I remember vividly the disturbing stories Sébastien Van Malleghem told me the last time we spoke, in 2015. He was getting ready to publish Prisons, his long-term photography project about the incarceration system in Belgium, and though his images were just as haunting as his words, there was also an unsettling, cinematographic beauty to them. They were unforgettable. After our hour-long interview, I still wondered how he had managed to make hell on earth look so good.
His distinctive aesthetic is as present as ever in his new book, Nordic Noir, for which he’s currently raising funds. The claustrophobic prison cells have given way to expansive Scandinavian landscapes, yet their beauty is still marked by a sense of foreboding.
“Doing this work was like walking in my brain,” he explains. The process started with an artist residency in Norway, which he signed up for in 2012 to take a breath from his immersive projects related to violence. (Before Prisons, he spent years documenting police work.) “It was hard to accept at first that I could do something different from reporting, but in another way I was truly happy while taking pictures for this project. I decided to balance my work: on the one hand, continue to document the closed places and taboos of our society, and on the other, dispel all the sadness that this can generate by just getting back to a simpler form of photography, something more instinctive and personal.”
Sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or with his wife, Van Malleghem drove from Belgium to Norway, Sweden, Finland, and throughout Iceland. He didn’t know much about the region at first, just that he “was afraid of calm and wide spaces.” Soon, the extremes attracted him again. He sought out the longest roads, the extreme cold, the rain, the fog, and the snow. But, inevitably, he also found the humanity he always manages to find, even in the darkest corners of the world.