We grow and become what we are thanks to the match between our own capacities and those of people we meet through life; it’s a special give-and-take. That match is about qualities and personal chemistry, face-to-face encounters that happen at particular moments on one’s path. It has nothing to do with social media or marketing and, thus, I deliberately avoid the word influencer.
This chapter is an expression of gratitude. After those of my parents, I have been in many and very caring hands. I am where I am today because the inspirers and mentors gave me something, and I took it in, processed and used it productively. It’s difficult to select these people because, when you think of it, who should be included and who was merely helpful or gave a piece of good advice at the right moment?
I choose to define inspirers and mentors as people who have influenced me in a broader manner, over a longer time, in the core areas of my professions and life and, when possible, through personal exchanges. Lots of people may have influenced us by their books, art and other works, but we never met them in person. They are certainly important – and my list would be incredibly long in science, art and culture – but only a couple are included in what follows.
The inspirer who first opened my mind and heart to music was Jette Tikjøb (1912-1999), the director of the Aarhus Folkemusikskole, which, back then, was located in an old school building in Guldsmedgade 25 in Aarhus. She writes about her music school and its history here (in Danish).
She was a music pedagogue as if of God’s grace with an extensive repertoire: introducing children to classical music, particularly opera, constantly developing pedagogical methods, doing nationwide music programs at the Danish Broadcasting Company, speaking at international music conferences and delivering talented young musicians to other institutions in Aarhus, a culturally very dynamic city then and now, and beyond.
This was the time when – at least in bourgeois circles – it was considered essential to have some classical training. So I took piano, dance and music lessons. I attended Tikjøb’s afternoon classes while at Aarhus Cathedral School, learning about classical music in general and operas in particular. Four I remember were Bizet’s “Carmen,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Verdi’s “Rigoletto“, and Danish Peter Heise’s “Drot Og Marsk” – King And Marshall. I also sang in one of the school’s choirs, directed by Jette and her deputy, Vagn Pedersen. The proud ending of my career, at probably 17, in that field was our choir’s performance at the Danish Broadcasting Company. I had then to concentrate on my studies at the Cathedral School.
Jette was an exceptionally multi-talented, mild and smiling personality, with an aura of catching enthusiasm all around. But she also put up clear frames and required our attention and concentration while working. As far as I remember, Jette had no children of her own. Still, with her progressive, playful and experimental methods, she adapted everything to the child’s needs and curiosity and reached right into our young souls. No wonder that this legend has later been called the mother of Aarhus’ music life, and a square was given her name. What was a rather small school in the 1960s is now a leading and much larger one.
Her primary drive was love and friendship – through the medium of music. If there had been some disagreements or someone was sad, she would make us all sing her favourite Song of Friendship. She was convinced that music education, cultural activity in general, would substantially reduce society’s costs for mental health institutions and prisons. In that, Jette Tikjøb was an early progressive advocate of the modern Nordic welfare society model, the basic idea of filling life with meaning- and joyful activity when the basic materials needs had been met.
Jette Tikjøb was my music mother who taught me to listen in more than one way.
One’s teenage years are formative. I thoroughly disliked my years at Vejlby Primary School; I began to attend school at six. I was the weaker (and hated gymnastics) and generally afraid of many bigger boys who would scare and threaten and sometimes beat me up. With one or two exceptions, my teachers were pedagogical disasters; regularly, one of them slapped the pupils’ faces, shouted and screamed while saliva flew in all corners of the world. Two had military backgrounds and exercised us in gymnastics as if a bunch of soldiers with slightly sadistic comments if you did not dare to walk on the bar at 2-3 meters high or could jump that, from my perspective, very high leather gym bench, or other instruments of torture they fancied. And my class teacher was a very able and charming man, also with a military degree behind him but, in addition, a Christian right-winger who thoroughly disliked everything left-wing, including the then leading culturally radical Danish literary people, Poul Henningsen, Leif Panduro and Klaus Rifbjerg. I remember him calling them, in that order, “the pig and the two motherfuckers.” He later left the teaching profession, studied theology and became a vicar.
In all fairness, two teachers were remarkable exceptions that made all the rest worth it. Vagn Lundbye (1933-2016), the biology teacher, was later recognised as an important Danish author. I wrote about him in Danish at his death. He was deeply interested in Nature from an existential perspective and in music. The other was Ole Michelsen – the father of singer Anne Dorte Michelsen – who taught us music but, in particular, introduced me to Tom Lehrer, for which I am eternally grateful.
