Self Portrait, directed by Margreth Olin, Espen Wallin and Katja Nørregaard Høgset, tells the immensely moving story of Norwegian anorexia sufferer Lene Marie Fossen, whose photographic portraits, of herself and others, are acclaimed as latter day masterpieces.
The genesis of Self Portrait was an email exchange between Wallin, a stills photographer and Fossen, explains co-director Margreth Olin, who also produced the film.
Wallen communicated with Fossen as he would with any fellow artist, by phone and email, not in person. The works of Fossen were truly astonishing, portraits that revealed the essence of the subject like few photographs he had ever seen. But he had no idea of her illness, until they agreed to meet up.
“Speaking with Lene on the phone, or emailing with her, she is a young artist, she is a wise person, she has a lot of knowledge, but when you meet her it’s like a 12-year-old standing in front of you. He was shocked,” says Olin.
The person Wallen met was an emaciated, skeletal woman in her 20’s, whose expressive eyes were rendered enormous within her skull. The anorexia she was suffering was as extreme as one could imagine, and dated back to her childhood.
After accompanying the young prodigy to the Greek island of Chios, where she would habitually take refuge, and take pictures, within an old dilapidated building formally used as a leprosy hospital, Wallen decided he wanted to make a film about her, Olin points out.
He tried to raise finance with NRK and commercial broadcaster TV2 Norway, but unsuccessfully. “Nobody dared to come even close to it because she was so ill,” she adds.
At which point Olin herself came on board, both as producer and co-director. She thought that the film they would make would be of an artist battling a disease and emerging triumphant at the end, and duly pitched the project at Cannes, CPH:DOX and IDFA.
“But at one point I saw that this was not going to happen because she had been so underweight for so many years, and even though she has this will to get out of it, the organs in the body are not coping anymore.”
And so the film became a study not only of a great new artist but of a horrific wasting disease, one that was borne both by the sufferer and those around her.
The film is also illustrated by extraordinarily powerful and evocative photographic works, whose use of subject (much of the time Fossen herself), composition and chiaroscuro are frequently compared to Caravaggio paintings.
Early in Self Portait we hear that, as a small girl, Fossen wanted to stop time and remain a child, and how she discovered this was possible through two means, photography and the refusal to eat.
By the age of 28 she had still not reached puberty, had never had a period and had no breasts, expressing how “she lives in a prison where illness makes all her decisions… a Nazi regime in her own body.”
And as her physical condition diminishes, her fear of medical intervention increases. She panics at the thought of medicines or surgical implements entering her body, and periods in hospital feel like “a system of punishment and rewards.”
To make matters worse, a car crash in which her neck is badly injured sends her spiralling into depression, thoughts of suicide and worsening of her health.
Yet by this time she has been lauded by the great Norwegian photographer Morten Krogvold who champions her work, telling her that she is in the “top 1% of global photographic talent”, and organises an exhibition of her work at the esteemed Nordic Light show.
The response to her work is dramatic (and lachrymose) and the acclaim she receives from public and critics alike is universal.
In the film we see her in action, taking her self-portraits, sometimes part-naked, at other times swaying in a shroud within the former lepers’ domicile on Chios as her camera shutter turns over on repeat cycle. She photographs aged and timeless Greek villagers and refugees (mainly children) moments after they are washed up on Greek shores.
But then the diminution of her health takes on a rapid pace…
“She is self-taught,” says co-director Olin of a subject she says she was in contact with every day for three years. “She didn’t do any course, didn’t go to any school. Lene says in the film that I have always been an artist inside of me. She is talking about a kind of tenderness. She has this feeling for everything.”
“When she was portraying the refugee children or elderly people Lene had this way to make contact with them. She didn’t say that much, she wasn’t talkative, but she could really see… [she had] this ability to really capture people’s souls. She knew a lot about being in a hard situation in life, she knew everything about that, but instead of going for that when portraying them, for me a lot of the images are about freedom, about play, about seeing that a child is mature not because of age but because of life experience.”
The self-portraits on the island of Chios are extraordinary, Olin continues, not least because Fossen fills the empty spaces of the ruined leprosy hospital with images of her own disfigured and anorexic self.
“[Leprosy] was also a frightening, visual disease, and in the same way that Lene carries a lot of shame because of how her body looks, she is thinking that these rooms need a subject – who were the women living here? – so she started to portray herself.”
“When she is portraying her own body it is on a different level, it is about common suffering. It is great art and even though she is so thin, her images are about my life too. I am very taken by her bravery but also by her deep sense in transforming it into something that you will be [moved] by…
“But it’s not just about an image of a body that hadn’t had food for many years. It is also where it is positioned, the lighting, the feelings she is expressing in every part of her body, like a dancer, the authenticity – this combination of the skills of a great artist.”