Interview by Margaux Fievet, Linda Absolon and Charlotte Dossche
Bashir Billow Khalid’s (b. 1988) life revolves around music, through compositions or through song writing. But whenever feelings cannot be expressed through the pen or sound equipment, he reaches for the camera. With his lens, Bashir intuitively engages in intimate dialogues with his surroundings, embracing sparks of inspiration that emerge while he moves through space.
Before his life in Denmark’s capital, Khalid grew up in Odense’s neighbourhood Vollsmose. In 2013, after his university studies, Khalid decided to revisit his hometown. He followed and captured glimpses of nostalgia arising as he passed the familiar spaces of his neighbourhood and that is how the photographic series ‘VOLLSMOSE’ arose. In 2018, when residents of Vollsmose found themselves under ‘the ghetto package’ enactment (Ghettopakken), Khalid’s photographic series gained another layer of meaning.
Vollsmose has often been subjected to vilifying portrayal by the media. The new policy measures only reinforced its heavy presence in the public consciousness. The housing policy strategy dealt with the ten “low-income immigrant neighbourhoods” that the Danish government described as “ghettos” or “parallel societies”. It came with harsh solutions including demolitions of several housing units of Vollsmose. For the interview, we met Bashir at one of the many cafes at Istedgade – the most known gentrified/-ing streets of the Inner Vesterbro area that used to be considered as one of the socioeconomically weakest of Copenhagen’s neighbourhoods before it underwent a second wave of urban renewal in the 1990’s. The redevelopment was supposed to transform the so-called urban decay without dislocating its inhabitants by employing a more inclusive process. However, after the government instigated changes in property ownerships, many of the original tenants had to move out due to the continuously increasing prices of rents. Over a candlelight at the beginning of our conversation, we all acknowledged the irony of our meeting taking place on Istedgade.
We also encountered a hint of irony lingering throughout your work both in music and in photography. Its sharpness seems to be softened by the melancholic undertone. The dance between these two seemingly contrasting themes infuse us with a sense of grounding rawness and playfulness. Photography is something you only practice sporadically, while writing and composing music is something you do more regularly. Therefore, we would like to set the tone of the interview learning more about your topic explorations through music and why, in the case of the ‘VOLLSMOSE’ series, you reached for photography as your medium?
My music is about a lot of things: from themes about love to isolation, combined with some explorations of meaning through relationships among people as well as a relationship to oneself. From the genre perspective, my music is bluesy, but lyrically I explore other things. Or, the music can be uplifting, but the lyrical side can be sad. I like it to be juxtaposed – the happiness and the melancholy.
Photography has another emotion to tap in. For me, it’s another pallet; another way of exploring emotions and ideas. I moved from Vollsmose to Copenhagen in 2009-2010 and returned for my series in 2013. I have always taken pictures as a way of journaling and documenting. After living in Copenhagen, I have always felt the urge to go back and document it as it was, as it is. I wanted to see Vollsmose from a distant perspective, so I could reflect on my own past. I always loved taking pictures, but they found no other purpose than to serve only myself. This is most often the case, until I find an urge to share them. With this series, I only felt the urge to give it a home outside myself since the recent events concerning the ghettoisation.
Back in 2017, you spoke about the importance of putting forward the individual stories of people, and especially of people with a Somali background. Considering the recent ‘ghetto package’, how do you reflect on that today?
Photography in Vollsmose has always been a headline. Photojournalists have been coming in, taking pictures of women (that I may know), showing them from the back and focusing on their headscarf, and adding a title about how “parallel societies” are ruining Denmark. It’s really misconstruing and vilifying. In contrast to that, I wanted to show an insider perspective. I hope to convey my love for Vollsmose, yet without romanticizing it.
While a few of the photographs are more lyrical, others adopt a documentary-like style. We are curious about how and why you selected these fourteen pictures to be part of the BREAKING exhibition.
I made another selection consisting only of people – some happy faces, some not – but I also wanted to give a sense of place and atmosphere. So, with the current selection I have both. What is also to come, is that spaces are getting empty. That it is ominous in a way. I think Vollsmose always had that sense, a sense of threat. But it always came from the outside, not from within. I had a good childhood in Vollsmose. Of course, there were some f*cked up things. I don’t want to romanticize either, which I think my early selection was doing too much. My current selection is rawer.
My aim was to have a sense of the insider point of view. I tried to balance how my hometown is portrayed through people from the outside who only serve a simplistic agenda – photojournalists who just walk in, need a certain picture, make a quick snap, don’t look further and then leave again.
