Danish Imports: The Opera Singer

We’ve come to the end of our revisit to the Danish Imports exhibition, and today we’re finishing off with somebody who I’m very fond of.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these interviews and the images that accompany them. A lot of love and time went in to the planning of the exhibition itself, and there were many people who DIDN’T get to see it. Friends and family back home in the UK, for example.

So hopefully this has been an opportunity for everyone around the world (because all of my subjects come from somewhere other than Denmark) to find out just how it feels to move to, live in, or work in the happiest country on earth.

We finish with Gabriella’s story; a story about love, gangs and singing in the opera.


“I feel very safe and free here in Denmark,” Gabriella Pace tells me. The award-winning opera singer was born in Palermo, Italy, but raised in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo – a city she describes as very violent and crowded. Just weeks after telling me her story, Gabriella’s father was abducted by Sao Paulo gang members and driven around the city for four hours. Meanwhile the gang stole his car, mobile phone and wallet, and withdrew all of his money from ATMs before leaving him in a deserted part of town with enough money to take a taxi home. Despite ‘surviving’ the ordeal unharmed and in one piece, Gabriella is understandably concerned that the trauma could catch up with her father at some point in the future.

Gabriella moved to ‘calm yet cosmopolitan’ Copenhagen in April 2011, after falling in love with a Dane and marrying him in July 2013. They now live together on Vesterbro and Gabriella is still very active in the Opera scene, particularly in South America where she has made a name for herself since starting out professionally back in 1998. She made her Ålborg debut back in March and wants to sing more here in her adopted Denmark.

The Danish language and the small cultural shocks of everyday life have been the biggest challenges for Gabriella, but she feels that she is integrating well in to society. According to Gabriella, her Latin views of the world differ from the Scandinavians’, and this, she says, is her contribution to Danish society.

Gabriella speaks Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, English, basic Danish and French.

Getting the Shot

This one really was one of the easiest ideas to pull off. Ever! It was Gabriella’s wedding day (which is how I met her in the first place) and the weather was gorgeous. I had quickly figured out how friendly, happy and relaxed she was to be around, and there was nothing particularly traditional about her big day. So I suggested we hop on a bike and cycle down some cobbled streets. She loved the idea, so we got on with it as quickly as we could.

This picture required no fancy lighting arrangements or photoshop, just a long lens (70-200mm at f2.8) and a smiling bride in a white dress. And within two minutes we were done.

Danish Imports: The Freaks

“I won’t tell you the name I was born with, because what’s a name, anyway?” These are the words of wisdom from the polite, baratone vocals of the tattooed gentleman that is Enigma. Covered from head to toe in jigsaw puzzle tattoos and sporting a pair of silicone horns to boot, Enigma and freak show partner Serana Rose stopped by in Copenhagen for the city’s 2013 Ink Festival. “I’m very expensive,” he tells me.

The interior of a Scandic hotel was as much of Copenhagen that Enigma got to see during his stay, but he’s no stranger to Denmark, having performed once before at the Roskilde Festival. And as well as performing on stage with musicians such as Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie over the past 20 years, Enigma has also starred on The X-Files and countless talk shows around the world.

An artist and trained classical pianist, Enigma’s gentle off-stage persona was a true paradox of his touring self. And the queue of people waiting to be photographed with him said enough about his strange, exotic appeal. But I would have loved to have photographed him glaring menacingly outside Amalienborg during the Changing of the Guard, with a chainsaw in one hand and an empty black bin bag in the other. I think it would’ve caused quite a scene.

The Danes in the audience didn’t look massively impressed with the show, even when Enigma sliced in to an apple, placed carefully in to Serana’s mouth, with a chainsaw. The lack of crowd support made the show uncomfortable to watch, for all the wrong reasons. I wondered whether our generation has seen it all and is hard to please these days.

Enigma and Serana Rose (who was equally polite and charming) now appear in their own comic book called Show Devils. The misadventures are best described as ‘Scooby-Do meets Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects .’

Getting the Shot

It’s true that this story deviates slightly from the original theme, but I still felt it was important to include. And although Enigma and Serana Rose don’t live in Denmark, technically they’d come here to work, and they had a good reason for it.

Backstage there wasn’t much to use in terms of props or backdrops, but it just so happened that this pair had everything I needed. Plus they were used to being photographed, so it was almost too easy. I simply nudged them in to the right spot to get everything looking just right, and they did the rest.

The lighting wasn’t anything special either. Standing against a non-reflective black surface and covered in ink and make-up, a simple light source was enough here, and it was a speedlight sitting in a hotshoe softbox. I held it in my left hand high above my head and to the left, and started shooting. As always, I moved the light around as I snapped, because most of the time the perfect light is just a few inches out. So by shooting non-stop and moving the flash I was able to “shoot and prey.” One of them would work, I thought, and I was right.