Thus, it was paradise for me to enter the Cathedral School in Aarhus in 1966. While a couple of old-type school teachers were there, too, they were people I could respect. Virtually all my teachers were personalities with manifest competence that I have not forgotten now more than 50 years ago. I’m particularly indebted to English teacher Aksel Jørgensen for giving us keen insights into the importance of English – more so than he probably knew at the time when the world had not gone global yet. And to my teacher in Danish, Annette Friedrichsen, who knew how to encourage us youngsters to express ourselves through words instead of being obsessed with grammatical perfection. Both have helped me tremendously in writing my way through life.
However, the personality who towered over the school and all the rest was the school’s headmaster, Aage Bertelsen. He and his wife Gerda had been leaders of the nightly operations that brought about 7000 Danish Jews in safety in Sweden in 1943, and he had become the headmaster of the Danish school in Lund after the war. Here is his book, “October 43“, about it.
For years, he had shaped the venerable Cathedral School into an experimenting internationally-oriented educational institution. He had met his two favourite Alberts personally – namely Einstein and Schweitzer. He was Danmarks leading pacifist, author of classical books about nuclear weapons, alternative security and foreign policy. He started two experimental educational lines, the UNESCO Line and the Russia Line – his idea being the visionary and right – but controversial – one that young people ought to learn about the world and about the people in countries that were considered enemies. He believed passionately in bridge-building – near/small and big/ faraway. An early globalist with genuine liberalism that encompassed radical, leftwing attitudes in some political areas and good old conservative views and ethics.
His devotion to humanist thinking and peace was the first significant influence on my thinking back then, between 15 and 18 years of age. His school opened my eyes to the much larger world, a world we should educate ourselves to meet and engage in. Paternalist with a penchant for long speeches, as he also was, he was a leader by authority and devotion to his ideas and “children”, a visionary and unavoidably a man who created controversy. I loved him because his school combined the importance of solid learning with existential stimuli; others thought he was a kind of self-important and naive idealist. However, knowledge and values/ethics are compatible, and one without the other is meaningless.
Since I have written what is, I believe, the only English-language article about him – with a related contribution by Johan Galtung – I suggest that my readers continue here. Bertelsen is still perhaps the most significant example of a Danish peace educator who also left an impact on one of the finest schools in Denmark that happens to have produced rather many important Danes. Including me 😉. I was granted the honour to speak at the school in 2019 (in Danish), the 50th anniversary of our high school exam and Bertelsen’s retirement. I was glad to be given the opportunity to convey my gratitude for these years in this particular manner.
When I left the Cathedral School, I studied philosophy (“Filosofikum” or core curriculum) and history of ideas at Aarhus University. As I mentioned in Chapter 1, the professor there was Johannes Sløk (1916-2001). He immediately became one of my inspirers because of his subjects, his immense cross-disciplinary knowledge and because one of his books fascinated me beyond words, “Det Absurde Teater og Jesu forkyndelse.” (“The Theatre of the Absurd and The Preachings of Jesus” (1968, my translation).
Sløk was also a co-author of a textbook about the History of Ideas In Europe (1963) – the only textbook I took with me from Aarhus Cathedral School. Since then, his conceptualisation of the absurd has influenced my thinking about war and militarism in general and nuclearism in particular.
But beyond that, Sløk inspired me because of his exceptional abilities as a lecturer. So elegant, beautiful language and way of speaking, quick, witted, full of digressions but never leaving the subject or forgetting anything, walking restlessly around the room, catching our attention with his gesticulating body language: high-temperature pedagogics that forced even a tired student to become fully awake. Wow, I dreamed, could I ever become such a lecturer-cum-actor? Because what he did was to act it out on the stage that was his, sometimes with drama but never phoney. What he acted out was – Sløk. Beyond doubt, he loved what he did, and his enthusiasm was contagious. And – of course, I would say – he was also considered provocative and arrogant.
It’s no wonder that he later on in life translated all Shakespeare’s dramas to Danish and wrote a dialogue book with one of the finest Danish actors at the time, Ebbe Rode.
Bertelsen had the idea to occasionally gather all the school’s students and teachers to attend a lecture by an invited expert who would enlighten us concerning an essential subject of our times. In 1968, he invited Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung (1930-) to speak to us. Bertelsen was very well informed about war and peace studies because he had used them in his own books and speeches. And since Galtung had established the first institute in Scandinavia, the Peace Research Institute Oslo, PRIO, he thought we should learn about this new academic field.