The frame with the meal has particularly grabbed our attention. The presence of melancholy and the private life story melt on that plate and create something very relatable. Yet, this familiarity comes into a sharp contrast with the top-down view and the meticulous right-angle order of objects. Can you tell us more about the process behind this picture and what it brings to the series?
What I found interesting about the meal frame was the juxtaposition between intimacy and scrutiny. The intimacy of food can reveal so much about one’s culture, social status and relationships, to name some of the areas; while its detached framing transforms the intimate perspective into something as if it was taken by an anthropology student on a field trip.
For me, the series gives a sense of people just living their life. Even with the day-to-day sadness about the situation life still goes on. This also brings me to the picture of the kid who sits upside-down. A lot of people I know laugh through trauma. You have to, otherwise you don’t survive. Today, when I speak to friends of mine, we both cry and laugh about it. We laugh about the fact that it is absurd. This mixture of emotions is very much present with a lot of us. It is our way of surviving. It is complex. There are a lot of different emotions about the situation.
Almost ten years have passed since you made the ‘VOLLSMOSE’ series. How do you perceive its representational value, your voice and intentions now and then? If you had known about ‘the ghetto package’ and the exhibition of your pictures at Fotografisk Center, would you have changed something?
Now, there is a sort of mission, while at the beginning there wasn’t as it was just for myself. My intentions have changed. Although you still feel it’s personal. I don’t think I would change the series. Of course, as it is a digital exhibition and as I did not know who the audience would be, I had to adapt. I was in Vollsmose for two days and made around forty pictures. So, in a way I adjusted it by selecting frames. It had to be strong and simple to enable me to deliver my narrative to a broader audience.
Today, many of the buildings have been torn down. I would say that the photo series is not entirely representative for either Vollsmose in 2022 or Vollsmose in 2013, as they mostly represent my own personal memories. They might represent things that have not even been there. “Representative” is a difficult term. As a black or brown person, there is this expectation that we always “have” to represent. I do not intentionally try to represent anyone but, of course, it’s great if someone can be inspired. It is a paradox as at the same time I want to show these pictures because of what is happening. I also want to contribute to my city, my community.
Were you searching for specific things that gives Vollsmose its unique character instead of a generic stigmatized Danish neighbourhood?
Not in particular. I just wanted to walk through as I always did when growing up. I wanted to remember certain moments. I was searching for things that make me feel something. So, rather than specific things, I wanted to convey a specific atmosphere.
Your online exhibition on Fotografisk Center’s platform ON THE GO was the first public glimpse into your intimate artistic exploration of nostalgia from your childhood neighbourhood Vollsmose. It was the moment when your very personal project opened a dialogue with a broader public. Paradoxically, exhibition spaces often reinforce the exclusionary tendencies where only enthusiasts with certain intersection of backgrounds can benefit from the shared knowledge. However, through your social media presence, you have been connecting the online photography exhibition of ‘VOLLSMOSE’ with a broader national context of redevelopment policies and actively tried to raise awareness about the ‘ghetto package’ (Ghettopakken) from 2018. Are you considering any further steps to transform your public presence into a more defined political movement?
My intention – and the only thing I can do that makes sense to me – is to point as much as I can to people that are doing great work in that area, like journalists as Aydin Soei. Soei is by the way one of the expert guest speakers on my sister’s six-episodes long podcast series “Mere end Mursten” (“More than Bricks”) that breaks down all of this (‘The Ghetto Package’). I don’t see myself as an expert, nor as someone who even wants to debate that issue. I want to support with my presence and contribute to challenging the stigmatizing narrative that surrounds public housing in Denmark by adding my personal story. I do not seek to be directly associated with any political movement.
I don’t know if I can say that I’m empowering anybody. I sense that there’s too much pressure that indirectly turns the act of community support into an obligation just because in some ways you share the same racial or ethnic background. It can make you feel that you have to do something; that you must wear your tie properly because you’re representing everybody behind you. I hope we can go past that. It’s alright to fail and we should encourage each other on our journeys.
Of course, I recognize the seriousness of the ghetto laws presence. But if you put that aside the pictures create some kind of home outside of myself through space of archival and documentational history of a place I grew up in. And if this very personal story telling can be of some contribution to a collective consciousness and its truth seeking, I would be more than happy to be part of the narrative shift and to bring more light. It’s surprising how many people in Denmark are still unaware of what rules the ‘Ghettopakken’ enforces onto the neighbourhoods, such as the double penalty for the residents, and the forced childhood day-care of 25 wake hours to learn about Danish values. It’s important to at least know what is happening.
