Pål Hansen


  • Norwegian-born, London-based documentary, celebrity and interiors freelance
  • After a degree from Trent University,
    started out at the Independent Photographers’ Group
  • Regularly shoots for the broadsheet supplements he was a part time tutor at the college


Internationally published freelance Pål Hansen speaks to David Land about early motivations, his movement from documentary to portraiture and celebrity, and the current state of the editorial market

Over the past decade, reportage, portrait and celebrity freelance Pål Hansen has photographed everybody from the Queen of Denmark, to Damien Hirst, Ringo Starr, John Cleese, Helen Mirren, and Bryan Ferry; while his work regularly makes the covers of the likes of Time Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Observer Magazine, and The Independent’s The New Review. He has also had great success with his personal work.

He says, “One of my first published features was about the foot and mouth crisis. I started the project in May 2001, around the time when Tony Blair was saying, ‘It’s all under control’. When I travelled around the country, everybody said, ‘It’s not under control – the elections are coming up, and that’s why he’s saying it’.

“I took portraits of a broad spectrum of people who had been affected by it, those who were left in the countryside, forgotten about. There had been stories in the media about foot and mouth for the previous six months; it needed no introduction, which was why The Telegraph chose to publish the story simply as seven pages of quotes and my pictures.”


The interplay of words and images is key to the power of much of Hansen’s work. One of his personal projects involves pictures of houses in the town of Antioch, outside San Francisco, which became notorious in 2009, when Phillip Craig Garrido and his wife Nancy Garrido were arrested for kidnapping, sexually abusing, and keeping prisoner for 18 years their neighbours’ daughter, Jaycee Lee Dugard.

The ‘American dream’ ambience of the homes photographed by Hansen is undermined by their captioning, which relates to sexual offences perpetrated by their residents, information about which he found through a website. “Houses normally connote warmth and safety”, he says, “but in this case they imply hidden menace. I also wanted to give the feeling that this could be anyone’s neighbour, trying to photograph things that couldn’t physically be seen.”

Norwegian born and bilingual since his teens, Hansen became interested in photography at the age of 21, when he was a conscript in the Norwegian army. “I started playing about with a camera and I liked it”, he says.


“I’d been happy in the army. It gave me security, money and challenges, but after a while it felt a bit like a boys’ club, and I got restless and wanted to move on.

“In Norway, there’s very little emphasis on photography, or even art education. My mum’s English, and I’d always had a good relationship with the UK, so I put a body of photographic work together, and applied to some UK universities in 1996.“I got offers from Gwent, Trent and Kent. I chose Trent because it was the only one where you could smell the photography chemicals as you walked in. I thought, ‘These guys are serious’.“At the point when I graduated, I wanted to shoot documentary and reportage. I moved to London, and lived on a permanently moored barge in Uxbridge. I tried unsuccessfully to get work as a photographer for about five months, then got an assisting job with an interiors photographer, where I stayed for six months, followed by an internship at the Independent Photographers’ Group [IPG] for a year.

“I was the only intern in what was a very small agency, so it was easy to talk to everyone and benefit from the situation. It gave me an insight into all sides of the industry, from advertising and corporate, to reportage and portraiture, working with images, sending them out, and


getting commissions.

“The photographers who IPG represented were a diverse bunch; from legendary photojournalist Tom Stoddart, to Alastair Thain and Zed Nelson, who were just getting established at the time. Tom and Alastair worked in completely disparate ways, and it opened my eyes to portraiture, because I was able to see such different methods.

“I was paid a very small amount – enough to cover travel – but living cheaply was easy for me, because I’d been a student, and then I’d had no job since graduating. If you’re used to living on little money, then it’s easy to stay on the wagon. It’s only when you’ve got money that you become addicted to it.

“I asked for two weeks off at the end of the internship, and did the foot and mouth crisis job, which got the ball rolling. It gave me an introduction to that particular combination of portraiture and reportage which I’ve been in love with ever since.

“Tom very kindly asked me if I wanted to work with him full time, but as my foot and mouth story published in The Telegraph at this point, I had to say no thank you, and instead rode the wave of what followed.”



Hansen gradually established a strong client base, as his work moved toward being more celebrity based.

“I’d get one commission from a publication, which meant I could then include it in my portfolio, and it slowly developed”, he says. “The first celebrity commissions I got were for Seven magazine (formerly The Telegraph Review). Then I got some work from Management Today, and that led to some more business style work.”Along with 11 others, Hansen was put forward for the Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam, part of the World Press Photo competition, in 2004. “It was an amazing experience”, he says. “The summer before, they gave us a word – Pride – and we had to complete a project on that theme. Mother’s Pride was my take on it. There was a lot of talk at that time of teenage parents, and I thought it would be great to show it from a teenager’s point of view, as opposed to the slaughtering in the tabloids that they usually get.”

One of his images from that project was used in the publicity material for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2005. “I enter every year”, he says, “and although I haven’t won, being highly commended and getting my image on the poster gave my career a huge fillip, if unfortunately not the cash prize!”

Now shooting on a fully digital Hasselblad kit, Hansen says, “I continued shooting on film until about 2009. By then, my work was mostly editorial, and I was basically forced into shooting digital as clients ceased to pay for film and processing costs, and If I’d paid for it myself, it wouldn’t have been viable.”