That was my first encounter with Johan. I immediately understood that here was an intellectual with extraordinary insights, a brilliant speaker who understood how to speak to young people, the furthest you could come a dry academic. Of course, Johan did not pay attention to me in the crowd, but I did to him. We later met in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, in 1974, where he was the director of the Inter-University Center, IUC – an innovative international network university. We have been friends and colleagues ever since – now 54 years – and he became one of my two mentors in peace research, the other one being a friend of his, Håkan Wiberg, to whom I turn in a minute.
In the first decades, I could always send my manuscripts to Johan, who would quickly read, comment and suggest improvements – mainly in the direction of: Turn that argument upside-down, look at it from another – or larger – perspective. Read that brilliant author too. Or, what would you suggest then, to solve the problem?
One of his more simple models is a classical triangle with three corners: Data (D)-Theory (T)-Values (V): Combine D and T, and you do empirical work. Combine D and V, and you do critical work and then combine T & V, and you do constructive work. Social science includes all three. We must not just describe and criticise what we find and then leave it to politicians to make decisions about solutions. It’s the duty of the scientist to come up with constructive, innovative, visionary thinking and dialogue with lots of different audiences – certainly not only trying to catch the attention of politicians.
As a son of a doctor, Johan always emphasised another three-step process for peace research: Diagnosis (D), Prognosis (P) and Treatment (T): What is the conflict about – not who is right and wrong (D)? What may happen if we, or the parties, do X or Y or Z with a conflict and if we do nothing (P)? And how do we develop creative methods of treatment, roads to peace by peaceful means (T)? This way of thinking shows how close the science of medicine, or rather health, is to that of conflict and peace – and how they are creative pathways into a better future.
I like the simplicity and beauty of such models – not saying they are simple to do. But, although they are pretty easy to grasp, they are still not understood by the vast majority of decision-makers. Probably because, in the field of international politics, decision-makers do not seek genuine conflict-resolution or peace but – as in most of the conflicts I have been engaged in – seem to do peace-prevention to further the needs of what may generally be called the Military-Industrial-Media-Academic Complex, MIMAC, which is an exceedingly ‘hard’ structure driven by military/weapons-addicted elites outside of democratic control and functioning as a Perpetuum mobile. I mean, if NATO’s philosophy and policy had anything to do with peace, it would have created peace long ago. But, unfortunately, it’s just can’t.
Since Dubrovnik in 1974, we’ve worked together on many re-conceptualisations of, e.g. militarism theory, human security, alternative defence, ways of thinking or social cosmology/deep structures and above all, our common fate in one sense: Dear old Yugoslavia.
In 2014, Galtung, Wiberg and I published a huge blog, equivalent to about 2000 A4 pages,” Yugoslavia: What Should Have Been Done?” It consisted of manuscripts, articles, book chapters, press conference intros that we wrote during the 1990s with not a word changed. It’s up to anyone today to see where we went wrong and where we turned out to be right – in terms of Diagnosis, Prognosis and Treatment. The three authors had about 130 man-years of experience from Yugoslavia, and my own contributions to that online book alone were based on 3000 interviews with people in all republics, not just in the capitals but in all the local conflict hotspots, with people of all walks of life and with people from the international so-called community. If you understand Yugoslavia – one of the most complex conflicts anywhere in the world – you’re well equipped to understand rather many other conflicts. At the time of the dissolution wars in Yugoslavia, there were hardly 5 people in European ministries of foreign affairs who had any more profound knowledge or even a remote sense of the fact that everything related to everything else in that region.
From 1974 and onwards, I had been a student at IUC in that lovely city – it was at the time, at least. Then I became a teacher there until somewhere in the late 1980s, a Dutch professor and course director seemed to have been so annoyed that I got better evaluations from the students that he got me demoted. Anyhow, shortly after, the war reached Croatia and, sadly, the centre’s beautiful majestic building was hit, and I haven’t been there since then.
In the 1970s, I often took the night ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo to work with Johan at his Chair at Oslo University. That was when, with his mentoring, I produced the first-ever theory of human security (1976) documented in a more extensive analysis of which there is only one copy left. I often had Johan as a guest lecturer while I was head of the Lund University Peace Research Institute, LUPRI, 1983-89. He was a main inspirer when we established the Transnational Foundation (where you’ll find hundreds of his articles). We’ve been teaching on and off at the same places, at the European Peace University in Austria and the World Peace Academy at Basel’s University. And I’ve been lecturing several times at the Hardanger Academy for Peace, Development and Environment, which operates in his spirit in Jondal, Norway, where his family roots are. And in-between, articles and dialogues, always been there for each other. Also, when one of us was attacked for being this and that or the third – and of course, for being arrogant.
