The Art of the Matter: An interview with Vilhelm Björndahl (in association with PEN ETC)

Culture — 04.06.20

Words by: Kerr McIlwraith & Desislava Todorova
Images: Vilhelm Björndahl

Vilhelm Björndahl is a contemporary art director and photographer with a distinguishing artistic vision and clear purpose. Reflective of his current state of mind which is in a constant search for beauty, meaningfulness, purpose in humanity, his art recreates the world in a vulnerable and unconditional way, capturing moments in a cinematic manner, fit for the big screen.  Whether it’s a series of portraits or landscape images of distant spaces, the young artist reflects a reality which is dreamy, nostalgic and deeply emotionally moving, and makes us all as viewers want to join in, takes a seat and enjoy his trip down memory lane.

PEN ETC (aka Kerr McIlwraith) & Desislava Todorova had a quick catch up with Vilhelm to hear where he stands in his creative journey right now and what’s next for him.

Vilhelm Hej! How’s Stockholm?

I am good, Stockholm is good! I’m going through some changes in my life I’d say due to the current situation. I believe most of us are coming to some sort of realisation of our own practice; the changes we need to make in order to continue. 

I feel like I spent the last few years, working pretty much only on commercials, which is fun, but now I’m coming to realise I need to start up some projects that have been on the shelf for a while; loads of ideas I’ve been thinking about but not initiating, now is a very good time for me to do that. It’s very nerve-racking, but I’ll do my best, I’ll start where I stand and hope for the best (as you say in Swedish).

We recently re-discovered your film Swedish Boys, shown originally at The Swedish Short Film Festival in 2018, but just now produced as editioned prints right? Tell us about the project, who are the Swedish Boys?

The project started when I came back from studying in Switzerland, I started looking up boys that I found interesting on Instagram, I contacted them asking if they were interested in being portrayed; most of them were all as shy as I am, but somehow they were interested enough in participating in the project. I used to ask them to come over to my place, we would have some beers, the beer worked somehow to make the situation smoother and easier. They were often quite stiff in the beginning when I asked them for portraits, but when I turned on the music they would start to dance, so I decided to let them dance. So the video came first. I wanted to apply for the short film festival just as a push for me to be able to finish this project, which I did quite quickly. It took me quite some time to film the footage, but to edit and add the monologue was something I had already thought about so I did it quite quickly, in a week I think it was. The deadline was a good way to make me finish it. 

The series then turned into a portrait series; they are connected, but I sort of wanted to go into the fragility and sensitivity of these boys. The dance series was more of an escape for them to have, to deal with their feelings, something they were comfortable with. Whereas the portrait series I was trying to dig a bit deeper, trying to make it a bit more romantic. The whole series is built on sets; nothing is real – everything is shot in my home. I created different scenarios, poses, moods, styling; nothing is real – it’s all me. In a way I see photography as a way of acting; acting out feelings through other people or characters, and in a way, I use these boys as an elongation of myself, in order to act out certain feelings, I have had since I was a teenager, sort of bottled up. I was looking for the fragility in these boys, and that probably originated in myself.

I’m actually still working on this series, my goal for the project is to produce a book, a publication. It’s something I really miss doing – it’s okay that it’ll take some time – it’s something I need to do, it’s on my list!


Common Parlance is another work of yours, even though it was produced two years ago it still seems relevant to your current practice as an artist, would you agree?

Actually, this series was created in 2016 – so four years ago! You could say it was a starting point for my interest in shooting boys. I’m very interested in the whole, ‘youth culture’ around boys, mostly because I feel quite estranged from it, I never really felt connected to it and thus find it very fascinating. I perhaps feel more connected to it now, than I did when I was a teenager. Common Parlance was also a start for Swedish Boys, so yes it’s very relevant, it’s one of my favourite series. 

It was one of the first series where I actually went into a studio and created full control of what I was producing, before that, I was a lot looser in the way I was working. This series was very structured and controlled, which I didn’t think I would be able to do. Even today, I think of it as a way of working that I like, I’m not a technical person at all, I see photography as a way of expressing emotion, technicalities are always secondary; I need to be able to understand it in order to do it – it’s the boring part but, but for me, it’s also very interesting.

It’s interesting to see how your creativity as an artist is somewhat transferable to your career as an Art Director. What have been your favourite projects so far, both commercial and personal?

Somehow all these things are interlinked. I think being creative means you have a heightened sensitivity, you find it easier to see and feel things than other people; things that they don’t even think about perhaps. I think working as an art director has been both super fun, but also super hard. I do miss the side of art that is more hands-on, rather than being an editor or art director let’s say. I moved to London when I was 19 and had a dream of becoming an editor, I always had a very strong opinion about visuals and felt very sensitive to them.

You and I met initially in London, then again in Stockholm – but you’ve also lived in Switzerland. It seems like your current obsession is Italy. Let’s talk about that.

It might sound silly but growing up I always had a fascination with words, cities above all. I was fascinated by words ending with vowels, so in Swedish, for example, Moskva, Helsinki, Chicago, Milano. There were cities I’d never been to but I always knew I wanted to be in, Milano was one of these cities. So during 2017 I spent a few months in Milan, the city was very hot, very disgusting, it was empty, everyone was away at their countryside houses, or by the sea. I found myself walking around under the hot summer sun taking pictures and somehow fell in love with the culture. This city is the only city in the world that I can see myself living. I love everything it has to offer, the architecture, the food, the drinks, the fashion, the art. 

This summer I wanted to spend some time in northern Italy, to return and photograph it. There is something very specific with how I am feeling that affects my work; I love Swedish summers as they aren’t so warm, but if I live somewhere warmer I get very anxious and closed off, however, this is also when I think I produce my best work – at least in terms of my art practice.

With Sweden seeming to be on its own with Coronavirus handling techniques, I’m wondering how the current vibe is there, especially working in a creative industry such as yours?

Well, referring back to your first question, I think a lot of things are about to change, I don’t know exactly what people are saying about Sweden abroad, but the feeling is presumably exactly the same.

For me, my commercial work has been affected, however, this is perhaps not a bad thing. I’m about to leave my work as there are no projects to work on, but on the other hand, my freelance work is on the rise; the industry is noticing that it has to change somehow, to be more creative, to find solutions, to be more economical and to keep production costs down. 

This is now a really interesting time to live in, it’s a historic time, it’s fun! It’s exciting. Above all, I finally have time to work on my own things, which I’ve been very estranged to for the past year or so, I’m very happy to get back on my horse and I have big hopes for the future.