Hansen began the transition to digital by undertaking jobs on a Canon EOS 5DII, as well as shooting a couple of rolls of film as a back up, but says that this eventually became too complicated and distracting, adding, “Also, what I was getting on the Canon wasn’t quite up to what I was able to achieve on medium format, so I upgraded to the Hasselblad in 2010.” For lighting, he uses Profoto and Bowens kit. “Shooting digitally means that there’s now a lot of editing and post production work to do in the office afterwards”, he says. “Unless it’s a huge job, I don’t outsource anything. I’ve got one full time assistant, who helps both on jobs and with post production.”

Hansen adds that, while he’s interested in shooting portraiture with HD video, he hasn’t gone far down that road yet, as there’s not really


a demand for it from clients.

Despite his adoption of digital for shooting, Hansen is trenchant in his attitude to the printed book, saying, “I use a printed book, with prints made by theprintspace and, as far as I can predict from the way things seem to be developing, I always will.

“When it came to making the book, I wanted to create something traditional, but still it had to be new, fresh, and very distinctive.

“Made by the renowned book binder Cathy Robert, my portfolio is like a Chesterfield sofa: it’s got a red leather cover with buttons on it, and a brass plate on the back.

“People appreciate the physical aspect of opening it and turning the pages. It also gives greater emphasis to the images you’ve chosen, and you’re more selective – you don’t just bring someone 100 pictures; you select 30 that you think represent you, and are what the client wants to see.

“I also wanted my website to reflect my personal tastes; something unique, with my own twist. It’s all part of the package. The front page has been made to look like the drawers I’ve got at home to store my prints, which is an idea I gave to a guy I photographed a while ago. He was looking for developers for the creative side of his website portfolio, and we came to an agreement.”

Hansen adds that he does a monthly newsletter to promote updates on his blog, but that that’s as far as his social networking goes.

He is based in an office in Hackney Downs, the majority of his work comprising editorial commissions from existing clients. “I work for a lot of the broadsheet supplements”, he says, “averaging maybe three or four jobs a week.

“I go out with a portfolio when I find that there’s a quiet period, making appointments with people I really want to work with, but getting jobs from those I work for regularly is the most important thing.

“I had an agent for a bit, who represented me both editorially and commercially, but while I remained busy with editorial, I didn’t seem to be getting much advertising, so I left.

“If I sought to be represented now, it would only be for advertising or better paid work. That said, even during the recession, I’ve only got busier and busier.


“You have to be flexible, and understand that the editorial market is being squeezed, which can affect fees a little, but people contact me out of the blue because they’ve seen my images around, or I’ve been recommended. Work generates itself now.”

Hansen says that, especially with the last few projects, his personal work has begun to move away from portraiture, in the direction of photojournalism, but perhaps not in the traditional sense. “The last personal story I did was on the bombings and shootings in Norway last year, perpetrated by Anders Breivik, in which 77 people died”, he says. “I’d bought some Polaroid film in about 2005, when the company went bust. I saved it, wanting to use it for a subject that, like the film itself, was disappearing or vanishing. “Then the massacres happened, and I thought it was perfect for this. I photographed the journey that Breivik took from the bomb blast in central Oslo, to where he carried out the shootings on the island of Utøya, which is normally kind of a holiday journey in Norway. “As with my Antioch project, I set out to photograph things that weren’t physically there, trying to create an atmosphere and a mood through the images. The project is in a very different style to my portraiture: more art based than my usual editorial.” In a time when easy access to a vast array of pictures is available via the internet, Hansen feels sure that he will always be in
a job. “People contact me because they want a certain feel or type of image”, he says. “While you can get great snaps and things from the internet, you can’t just get my type of pictures from Flickr or wherever. And with celebrity, you need to have that access and rapport as well.


“All my celebrity shoots are different. Sometimes I turn up, have an hour to set up and 10 minutes to shoot, and sometimes the shoots can last two hours or more.

“You’re polite, you treat them with respect, and try to get the best out of them by doing that. You’re providing a service, and you have to treat it like that.

“Also, there are increasingly strict controls over celebrity images. More and more frequently, there are publicist agreements to sign. While most of the time they’re no obstacle at all – if you shoot good images then they want them to be seen – sometimes they don’t want the images out, maybe because a bad story’s going round about the talent, or something like that. “After I’ve done the shoot, and the images are past any embargo that the publicists have set, I send them to Getty Contour for syndication. I will usually have shot the images for editorial purposes, and the initial fee won’t be great, so syndication can be an important source of income – it gives you a little bit of a top up.”Hansen’s sensitivity to the stories behind his subjects, and personal conviction to the cause of giving a voice to those without, makes campaign work a logical next step.

“I’ve done some campaigns for PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]”, he says. “I believe in that organisation’s work, in terms of standing up for creatures that can’t speak for themselves. I’d like to do further campaign work, and that’s a whole new market to break into.”



All images © Pal Hansen


Top Tips

  • Interning at a small agency, it’s easy to talk to everyone and benefit from the situation. It gives you an insight into all sides of the industry, from advertising and corporate, to reportage and portraiture, working with images, sending them out, and getting commissions
  • When editorial fees aren’t great, syndication can be an important source of income – it gives you a little bit of a top up
  • Be polite. Treat celebrities with respect, and try to get the best out of them by doing that. You’re providing a service, and you have to treat it like that
  • You can’t just get my type of pictures from Flickr or wherever. And with celebrity, you need to have that access and rapport, too



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This was taken from Vol 7 No 1.