Almost impossible to summarise, as you will have understood by now, what characterises him as a scholar?
On top, I would mention his never-failing commitment to nonviolence and Gandhi in particular. That is, to genuine peace research – also in an era where everything peace has been cancelled. Only militarists, intellectual dwarfs and peace-illiterate people advocate violence before all the non-violent methods have been tried and found without effect (a philosophy embedded in the UN Charter). But, unfortunately, over the years, so many other scholars have abandoned the ideals of nonviolence to obtain recognition through political correctness in general and state or corporate funding in particular.
Then come other words: Encyclopaedic knowledge ordered by his mind shaped by his PhDs in both mathematics and sociology. Lifelong learning and seeing connections between fields typically separated by academic borders. 160 books of his own, thousands of articles, chapters, speeches. Global operation and living and circulating between different continents but never suffering time lag. Original thinking – “cars are for long trips like Norway-Iran, not for going to the baker”. A restless search for new approaches, cracks in systems, possibilities and potentials and a high demand on oneself – discipline – to come up with something original, something others in the trade have never thought of or written. Extremely efficient time-management and multi-tasking – why only eat dinner and converse fully attentively with the people around the table if you can simultaneously write down ideas and sentences for the next article? A very high degree of loyalty with friends – I have benefitted tremendously – but also a bit short on those who are not. And a brilliant lecturer – pedagogue at heart. His lectures in the 1970s and 1980s were peak points, shaping my later work as a peace researcher more than any other lecturer.
I’d like here to pay tribute to Johan’s wife, Fumiko Nishimura – her devotion to the same peace values, her wise reading of people, her analytical capacity – not the least concerning the Non-West – and her support of her slightly crazy husband and his constant physically and intellectually travelling nomadic circus.
In my view, Johan Galtung is as much a life artist as a brilliant, prolific scholar. A Robert Rauschenberg of social science. Had lesser minds listened a bit more, the world would be safer, more secure and peaceful today. After the fall of the US Empire – that he predicted so well in 2009 – his unique production and service to humanity will be seen in a clearer light and enjoy a renaissance. It’s shameful that official Norway has treated him the ignorant, marginalising way it has and that, consequently, he has not been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize decades ago. Since it has never been awarded a scholar, he would have qualified better than anyone I can think of.
In summary, a truly loyal, intellectual and personal friendship over a lifetime in research, education and policy formation and most often over long distances.
Like with other inspires and mentors, I can only hope to pay back what he has given me by having been a reasonably good and attentive inspirer and mentor to some of my students over the years.
Absolutely essential like Galtung – but somewhat different from him – is my other pace research mentor, Håkan Wiberg (1942-2010). He was the one who led me into peace and conflict research and the one who has been closest, geographically and personally. By the way, like Galtung, a walking encyclopaedia and three academic titles – mathematician, philosopher and sociologist – and peace and conflict researcher by choice and personality.
In 1973 as a professor in sociology at Lund University, he taught a small 5-point introductory course in peace and conflict studies which – oh, Bertelsen! – had my particular interest. That was a significant turning point on my intellectual journey; I got the revelation – saw the light: Sociology could be something much more interesting than, say, industrial or mass media sociology and usually applied in one’s own country; it could be related to the most important of all in this world: peace – and it could be global, i.e. seeing the world as one system, one society. That was a wow moment.
Håkan became a dear friend – and TFF Associate – until his death. He was the adviser on my doctoral dissertation in sociology in 1981. I took over the position of the director of the Lund University Peace Research Institute, LUPRI, from 1983 to 1989 after him – when he went to Copenhagen to become director of the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, COPRI. All the problems in those years and the scandalous, destructive closing down of LUPRI in 1989 is described here. With colleagues at the time and Galtung’s inspiration, Håkan had taken the first steps to develop peace and conflict studies at Lund University already back in 1963.
