Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer have been working together for over 14 years. They are interested in issues surrounding the female experience; from migration and memory to the malleability of identity, they have traveled all around the world, their research resulting in multi-layered portraits of the women they meet. For Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia, however, they turned their interest to their adopted home country of Sweden.

The protagonists in Cooper and Gorfer’s large-scale, narrative, collaged photographs are played by young women who relocated to Sweden, forced immigrants who have reinvented themselves. Rich with colors and symbols, this examination of hardship, hope, and transformation in the age of a new diaspora suggests that we may each find a new utopia within ourselves.

In this interview for LensCulture, Cooper and Gorfer speak to Liz Sales about their unique strategies for working with young women impacted by forced migration.

“Profile of Roseline,” 2022, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

Liz Sales: How did you become a collaborative team of artists?

Sarah Cooper: I’m from the US and Nina is from Austria, but we met in Sweden at graduate school. When studying in a foreign country, you tend to gravitate toward other foreign students. One night, over many beers, we discovered we were both interested in designing a book dealing with the concept of the visual narrative. And then the rest is history.

“Shadi or the Girl With Many Hands,” 2018, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

LS: How were you inspired to embark on a project featuring young women who have relocated to Sweden?

Nina Gorfer: When we began this project in 2017, Sweden was taking in the most refugees per capita of any European country. All of our previous projects have involved travel. We’ve been to Argentina, Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, and Qatar to work with women from various cultures. So, this time we chose to stay here and explore the idea of the hybrid identity of immigrants with one foot in one culture, one foot in another. If you had to leave behind everything you knew and reinvent yourself on the cusp of adulthood, who would you become?

SC: Nina had been reading an article identifying the time we live in as ‘the age of the lost utopia.’ We often discuss what we read, and we thought this was a disenchanting idea. But, I think we must be hopeful in this day and age. It’s our duty. There is a long history of failed ‘utopias,’ but I think this is because we’re using the wrong system to construct them.

“The Cloud Portrait,” 2020, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

I began looking at the etymology of utopia. It literally translates as ‘no place,’ (Greek: οὐ (‘not’) and τόπος (‘place’). This became a catalyst for considering limbo as a space where utopias are possible. Maybe utopia is within us, and we can share it with others. So, the two ideas came together, with young women as the protagonists of a narrative about utopia.

LS: I didn’t realize that the word utopia meant ‘no place.’

NG: The term utopia has been kidnapped to describe political regimes and other structured systems, which we have seen fail many times. These young women are more open to new ideas because of the hardships they have faced. Unfortunately, our society does not look to traditionally marginalized people like them to better understand how the world should be structured.

“Maryan Holding Blue,” 2018, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

LS: Your protagonists wear complex costumes, and occupy highly constructed sets, rich with symbols. Would you tell me more about how you conceived of The Mountain?

NG: Every image has a different story behind it. This image symbolizes, in part, how women lean on each other. We wanted to also make sure the women in this image knew each other, so we organized ‘mingles’ once in a while. The young women featured in the series are all between the ages of 17 and 24. However, they have different backgrounds, and are in different stages of dislocation. Some are refugees from the last wave of migration in 2015, while others are first generation, born in Sweden to immigrants. So they had a beautiful group dynamic; they shared stories and cared for each other. The age of our protagonists was important. In adolescence, it seems like finding utopia is possible. We wanted to revisit that moment

“The Mountain,” 2018, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

I was also inspired by Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s book Women Who Run With the Wolves about female personas in different mythologies. In it she writes: “I once dreamt I was telling stories and felt someone patting my foot in encouragement. I looked down and saw that I was standing on the shoulders of an older woman who was steadying my ankles and smiling up at me. I said to her, ‘no no come stand on my shoulders, for you are old and I am young.’ ‘No no,’ she insisted. ‘This is the way it is supposed to be.’ I saw that she stood on the shoulders of a woman far older than she, who stood on the shoulders of a woman even older, who stood on the shoulders of a woman in robes…” It made me think of a mountain of women, supporting each other through their knowledge and experience.

“Anonymous Landscape,” 2020, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

LS: Some of these have a sort of groundlessness, because of collage work, they no longer have the one point perspective of a photograph. So space and time seem to function differently in your images than in typical photographs. For example, in Anonymous Landscape, faceless figures seem to be building the space they occupy. Can you tell me more about this image?

SC: This image embodies a group of characters included in this project we call the ‘helpers.’ You’ll notice in many images that there’s an extra hand or multiple hands. This is because we think of our sets as theater sets, and no theater exists without people working behind the scenes. So, we thought our ‘helpers’ should remain faceless. In this image, they’re actually constructing the set, this nameless limbo world. The construction process was important to us in general. We literally built every set. It’s this idea that they bring their home culture to Sweden, and are also influenced by this culture, clothed and constructed by it.

“Sisters Holding Heads in Hands,” 2020, from the series “Behind These Folded Walls, Utopia” © Cooper & Gorfer

NG: We love huge images in general, but in this specific project, we want these to show the strength and power these women carry. By making them larger than you, they seem like goddesses. We also want to engulf you in the exhibition experience. So, just like our characters are in a theatrical world, the installed photographs are lit to appear to be hovering or just less defined by the physical space of the gallery. Some of the installed images bleed out of their frames, continuing onto the gallery wall as wallpaper. This wallpaper can wrap around corners and help move you through the exhibition space like a labyrinth. Like the title, Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, if you dig deep enough, and walk through your own labyrinth, maybe what you find is yourself in the end.

Editor’s note: We first discovered this amazing work at the excellent photography festival, PhEST, in Monopoli, Italy. The publication Between These Folded Walls, Utopia is available through the artists’ website.