicks. People are exceptionally visually literate today, and many are happy to participate if they feel like they understand what’s going on, and are getting something out of it for themselves.
 
TID:
 
Finally, what advice do you have for photographers wanting to do this kind of work?
 
BETTINA:
 
Just get out out of your house and explore. It is so fulfilling to engage in your neighborhood in a photographic way. Use the tool that best fits what you are trying to achieve. Whether it's shooting large format portraits of your neighbors or making multiple exposures of mailboxes or whatever. Keep it fun and just be safe about it. Be aware of your surroundings at all times and use your street smarts. I've definitely been in some hairy situations, which is why I'm trying to walk with a buddy from now on.
 
++++
 
 
photo by Tanner Curtis
 
 
Bettina Hansen is a staff photographer at the Hartford Courant and chairperson of the Student Committee for the National Press Photographers Association. Originally from Arizona, she will never cease to be amazed at how cold it is in New England. A graduate of Arizona State University, Hansen interned at The East Valley Tribune, The Arizona Republic and The (Baton Rouge) Advocate before coming to the Courant in the summer of 2009. When she's not photographing adorable children or UConn basketball, Hansen likes to enjoy live music, make pizza, drink wine and enjoy the company of good friends.
 
@bettinahansen
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
If you have any suggestions or if you want to interview someone
for the blog, contact Ross Taylor or Logan Mock-Bunting:
 

 

All images that appear on The Image, Deconstructed are subject to copyright laws. Any unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. Images on The Image, Deconstructed are used with permission from the copyright holder and are for educational purposes only.