Of all the Nordic peace research institutions which have, over the last 30 years, been either closed down (fast death), taken over and destroyed (slower death) or become mainstreamed with no original content left (slowest), LUPRI was probably the first. Wiberg’s first lifework, LUPRI, was closed down in 1989, his second, COPRI, in 2003. High academic quality output, high productivity and international respect are of little, or no, importance when politicians and bureaucrats – the latter often failed academics – begin their destructive, politically driven “rationalisation” or “restructuring” – invariably with the same end result: Peace studies disappearing.
Obviously, peace research and those of us who practised it must have been perceived as dangerous: We pointed out that there were less violent ways to handle conflicts and save lives than using military forces and their violence. Otherwise, why has this process gone on in Denmark, Norway and Sweden?
These were painful processes for us both – but while I could channel my energy into TFF and he could look forward to enjoying his retirement but, tragically, one health problem after the other successively wore him down and prevented him from writing. He left suddenly, falling dead to the pavement after having departed a taxi outside his home in Copenhagen. Håkan left much unfinished but more completed because of his tremendous self-discipline.
What and just how much can be studied on the memorial homepage for dear Håkan that I have created for him.
And how would I characterise him?
The exact same faithful commitment to nonviolence, to the UN norm, that peace shall be established by peaceful means – as Galtung. But, at the same time, more knowledgeable about military affairs, doctrines and war issues than military people in general. He was, above all, an empiricist, a brilliant diagnostic and to some extent prognostic scholar – but weaker than Galtung in terms of treatment, of what must/should/can be done.
His creativity came with the diagnosis – often seeing and connecting elements of an explanation that nobody else had seen. His early grasp of the dissolution wars in Yugoslavia that he knew and loved probably as much as his native Sweden is now a classic. But he seldom had any strong advice or policy proposals – Treatment – or peace plans up his sleeve. He wasn’t enough of a voluntarist – and perhaps too much of a social democrat – and also not the person who would tell others what they ought to do – to do that sort of thing. But he willingly supported those who took a stance and went for revolutionary changes but did not spearhead innovation outside the academic field. With one significant exception: he had been a leading figure in the anti-nuclear weapons movement in the 1960s.
In the true sense of the word, he was a humble person – as pointed out by Gandhi: The humble one doesn’t know that s/he is.
He was an intellectual and personal rock in my life and my wife, Christina’s. He did more good to others than to himself. He would always listen to one’s problems and then suggest how to analyse them – but left it to me to find my own solution and path. For example, I remember that after I had defended my PhD, he suggested that it was time to make a really comprehensive empirical study. But I went into theory work instead, militarism, security and much else – and he never complained that I did not follow his advice. Håkan was, indeed, a very principled and moral being.
When the three of us were together, I used to say: You two are guilty of much, including me. And they seemed to enjoy that responsibility. Now, learn more about Håkan Wiberg at his homepage.
And now a minor digression: Which social scientists/writers/philosophers/thinkers and debaters have inspired me most over the years?
First, all the 140+ intellectuals whom I’ve been so very privileged to work with over the years in their capacity as TFF Associates – particularly Richard Falk, Daisaku Ikeda, Brian Urquhart, Robert J Lifton, Farhang Jahanpour, Hazel Henderson, Ashis Nandy, Dietrich Fischer, Scilla Elworthy, Gunnar Adler-Karlsson, Svetozar Stojanovic and Giuliano Pontara.
Secondly, here are some in a deliberately helter-skelter order: Alvin Gouldner, Kurt Lewin, Lewis Coser, Wright Mills, Dieter Senghaas, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee, Sun Tzu, Hedrick Smith, E F Schumacher, Ivan Illic, Mihailo Markovic, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas K Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mao Zedong, Alvin Toffler, Harald Ofstad, Arne Næss, Daisaku Ikeda, Nils Christie, Arne Sørensen, Niels I. Meyer, Kresten Helveg Petersen, Villy Sørensen, Dag Hammarskjöld, Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckman, Georg Henrik von Wright, Milovan Djilas, Aleksa Djilas, Immanuel Wallerstein, John Pilger, Robert Fisk, Daniel Ellsberg, Elise & Kenneth Boulding, Seymour Melman, John Kenneth Galbraith, Martin Jacques, Fritjof Capra, Robert Jungk…
It’s now time to turn to the mentors and inspirers in the field of art, i.e. my work since 2009 with peace-oriented photographics. I grew up with art-collecting parents. After ending his first career as an industrialist in the metal industry, my father – Frederik Wilhelm Oberg – established his own gallery and art dissemination service, “Ars Studeo,” first in Aarhus and then in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was a prime mover in establishing the Jutland Art Academy and curated the so-called “Å” Exhibitions in Ålborg, Århus, and Åbenrå. So art has been an integral part of my life since I was crawling around on the floor.