Danish Imports: The Neuropsychologist

Grasia Maria Banegas initially moved to Denmark from Honduras in Central America as a volunteer for MS (Action Aid Denmark), to join an educational program called Global Change, where she trained to become a campaigner and youth facilitator.  Coming from one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world, Grasia fell in love with Denmark’s social security and equality.

After finishing her BSC degree in Psychology in Honduras she moved to Rhode Island in the USA and took a Masters in Neuropsychology at Brown University – one of America’s top Ivy League Universities.

She was then recruited by Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck, who specialise in brain disease research. Here she works developing research about neurotransmitters and gaining data that hopefully one day will help control senile disorders. According to Grasia, Lundbeck recruited her because there are very few Danes trained in this area. For this reason, Grasia feels that she is contributing greatly to Danish society.

The 23-year-old, who lives on Østerbro with her Danish parter, speaks fluent Spanish and English, though admits that her Danish is ‘terrible.’ This is something she plans to rectify in September, when she starts her Masters in Cognition and Communication at Copenhagen University.

On living in Copenhagen, Grasia loves the variety of entertainment the city has to offer and its beautiful sights, but finds the language barrier a bit of a problem. The fact that Danes speak English makes things a lot easier for her.

Grasia feels that she has integrated well in to society, but can’t help noticing getting a lot of stares on the street. “I’m brown, with dark hair and brown eyes,” she explains bluntly. As most people she meets don’t know her full story, Grasia thinks people see her as ‘just another migrant.’ She hopes to continue her education and research and maybe one day permanently move to Denmark. Coming from a third world country, Grasia believes that statistically the Government views her as just someone who came to live off the Danish welfare system without really contributing to it.

danish imports, portrait photographer in copenhagen, portrætfotograf i københavn

Getting the Shot

I should probably admit that I was rushing to get this exhibition ready by the time I photographed Grasia, and that my ideas were starting to run a bit thin. But don’t let that fool you; I still had some good ones.

Teaching photography workshops in Copenhagen meant that I knew a lot of places like the back of my hand – and the Marble Church (Marmor Kirke) was one of them. It hadn’t been my first choice, however. I’d actually asked her if she could get permission from her employers at Lundbeck to photograph on-site, but they had declined the request due to the theme of the exhibition. The company were keen to distance themselves from any independent comments or feelings regarding society, so we were forced to go to Plan B. I still managed to persuade Grasia to wear her labcoat, however.

It was perhaps one of the fastes photo sessions for the exhibition, and all I really wanted to achieve was a nice, clean portrait with no distractions. I knew that the light inside the church was fantastic at a particular time of day, so there’d be no need to use flash or anything fancy.

So, I threw on a 50mm lens f1.4 and just started shooting. And being a naturally beautiful girl, it was quite easy to get Grasia to relax and sit “normally.”

We were in and out within minutes, and all I could think about was just how quick and easy it is sometimes to get a great picture. Other times you can screw around with light stands and reflectors for 15 minutes until you get it right, but on this occasion less was most certainly more.

Danish Imports: The Psychologist and her son

Due to some technical issues we’re running a little behind here, so let’s get back on track with our Danish Imports exhibition from last year’s photo exhibition. Today we take a look at the life of Chilean Psychologist Paula and her son.


Paula Cavada gives multiple reasons for moving from Chile in South America to Denmark four years ago. Nevertheless they all united in the deep believe that Denmark was the right place to start a new life.

Paula lives on Amager with her ten-year-old son, Ignacio, and is currently studying for a PhD in Development Psychology. “Learning about child development and learning in Scandinavia is a unique experience in itself,” she tells me, “so professional learning was one of the reasons I moved here.”

When it comes to her own well-being and that of her son’s, Paula is in no doubt about what Denmark has to offer. “I don’t feel that my gender makes me a target of material and symbolic violence to the extent that it does in South America.

“I also want my son to grow up in a country that gives us time and possibilities of being, regardless of our origins, income or social positioning. If you haven’t lived outside of Denmark, it’s hard to think that children don’t bike to school because it’s unsafe: traffic, pollution; even the risk of being assaulted.

“I like to think that I follow and share the same values that sustain the Danish Welfare System & this is how I’ve integrated in to society.”

But Paula stresses that this doesn’t mean she isn’t critical of the system. “Denmark is lacking a more cosmopolitan sense in understanding who participates in its society,” she explains. “Many of us bring an extremely rich diversity that goes beyond our race, social layer, income, and so on. Thankfully the gaps to fill are much smaller than the ones back home.”

This last comment seemed to resonate amongst many of the Danish Imports that I spoke to leading up to this exhibition – a feeling of never really being able to fit in, despite their contributions to the country and its society.

