Photography has long been celebrated for its ability to preserve some of life’s most ephemeral subjects: youth, memory and time. The sensation of wanting to preserve our loved ones—wanting to cling onto moments of health, happiness and love, all of which will inevitably decay or fade away, forever lost to us—is felt by all.
It is partly this shared experience that makes Swedish photographer Jonas Larsson Folkeson’s series so compelling. Folkeson shines a light (and a flash) on the means by which he navigates his bipolar condition. He does so in a manner that is relatable to all who have experienced internal chaos. Both physically and mentally, Folkeson taps into a visceral “fear of the unknown,” which we can feel in every frame.
The mind and the outdoors—as vast, dark spaces—run parallel to each other under the theme of exploration, and the photographs question whether comfort or clarity can ever be found within this foreign-seeming place.
Despite shooting in black-and white, Folkeson asserts control of his condition by capturing life’s most “colourful” moments—before they slip away again. In his words, he moves “from one extreme to the next,” leaving a trail of photographs in his wake.
LC: Can you start by introducing “Polarity?”
JLF: This project served as a way of coping with my diagnosis. But it isn’t purely about my bipolar condition; it’s about perception and exploring the mind. I started by searching for something that I knew existed inside of me, but that was hard to define—something vulnerable. The work shows my world through a vision that others may be able to relate to.
Life for me flips between two extremes—in my periods of feeling “up,” I am busy and very creative. When I’m “down,” I’m the opposite. Although these extremes are not unique to me (nor to those who suffer from being bipolar), the project has been a way for me to confront and question my condition.
LC: What led you to want to create a body of work around bipolar disorder?
JLF: I wanted to produce something that discusses bipolar disorder and helps break down the barriers surrounding it. It’s not something that’s easily discussed with strangers or employers. The secrecy is something I’ve struggled with since my diagnosis—I often feel I have to lie or hide it from people, which is frustrating as it encourages the taboo around mental disorders.
All in all, this project shows the way I approach my own small world and my demons. I hope that people can relate to these sentiments, whether or not they are bipolar themselves.
LC: Do you find photography cathartic?
JLF: Absolutely. But I think every artist experiences some kind of relief through their art. Art helps us to reflect on the repressed thoughts we have about ourselves. Personally, it helps me dig into my fears.
LC: Why did you choose to shoot in black-and-white?
JLF: I can’t say that I’m exclusively a black-and-white photographer. But I think it’s easier to talk about time in color, and this project isn’t based on a timeline: it’s about emotion; it’s an exploration rather than documentation. Black-and-white is more appropriate for me and my work because it symbolizes the intense shifts that I feel in life—black and white are polarities, after all.
LC: Your aesthetic is specific and distinctive. Do you push the film while developing it?
JLF: When I first started taking photographs, I pushed my film a lot to achieve the level of contrast I desired. But not so much anymore. In Sweden, it’s dark for half of the year, so my work often requires flash. As with high contrast, a direct flash creates an intense, raw aesthetic which emulates what I feel in both positive and negative periods. It’s always intense.
LC: The selection of photographs include physical pain, mental pain, illnesses, a dependency on drugs and thoughts on aging. You incorporate spontaneous moments of elation and freedom, but there’s a darker undercurrent that lingers in all the pictures—that the high will end, that we are all bound to face some sort of turmoil. You can almost feel the inevitable bubbling below the surface. Did you intend to create this sensation?
JLF: That’s exactly what I wanted to convey. I wanted to show the shifts in life that we can’t deny and that we all have to face. These transitions are different for everyone, but eventually we are all confronted with something unexpected. It can smack you in the face! But not all these shifts are negative—some can be positive, even if surprising.
LC: What were your reasons behind shooting outside and at night?
JLF: I think humans, throughout history, have been interested in darkness and aspects of darkness in life, specifically their fears. Darkness for me symbolizes something that I don’t know.
LC: There are a few ‘polarities’ that are apparent in the project—youth and age, life and death, health and sickness, comfort and fear (black and white, as mentioned above). The aesthetic consistency across these extremities suggests relentless emotional intensity, yet it also balances the polarities—can you elaborate?
JLF: I’ve realized that everything is seen as a duality—good or bad, right or wrong. All people experience adversity and extreme emotion; this chaos isn’t a sensation that’s unique to me. I wanted to explore this feeling of not having control and try to normalize it, make it relatable.
—Jonas Larsson Folkeson, interviewed by Francesca Cronan
If you are interested in seeing more work like this, consider one of these previous features: Stockholm Blues, a compelling photoessay on Stockholm and accompanying interview with Micke Berg; Locked-In, about the sensation of being trapped in your own body that takes over during a migraine; and Caged Humans, a disturbing photo report on the treatment of humans with mental disabilities in Bali.