I experienced works by Danish painters, first and foremost Asger Jorn in Silkeborg, whom my parents knew and supported financially by buying his things when he was virtually unknown and manifestly poor. But also works by Carl-Henning Petersen, Else Alfelt, Kasper Heiberg, Kay Christensen, Niels Østergaard, Ole Schwalbe, Per Kirkeby, Svend Englund, Henry Heerup, Richard Mortensen, etc. There were also a few pieces by COBRA artists such as Pierre Alechinsky.
In the 1960s, my father sold the collection and began collecting prints by European and American contemporary artists. I followed the process closely because I assisted him by writing all his English correspondence and hanging exhibitions in the gallery and elsewhere. Prints were far from typically a collectors’ priority; oil paintings and sculptures were real art. However, he was interested in printing techniques and fine art printing paper and in disseminating art to more people. Prints was a medium that would facilitate that art could reach more people.
So, at the time, it was very affordable to buy fine art prints by European artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney, Horst Antes, Richard Hamilton, Gunter Fruhtrunk and Victor Vasarely, as well as American artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Sam Francis, Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, etc.
And so he did. He had no art education and only 6 years in primary school, was educated as a window decorator – meaning that he had a sense of a composition in a frame – and had run a shop with mechanical tools. He simply bought art pieces that he liked and could afford; for him, it was never an investment to sell the works later with a profit, as is sadly the case in most of today’s art “industry/market.” Until his death in 1981, he remained a con amore art collector and disseminator, or patron, who also dispatched Danish artists abroad and fetched international artists to Copenhagen. And I learned a lot about art and artists – of whom many came visiting our home – printers, paper and the like by working closely.
You may ask who my favourites are. Not an easy question, but Robert Rauschenberg would come up as # 1, closely followed by Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Richard Hamilton and Claes Oldenburg. I like pioneers and artists who may well have a style – you can see it’s Rauschenberg or hear it’s Mozart – but never become repetitive simply because their method par excellence is to explore and experiment. Restlessly.
So, these artists have always inspired me, as have hundreds of others I have come across at galleries and museums worldwide. I don’t go anywhere without also getting a sense of the art at the place. Every year I visit the Venice Biennale and the Basel Art Fair. Over the years, I have paid particular attention to Sean Scully, McArthur Binion, Purvis Young, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Edward Kienholz, Gerhard Richter, Bridget Riley, Alex Katz, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning and Brice Marden.
I am no connoisseur. I let things speak to me over time. The first falling in love with a picture often doesn’t hold for long. When I write about art, it’s not as a critic but as a recommender. I always wished that more people would see the wonders of the art world – but it is music that speaks to most people around the world, not images hung on a wall. Indeed many go through life without paying attention to any type of art. I gladly admit that I do not understand it, but then again, I have probably just been highly privileged to be exposed to art since my early childhood and interacted with it. Art was as natural as furniture, flowers and food in our home.
You have here a key to why I have always insisted that people who said that, in my writings, I was “anti-American” are plain wrong. My generation got so much from the United States when it was at its best – art, music, poets, films, modern technology, lifestyle inspiration. Ok, some good, some not so good, but still!
Secondly, one simply cannot be “anti” any people, culture or civilisation. The term anti-American is meaningless but brought up – like anti-semitism – to divert attention from justified criticism of policies. But what comes out of the US today is a pale shadow of what that creative society produced in the 1950s to the 1970s – before it destroyed itself by arrogant imperialism and militarism. I believe that the day it scraps these two self-inflicted curses and sees itself as one actor in a very diverse global networking order, the US will again produce art and politics that is worth taking note of. At this moment – 2022 – the US is just a sad view, confrontational, visionless and addicted to violence and anything but a model to others. I’ve even argued that the Western world will not survive as a leader – and neither does it deserve to.
I never met any of the great artists above in person but – wow! – I wish I had. But, since I didn’t, they were all inspirers rather than mentors.
But one artist became a true mentor: the Danish humanist photographer Viggo Rivad, the grand old man of Danish photography. He was born on July 3, 1922, and began taking photos in 1943. He died in 2016. So I celebrate Viggo’s 100th birthday in two ways by a) promoting worldwide the above homepage for him, which is the official one that he endorsed in 2013 and b) publishing my iPhone video documentary with him based on some 4 hours I shot during several sessions with him during 2014-2015.
