Curiosity and wonder

PROFILE. He always brings the same poetry collection, a Navajo silver clip in his right side pocket and a lens cleaning cloth in his left. He says he's autistic about packing his suitcase and car. And he has a sixth sense enabling him to spot troublemakers by the cut of their suit. Henrik Bohn Ipsen is a director of photography on two films screening at IDFA, "Mercy, Mercy" and "My Afghanistan".

Henrik Bohn Ipsen was a cameraman even before attending the National Film School of Denmark. In the early '90s, on a trip to South America, he assisted on a film about the Arhuaco Indians. The crew was returning to the tribe six years after making a film about them. Lugging the projection equipment, screen and batteries up a mountain, they show the Indians the film and eagerly await their reaction.

The next day, the Indians line up, very formally, and announce that, Sure, the film represented their cause quite well. But it wasn't about them at all, it was about the film crew!


Nagieb Khaja,
"My Afghanistan"
"Apart from giving the film such incredibly beautiful images that capture the beauty of Helmand, which we in the West think of as barren and deserted, Henrik Ipsen, through his curiosity and wonder, fluently acquaints everyone who doesn't know Afghanistan with the conditions there. Ipsen's presence caused quite a stir in Helmand, because the locals weren't used to Westerners travelling without a military escort or bodyguards. Despite, or perhaps because, of the fact that he wasn't surrounded by security personnel, he managed to film in places where Western journalists for years have been afraid to linger without military protection. His honest approach quickly turned the locals' suspicion of him into candid dialogue."

Katrine Kjær,
"Mercy, Mercy"
"Ipsen is the most uncompromising, insistent and courageous DP I have every worked with. He is physically brave, he stays calm and keeps a level head while chaos reigns around him, and he is also brave in the choices he makes as a DP in individual scenes. That gives his images great authority and calmness and that singular "Ipsen look." He insists on staying in a situation longer than any other DP I know and he often ends up getting an entire scene long after others, including me, have given up. His uncompromising attitude can be really annoying at times, but it's also why, when he's good, he's world class!"

Films at IDFA over the years:
"My Afghanistan", "Mercy Mercy", "My Avatar and Me", "Accidental Terrorist", "In a Soldier's Footsteps", "The German Secret".

"They didn't even recognise themselves," Ipsen says. "That experience really etched itself into my memory – and it affected my way of being a DP."

Ipsen has often been hired for jobs abroad that require something special – what is it he's got?

"I'm probably quite good at meeting people," he says. "When you meet a stranger, they can tell from your eyes whether you are interested in them as human beings or not, whether it's an Afghan Muslim or an Argentine football fan. You can't measure people by your own background and norms."

As crucial to his approach, he cites his childhood and youth in Ishøj, a Copenhagen suburb where many immigrants live.

"There will always be barriers, of course, when you travel places where people are less privileged. You're rich, you have a camera, you can travel the world. But I like to think that people can tell from my attitude that I grew up in a mixed social and cultural environment."

For Ipsen it's about looking with fresh eyes, being able to cope with the strange state of uncertainty and always looking for that which can't be expressed in words. It's about reaching deeper layers and not resorting to obvious solutions. "Case in point, I refuse to photograph anyone in Africa carrying water jugs on their head," he says with a grin.

Ipsen always carries the collected verse of the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt when he is travelling. Perhaps because he shares the writer's aspiration. "A poet puts two words together and something new happens, something metaphysical. He formulates a perception that's universal," the DP says.

In addition to his Nordbrandt book, Ipsen never travels without his Navajo silver clip. "It doesn't feel right if I don't have it in my right side pocket," he says. "My lens cleaning cloth has to go in my left side pocket, plus there are lens filters I can't do without. I'm generally pretty autistic about where my things should be, and I have to help pack the car. After all of that, then I feel safe."

Another comforting factor is his years of travel experience. "I have evolved a whole sensory apparatus to screen drivers and local contacts. I can usually tell the size of the problem by the cut of someone's suit," he says.

Once the project is on the road, Ipsen possesses one of the most important qualities in a DP: stamina.

"When we have been driving and driving and shooting and shooting and plugging along all day and we're almost at the verge of giving up – then everything falls into place. People stand in the right light, an atmosphere emerges – these are the moments you're looking or. And to seize them, you have to stay ‘on' for a very long time."

"So they can tease me about running on Duracell all they want," he smiles. "I don't quit."