Your photo-series emerged from a poetic exploration of your childhood memories in Vollsmose. The series show an intricate urban landscape that was once your home. Sadly, because some other groups with more political power have less deep attachment to public housing neighbourhoods, and therefore, also diametrically different definition of that place, many of the buildings will soon disappear under a label of so called urban “transformation”. What else, other than the physical landscape, in your perspective, will be pushed to undergo transformation?
On a more personal level, it’s just too depressing to be honest. I wanted to go back to Vollsmose once again in the Summer of 2021. That was before I even knew about this online exhibition at Fotografisk Center. But then the new measurements came up, including tearing down the apartment units. I don’t know if I’m actually going to do it now.
From a broader point of view, such large-scale dismantling of the ‘almene boliger’ (‘public housing’) is a major threat to Danish society in many regards. Affordable housing, by the post-war social upleveling project aimed to improve impoverished states of many underprivileged people that were lacking places to sleep, creates so called social mobility. A buffer space and time for people to transition to a better economic state. This great potential of ‘almene boliger’ can be lost.
It’s about 11000 homes in Vollsmose that will be dismantled. And Demolition is happening not only in Odense but also here in Copenhagen with Mjølnerparken and in Aarhus with Gellerupparken. All of them will be torn down to create space for privately owned apartments. As a result, it’s getting more and more expensive to live in the city and it is becoming impossible to find apartments at costs that majority of Danes can afford. Transformations in migration flows shifted the demographics of ‘almene boliger’. From the beginnings of the industrialization, post first and second world war development waves to the 90s, public housing became increasingly connotated not only with working class with less economic advantages but also with ethnicity. Now it’s mostly black and brown residents that live there that also happen to be predominantly the poorest. They’re the “refugees” and “immigrants” that already have to cope with their precarious state in disbalanced societal relations and then this extra heavy layer is placed upon them by the new law enforcements that imposes different rules on people with “a non-western background”. Western or non-western? What does that category even mean? It’s surreal and crazy having to imagine myself, my body, as a threat that can put at risk for the entire neighbourhood to fall under a category of a ghetto and be demolished.
How do you see your current relationship with photography?
I still take pictures, but it ebbs and flows. I don’t think of the act of photographing as something that I have to do. I take the camera only when it feels right and then walk around and engage with the environment, just capturing the moments. Melancholia keeps re-emerging as the most present feeling that I try to immerse in through photography. There’s some sense of joy and satisfaction about it. Happiness without it just seems hollow, fake and disappears fast. But a sense of satisfaction lingers longer and has a sweetness to it that remains. I’m also drawn to tragicomedy of life and how essentially a traumatic experience is somehow so nonsensical that it can be only laughed at. It is also a way of coping, of course. I feel like this is common to many people, unpredictable misfortunes of life. But also, it’s very relatable to those who I grew up with and share similar tragic experiences with and we can just burst out laughing about it together. It’s interesting that some people aren’t able to laugh at certain things. It’s something about the insider/outsider positionality to the subject of discussion. Where maybe the tragic event that happened to you was too sensitive and you can only allow those that you trust to laugh. It’s the dialogue about the intention of the laughter. Are you laughing with someone, at something absurd or are you laughing at someone and their misfortune.
With the last picture of your series, we travel from 2013 to 2022. It portrays a memorial plaque placed in one of the streets of Vollsmose. Translated from Danish, the engraving says: “People of different cultural, social and ethnical background shall safely live together in Vollsmose and together create future based on understanding, tolerance …”. However, if one forgets about the meaning in Danish, it might as well resemble a grave. Can you describe what’s behind this particular selection?
Of course, the last picture has a lot of irony in it due to the current state of the neighbourhood and the politics surrounding it. I also see the memorial plaque as a representation of all of the failed attempts to combat the notoriety and negative image the neighbourhood has faced since the 90’s. It is a type of relic from a bygone era where the everyday issues in Vollsmose seemed managable and solvable.
About the artist
Bashir Billow Khalid (b. 1988) is a Copenhagen based artist working in the field of music, photography and writing.
On behalf of Fotografisk Center, I would like to thank Bashir Billow Khalid for his cooperation and contribution during the online exhibition on our digital platform ON THE GO in the exhibition period 13.06. – 25.09.2022.