Viggo and I met each other in 1983 because we had both been invited by the Friendship Association Denmark-China to join a cultural delegation that travelled around China on a very intense program over 16 days. More about that here.
The trip was a gift from heaven, and I bought a new Canon camera with an expensive zoom to make the most out of it. Viggo and I quickly connected thanks to our sense of humour and our wish to take some memorable shots. He generously shared his experience as a professional, his knowledge about cameras, technical stuff, how to see a moment, a motif or find an unusual angle. We were always catching up with the others because such a group trip with a tight schedule never leaves you enough time. One of his many good rules for me later to live by was: remember it is not the camera that takes the picture; it is you. He always poked fun of those who bought costly photo equipment and thought they’d create better images – but still could see neither a motif, composition or a moment.
His upbringing under poor circumstances and his life through the Second World War had taught him the hard way that joy was not to be found in what money could buy. So he had decided early that he would not make photography his livelihood. In 1954, he began working as a taxi driver in Copenhagen and continued until 1999 at 77, the last 26 years in the same Opel Rekord. If you live for something, the freedom and joy disappear if you must also make your living from it, work under pressure. So, instead, when he had earned enough from his taxi driving, he left to faraway places, lived there, took his pictures and returned when he had to. He was a very modest man, lived in a simple 2-room apartment, had no luxury items – beyond a couple of Leicas – and wasn’t the slightest interested in money. When I made the homepage for him, he said: No email or phone number on it to me, I’m not interested in selling, but I am happy if visitors write what they think about my works.
In other words, Viggo was as far away from the present, market-oriented, commercial artist as could be. He was not in the hands of anyone else, and that was not about arrogance. It was his existential attitude to life and art. Given that this attitude was identical to that of my father’s to art collecting, Viggo actually taught me what it means to do art – art for the sake of art, art you cannot not do, but not with a view to what sells. In my own work as an art photographer, I’ve never made a piece with a view to its sales potential. I’m happy if people like my works and even want to buy one. But I am not unhappy if they don’t.
For several years after that trip, Viggo and I only met occasionally. It wasn’t in my cards that I would ever become an art photographer back then. But when it dawned upon me that I really wanted to begin a second life as one, I took up contact with him again, and he was delighted to learn that then, about a quarter of a century later, his early mentoring of me had led to such a result. We were both very enthusiastic. In May 2009, I opened my studio, set up the first homepage and held the first exhibition.
The second exhibition opened on June 20, 2009, “RIVAD. Grand Old Man of Danish Photography“, of course, with himself present. I was thrilled to do this for him. In time and in gratitude. My works are very different from Viggo’s, but he never wanted me to do anything but what I wanted to. He liked the photos I gave him as gifts.
We had taken pictures of the same people and places during our China trip. He had also created a book with photos from Venice. And since I have spent a lot of time in Venice and taken pictures, I thought it was fun to walk around and take some shots where I imagined that he had been standing 30 to 40 years before me. About one Venice shot I gave him, “Foggy Venice Morning”, he said he would be proud if he had taken it. I can’t think of a finer recognition; I knew I had somehow made it as a photographer. Over the years, he gave me several photos with dedication, and the tripod I use today is his old German one from the 1950s.
I urge you to visit Viggo Rivad’s official homepage. It’s simple. It lets the artworks speak, nothing fancy, easy to navigate – in short, in the spirit of Viggo. Like the forthcoming longer video for his 100th, I can only say that it is a work of love. Had he been born in the US or France, he would have been an international classic by now. Instead, he was just a modest taxi-driving documentarist born in Denmark and without a homepage before the one I created.
I’ll do my bit that his art becomes known to more and more people worldwide. Despite quite some local recognition, he did get, he deserves a much broader audience.
Perhaps you wonder which other photographers have inspired me? My enigmatic answer is lots and no one in particular. Why? First, I do not call my works “photography” but photographics. My inspiration is graphic artists, printmakers – those I have mentioned above – much more than photographers. Secondly, I print only on matte papers, work often with mixed media, sometimes to the extent that visitors ask: Do you really call that photography? Although photos taken with my Nikon 7000 or iPhone are part of an image, they are often just one element, not the only one. It’s all explained on Oberg PhotoGraphics.
Perhaps more roads are open into the future when I do not really know what it is I do? But it will always be a part of my work for peace.