Danish Imports – One Year Later

Exactly 12 months ago I was celebrating my very first photo exhibition here in Copenhagen. It was something I’d been thinking of doing for a couple of years and it was a definite learning curve for me. Not only was I under pressure to include a selection of images I was proud of, but also to present them in a way that was both professional and worthwhile.

In the end, thanks to the team at Generator Hostel and in particular, Michelle Exarhos, the opening night was a roaring success and I was overwhelmed by the support of those who came by to see my work.

Now, one year later, I feel it’s time to revisit the exhibition, which was entitled Danish Imports. The concept was simple: what were the reasons people came to live or visit the world’s fourth freest nation. Be it work, education, or love, the stories I discovered showed a diverse cross-section of the foreigners who call Denmark home.

Over the next few days I’ll be sharing individual images from the exhibition and writing about the stories behind them, including how I came to meet and photograph those who took part. Today we will be starting with Merial, who was the very first person I caught with my camera. Check out her story below.

Portrait of a South Korean girl

The Student

The first thing that got my attention with Merial were her leopard-print glasses, and it was this photograph that first inspired the exhibition.

Merial – or Myeong Jae to give her her full and proper name – was previously a High School English teacher in her native South Korea before she decided in March 2012 to ‘experience a new and different country.’

Just one year later, however, Merial was forced to return home due to complex issues with her visa. For Merial the six months didn’t seem too long, especially as she got to see her family and old friends again, so she didn’t miss Denmark that much. “I knew I was coming back, so it was more like a vacation,” she says. Her boyfriend was definitely someone she missed, though, as well as the fantastic weather that Denmark experienced that summer.

The 25-year-old claims that, as of yet, she hasn’t contributed anything to Danish society, and that the language, wind and darkness have been the biggest challenges she has faced. But living here helps her to enjoy a ‘not too busy life’ and the opportunity to relax more. In other words, her stress levels are way down.

Being open-minded and having a Danish partner have helped Merial to integrate in to Danish society, she believes. And like a lot of foreigners unacquainted with bike-happy Copenhagen, Merial initially spent forever getting around the city – something that seems to annoy many Danish boyfriends and girlfriends (speaking from experience and with Merial). “I just couldn’t believe how awesome it was to be able to cycle around and enjoy the city,” she told me. “Danes take it for granted that they have such a bike-friendly country.”

Staying permanently in Denmark might not be on the cards for Merial, who wants her partner to experience South Korea. “My family means a lot to me,” she says, “and [being away from them] is the only thing that makes me sad from time to time.”

Now living in Rødovre with her partner, Merial is currently studying a Masters Degree in English Studies at Copenhagen University. She speaks Korean, Japanese, English and Danish.

Getting the shot

When I first asked Merial to pose for me she was more than happy to do so. I’d not been in Denmark very long, and she was one of the students in my Danish class at København Sprogcenter. As mentioned above, it was her leopard-print glasses that got my attention and that was all I could focus on.

When I got to her apartment I only had one thought in my mind, and that was to take a simple portrait picture with a 50mm lens. This type of lens is often used for portraits, as it presents the subject in a flattering way.

Once we entered the lounge / stuen I noticed a chrome lamp in the corner. The dome-shaped head seemed the perfect tool to reflect my flash in to, so I positioned it at a classic 45 degrees up-and-to-the-right angle and adjusted it as necessary. And that was pretty much it; no fancy second flash or gels used in this shot.

What I should mention at this point, is that, as a photographer, I was in limbo when it came to finding my own personal style and niché. Having been at a local newspaper for a few years and then travelling for eight months, I was still trying to find my feet as a freelancer for the first time in my life. As a result, I found myself playing around in Photoshop trying to make the image look a bit more interesting. I wish I could tell you what I did to achieve this final image, but the truth is I have no idea! Clearly I’ve added some kind of vignette to darken the corners of the picture, and added a shade of green to it at the same time. This was probably to compliment Merial’s purple jumper (green is the opposite to purple on the colour wheel). I would’ve also sharpened her eyes a little and softened the rest, I suppose.

It was hard for me to choose a favourite picture during the exhibition, as each one had its own interesting story and challenge behind it. But my eyes kept returning to Merial’s as I glanced around the room all evening. As I asked people which picture they preferred, many replied that it was Merial.

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