Espen Rasmussen on 'Torreblanca', humanity and his career's defining moments

06 August 2014

Panos Pictures photographer Espen Rasmussen recently shared with us his atmospheric new series, Torreblanca. We thought it the perfect time to catch up with him to learn more about the series itself, his transition from writer to photographer, and some of the most defining moments of his career. 

You have been quoted as saying that the greatest thing with photography is that you get to explore peoples’ lives, and the ability you have to share the stories with as many as possible.  Is this what led you to shoot your Torreblanca project?
With the Torreblanca project I was on holiday at the same time so it was slightly different to other projects – but I see pictures everywhere.  I had my Sony camera and saw how much the beach changed between morning and night.  As a photographer you see stories wherever you go.  Some are more important than others, but Torreblanca was done for the love of photography - there was a beautiful light, an atmosphere.  There is more joy in these pictures because you only see the nice pictures.

The images are incredibly atmospheric…
I saw a story of a stretch of beach that changes from morning – midday – night time.  In the daytime I was one of the tourists, but when I went for a stroll in the evening it was only the locals.  You can see how the beach used to be so it is very visual and an amazing difference between the calm and the chaos.

In what way did the RX1 suit the Torreblanca project best?
This camera was the perfect tool as it is so small, and you don’t look like a press photographer – you simply blend in as a tourist.  The size and quality of the filters afterwards is wonderful.

Speaking of your work more generally, your focus is very much on long-term humanitarian issues – has this been your focus from the start?  Is this what you want to share with others and shed more light on? 
I started off as a writer and only started taking picture later on.  As a writer my focus was on foreign international affairs – so that was my introduction to the subject.  My focus is not on combat or fighting, however – I look at the civilians.  There is a lot of suffering, but also a lot of humanity.  I want to portray people not as victims, but as survivors.  They manage.

Having looked through some of your projects such as Lebanon, and the Tsunami aftermath in Japan – I was interested to see how images of purely the aftermath and not the people are just as moving.  Why do you think this is?
I work on concepts, and how to develop a story in a non-traditional way.  I only focussed on cars for the Tsunami series and despite them being very similar – they were symbols of so much more and part of the overall concept.  That was the symbol of what happened for me.  I did a series of beds in refugee camps for the TRANSIT project.  Beds are something everyone has a relationship with – a place you feel safe and at home.

Give us one word to describe your drive as a photographer.

What has been your most defining moment as a photographer?
Project-wise -TRANSIT.  It is the most important thing I have done and defines me as a photographer.

Experience-wise – I was in Yemen and experienced a mother who tied her three children to a wall with rope every time she left for work for the day.  They were refugees from Somalia and couldn’t afford a babysitter.  The mother had to therefore tie them up for five/six hours a day to stop them from getting out or harming themselves.  You had to understand that this action was out of love - not hatred - for her children.  It says a lot about the human choice when put in a dramatic position.

What’s next for your work?
Hard Land is a long-term project – traveling through the US Rust Belt between Chicago and New York where lots of industry used to be.  Now a lot has closed down and I want to see what happened.  I’m going back for two/three weeks in autumn. 

I am also working on my PAIN project, which is very different.  It focuses on men who push themselves through extreme sports events.  I want to find out what it is that drives them.  It’s a sign that in the Western world we can spend money to take part in these races.  We try to avoid pain as much as possible and we are now so comfortable it appears we seek pain out.  I hope to make this into a book in a year’s time.

I will also document more refugees in Southern Italy.

To learn more about Espen and see his most recent series, Torreblanca, visit his Global Ambassador page here.