Old school ties

For a year Swedish photographer Ulf Lundin spied on a childhood friend and his family. The result is a strangely affecting portrait, both of the subjects and of Lundin's fascination with them. By Robin Muir
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Somewhere towards the west of Sweden, near Gothenberg, a man whose identity we do not know, has been spied on for nearly a year. He has been watched from the roofs of his neighbours' houses and from behind the bushes in his own suburban garden; shots have been snatched of him through windows and half-open doors; he has been followed on car journeys and shorter trips by foot. He and his family have been scrutinised in depth.

But the recorder of these domestic vignettes need not conceal himself too much, for like a paparazzo, many of the blurred, grainy colour shots are taken from a considerable distance using long lenses. The attention is sometimes almost voyeuristic in its clarity: a shot taken at breakfast time reveals that in Sweden Sugar Puffs are Kalas Puffar. With every click of the shutter we discern a little more about this man; he is in his thirties perhaps, sometimes bearded, he is married with two children, both boys, and he lives in a terraced house. He smokes, drinks canned lager, appears to hold down a steady job and he may also have a holiday home from the balcony of which he likes to practise casting his fishing rod. He has a weakness for tan coats, possibly in sheepskin, with a fur collar.

There must be a point to espionage on such a scale because, as more than one commentator has put it, with no disrespect intended, it is in short a completely uneventful life. Except, of course, for the fact that it has been documented in over 100 rolls of 35mm film and is about to be displayed on the walls of a London gallery.

The exhibition is the result of an extraordinary contract between Stockholm- based photographer Ulf Lundin and an old school friend. In exchange for anonymity, and on condition that he was not to be seen by the man or his family, Lundin was given licence, in effect, to spy on them for one year. "In other words," he says, "they know that I am there but they don't know when."

The exercise tells us much more about the photographer than his subjects. "I can create several different stories about them from the pictures I have. I don't think that you know the family even if you look at all of them. A big part of their lives takes place somewhere else. You can't see what they feel or think in the pictures. You can only make guesses." And his friend, who agreed to answer a few questions in return for continued anonymity, agrees: "Fifty per cent of his view of my family is his own interpretation." As the show's curator Kate Bush perceptively writes, "Lundin hints at one of the strange truths of the medium: that the photographer, although supposedly observing others in the world, is more often driven by the need to find his or her own image refracted back through the prism of the lens."

The pair met when Lundin was 11 or 12 and his friend a year or two older. "He was by far the bolder," says Lundin. "It was always him that took the first step and me that followed. He had sex before I did and when I was thinking about buying a moped he had already sold his." The life choices made by Lundin's friend reflect those that, under different circumstances, Lundin could perhaps have made himself: "He still lives in the same town where we grew up and now he has a wife, two sons, a home and a steady job. The security of his life appals and attracts me at the same time", he says, adding, "we could live each other's lives. He could be me and I could be him." For a time before this project, Lundin wound up in poverty and his school friend appeared to be the man with everything. "I had no money and no girlfriend, I didn't regret the things I'd done but I started to ask myself the questions that most people ask themselves: how did things get this way? What would have happened if I had done this instead of that?"

The project became something of a game - for Lundin perhaps a link to his childhood. For his subject perhaps because, he says, "it was impossible to forget it completely. Sometimes we did, and then we would see him. I didn't say anything to him but I used to see his car and I would get into mine and drive and drive trying to shake him off. We saw him about 10 times. Once on holiday I went out to the garden for a pee and he was there doing the same; I saw him in a shop and he didn't see me but I know I saw him."

Such a systematic observation is commonly a function of a criminal investigation or undertaken for espionage purposes, but Lundin's survey is an oddly affecting document borne out of wistfulness perhaps and admiration, and the pursuit of a better understanding of life and how it might be lived if things were different.

"It gave me an opportunity to play a game as a grown-up," says Lundin. "But even if I had their permission it made me feel I was doing something forbidden. Once when they had a party and all the neighbours took part, some children came up and asked what I was doing. I told them that I was spying on the family and taking pictures of them. They understood immediately and asked if I needed help. Then one of the girls told me that I had been spoken of at the party and one man had said that I was a bit weird." He adds that "she didn't think I seemed weird at all".

Several times he nearly stopped the project but was never tempted to make himself deliberately known - even when one of the children came off his bike, an incident to which he was the only witness. "I was aware that I could come to a situation that I didn't want to come to. That never happened. I didn't take pictures, for instance, through their bedroom window partly because I wasn't interested in it," and partly, he adds, "because it was too high ... I saw the child falling off the bicycle and my first thought was to photograph."

There were many reasons for calling it a day: "When you have been standing in the snow outside their house for two hours and someone comes out and your heart starts to beat, and they get the mail from the mailbox, well, it's difficult to be positive"

`Ulf Lundin' is at the Photographers' Gallery, 5 & 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2 (0171-831 1772) until 30 January 1999