And on the subject of contributions, Paula is fully aware of her own. “Besides the direct outcomes of my work, I also contribute by learning and by bringing in elements from my own culture.”

Her biggest challenges have been visa issues, winter darkness and finding the patience to make friends. “It takes time,” she says.

Paula’s plans for the future are simple: “Get another job, polish my Danish, and learn to dance tango!”

Paula and Ignacio speak Spanish, English and Danish. “English is the hardest,” says Ignacio.

Getting the Shot

Even though this image might look relatively simple, it actually took a while to plan and execute. When I first moved to Copenhagen I lived in place called Islands Brygge. My partner and I liked to run, so we’d often just go out and explore the area. One of the best places to go was a place called Amager Fælledparken – a green oasis right in the middle of a redeveloped area on the island of Amager.

On one occasion we discovered what I can only describe as a ‘hill’ and used it for hill training. The views of the city were pretty cool, and I knew it would make a great spot for a photo one day. So it might’ve been an intelligent idea to actually remember how to get there!

Fast forward a couple of years and my conversations with Paula. When she told me she lived on Amager I started using Google Maps to try and find the mysterious hill, but to no avail. Indeed it took me a couple of attempts on my bike to physically locate the structure, but when I did I can assure you that I made a mental note of how to get there.

On the day of the shoot I met Paula and Ignacio and off we went towards the hillock (a much better word). The problem was, the sun was now creating problems for us. I needed the city in the background, but every picture had them squinting in the sunlight, and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

So I turned my back on them for a moment to see what magic I could discover in my camera bag, but when I turned around again the pair were having a tender moment together and dancing as if I nobody else was around. They continued to have fun together whilst I slowly raised my camera to my eye and continued to photograph them. In the end I had way too many pictures to choose from, and narrowing it down to the final one for the exhibition was tough.

During the exhibition, Paula came over to me to say how pleased she was with the final image. Now I have to say, that I don’t get too optimistic when I’m asked to do family portraits, but I think I managed to document a very personal and natural mother-and-son moment. And I quite like it, too.

DO IT FOR MOM (Do it for Denmark)

It’s highly unlikely that you’ve missed this one, but if you’re reading this from outside Denmark then you might want to read on.

This is the new tagline for a funny commercial that came out recently in Danish media. It’s a video that starts off with an older lady looking sad because she really wants grandchildren, and they overlap it with facts about the Danish economy and how there aren’t enough people working in the country to keep it going, so how can you help? This poor woman is shown raising her child, doing mother type things, and then shows that she is so desperate for grandkids that she wants to help take off a woman’s bra for her son! (Eek!) I was close to stopping watching it there but then it got a bit better…

They also started to speak about how couples have more sex on not just vacations, but tropical vacations, and how they can guarantee that after 9 months there will be a baby born and that the money is like an investment. The mother is so happy and gives her son money to go on vacation, and then they go into facts like how exercise makes people horny, therefore makes them want to ‘’have some fun’’ while they are away, etc etc, use your imagination.

Now, this can all be pulled off because A) Denmark is sarcastic nation with a black sense of humor, b) Partly because Danes are good at laughing at themselves and know there is some truth to this since Denmark is a cold, dark country and people really DO have the need to get away to sunnier places. But this post isn’t about dogging the Danes for this funny satire. It’s just helps bring up a point that we, as women and men in the age from 25-40 are feeling pressure from society, family and facebook to have kids and procreate when simply, it isn’t for everyone.

Just this week there was a woman who was warmly APPLAUDED for putting up a Facebook post regarding children and that people shouldn’t always be ‘’bothering and prodding’’ others about when they are going to start a family or when they want to have kids because it is such a personal topic. Everyone feels that it is an open topic that can be discussed freely. I know myself I get a bit turned off when people I barely know ask me when I want to have children, or tell me that I’d better hurry up, and all I’m thinking is, ‘’Um, hi, have we met? My name is Michelle and I’m from Michigan…’’ I personally wouldn’t dream of bringing up such a personal topic for people I’ve just met. It’s just that not everyone may want kids, or maybe people are desperately trying to have kids and it hurts to talk about it. The point is, is that in a world where we are being more accepting of alternative lifestyles, religions, gender, sexual orientations and upbringings, it seems that we are still a bit old fashioned when it comes in women and their right to NOT have children, or the expectancy that everyone is going to get into a relationship and then immediately start popping out offspring. It’s still an expected thing, and even if we can sit back and laugh at this ad like myself, the underlying truth is that the pressure is still there and we should all really be easier on ourselves to live our own lives the way we see fit, with or without kids, and Mom will just have to deal.

Here is the funny Danish commercial you can see here:

If you want to see the article about the woman’s Facebook post, check it out here: