“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. Follow Barbara on Instagram and Twitter.
David Magnusson (b. 1983) lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden. He studied at the Nordic School of Photography Biskops-Arnö with Anna Clarén, Anders Petersen, and Thomas Wågström as mentors. In addition to his projects, he works as a freelance photographer for clients such as Save the Children, Time Magazine and Svenska Dagbladet.
David has received awards and honors from the Swedish Arts Committee, the Swedish Authors Fund, Picture of the Year International, Picture of the Year Sweden, as well as being selected for the World Press Photo Masterclass.
His first monograph, “Purity” was published by Max Ström in March 2014 during the exhibition at Fotografiska, the Swedish Museum of Photography, in Stockholm. Purity has received several awards and has been featured in international publications such as The Guardian, Huffington Post, Time Magazine, Der Spiegel, BBC and The Daily Mail.
Q: How did you get started in photography?
A: My aunt Christina and her husband were photographers and I grew up sneaking into their darkroom, fascinated by the magic of the images that were appearing in all of the strange chemicals. I had a few cameras growing up; there’s a picture of me running around with an Instamatic when I was 4 years old, in 1987. A few years ago, I found series of Polaroids of our home that I photographed and captioned at the age of 9, at a time when we were moving and I wanted to be able to remember where we had lived, which was basically the first story I photographed.
I started doing photography more seriously when I was 15, majored in arts and design at high school while skipping classes to be able to spend more time in a darkroom in Skövde, Sweden, where we lived. When I was 19, I moved to south Sweden and studied photography at Fridhems Folkhögskola before moving on to three years at the Nordic School of Photography outside of Stockholm. During that time I had Anna Clarén, Thomas Wågström, Anders Petersen and Pieter Ten Hoopen as mentors and worked with stories based on personal photojournalism as well as doing internships at the major dailies in Stockholm.
Since graduating in 2007, I’ve been working as a freelance photographer in Stockholm with clients such as Save the Children, Time Magazine and Svenska Dagbladet while working on my own personal projects. I was mainly focused on photojournalism in the beginning of my career, but personally I was always more interested in contemporary visual arts and photography that provoked new thoughts and ideas in its viewers rather than presenting a series of answers.
In 2008 I was selected for the World Press Photo Masterclass and got invited to spend a week in Amsterdam at an amazing workshop with teachers such as Chris Boot, who really opened my eyes to new ways of telling a story through portrait series and conceptual photography. I had been looking for quite some time for the right subject for a portrait series and to do something more complex than my early work, so when I came across the purity balls and was confronted with my own prejudices against the phenomenon, it felt like it was something I definitely needed to explore further.
Q: What is a purity ball?
A: A purity ball is a ceremony where young girls promise to “live pure lives before God,” and to remain virgins until marriage. In return, their fathers sign a commitment promising to protect their daughters’ chastity. Sometimes rings are exchanged as a symbol of their vows. The ceremonies differ depending on the organizers, but many of them are held at formal locations like in hotels or ballrooms. The evening starts with a formal dinner with speakers sharing their thoughts on purity. After this, the fathers sign covenants pledging to protect their daughters in their choices of purity, and to be examples of purity to them.
At the ceremony in Colorado Springs where many of the girls are younger, the daughter signs as a witness to her father’s promise and if she chooses, she can take a white rose and place it at the foot of a cross as a symbol of her commitment. The girls and their fathers then join a procession and walk up to a stage where they again make their promises to God, themselves, their family and each other. In Louisiana, where the girls are at least 12 to 13 years old, they sign covenants together with their fathers about their pledge of purity:
“Believing that I am worth waiting for, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual purity from this day until the day I enter a committed, faithful, lifetime marriage.”
“I choose before God to cover and pray for my daughter, as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will strive to be pure in every area of my own life as a man, husband and father. I will walk in integrity and accountability as I lead, guide, and pray for my daughter and my family. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.”
“Purity” exhibition at Fotografiska – The Swedish Museum of Photography in Stockholm. Photograph by David Magnusson
Q: What inspired you to create ‘Purity’?
A: When I first heard about the purity balls, I imagined angry fathers terrified of anything that might hurt their daughters or their honor. But the more I learned, I understood that these fathers just wanted to protect the ones they love – in the best way they knew how. In many cases it was also the girls themselves who had taken the initiative to attend the balls. They had made their decisions out of their own convictions and their faith, often with fathers who didn’t even know what a purity ball was before first being invited by their daughters.
The more I learned, the more I was surprised that my initial reaction had been so strong and that I had been so quick to judge people I knew so little about. For me, this was a very interesting aspect of the entire project – and it shed light on my own preconceived notions about the individuals who attended the ceremonies. The idea struck me that what set us apart perhaps wasn’t anything more than how we had been influenced by the culture we grew up in and the values instilled in us.
In “Purity,” I have tried to take photographs of the girls and their dads that are so beautiful that they can look at them with pride – while someone from a different background will perhaps see a completely different story in the very same photograph. For me, “Purity” is about how we are shaped by the society in which we grow up and how we interpret the world through the values we incorporate as our own. I believe that our view of the world around us is formed by where we come from, where we have been and who we believe that we are – and that one of our biggest challenges is to try to understand that which seems most strange to us.
Q: Why was the practice of purity balls created in America?
A: This is a complex question that I’m actually not sure I’m qualified to answer. But my impression is that the purity balls are a reaction to what is perceived as a society where traditional or conservative values have lost ground, in combination with an increased commercialization of sexuality that puts undue pressure on teenagers. In my opinion, for the organizers of the purity balls, the ceremonies are a way for them to address these issues.
Q: How were you able to secure access for “Purity”? Why do you think the families trusted you to tell their story?
A: From the beginning of the project, I’ve tried to be as clear about my intentions as possible. My goal hasn’t been to judge or condone the purity balls, but to simply collect the series of portraits and present them together with the interviews, leaving the viewers to make up their own minds about the ceremonies. I believe that was the key for me being awarded the trust from the families that I’ve photographed, and to me that trust is something extremely important that I absolutely need to respect when I present my work.
Q: How did you choose the subjects for your essay and how long did you work on it?
A: It took almost a year from when I wrote the first project description before I got in touch with an organizer of a purity ball who was willing to listen to my idea. In late 2010 I managed to do the first seven portrait shoots in Shreveport, La., and returned a couple of months later with my producer, Anna Lilius, and attended two of the purity balls where we handed out fliers about the project, and I spoke on stage about my idea. The more people that agreed to be part of my project, the easier it was for more to follow, and I’ve been working on the project from 2010 until the book was released early in 2014, with about five months photographing in the U.S. over the course of four trips during that time.
“Purity” exhibition at Fotografiska – The Swedish Museum of Photography in Stockholm. Photograph by David Magnusson
Q: I love the post-production feel you created for this series. What inspired the look of your piece and what inspired portraits instead of the purity balls themselves.
A: I chose to do a series of portraits since I wanted to focus the attention on the relationships of the individuals participating in the ceremonies, rather than the ceremonies themselves. By using a 4×5-inch large format camera, full-figure compositions and clean backgrounds with short depth-of-field, I wanted to let the details of how the girls and their fathers interact with each other shine through and tell the story of their relationship. At the same time, the interviews are a very important part of the work, since they allow the viewer to read or hear what the girls and their dads themselves have to say about their reasons to attend, and perhaps be challenged in their interpretation of the portraits.
Q: Were the relationships between the daughters and fathers troubling at all to you? Do the sons take part in purity balls? If no, why?
A: I have met loving fathers who I’m convinced are only doing what they think is best for their children, who are doing everything they have learned through their religion and their culture to be the best parents they can be. The girls I’ve met have been confident and with strong wills of their own. The sons do not take part in the purity balls, but almost all the families I’ve met have said that they “expect the same from our boys as from our girls,” and that they believe this is a responsibility as much for the boys as for the girls.
Q: Did you produce a multimedia piece for this work? (Interviews/exhibits/and book)
A: In the book and exhibition, the portraits are also accompanied by interviews, which are a very important part of the project as a whole. The interviews are a key part of the work, since they help to present a more complex view of the purity ball-phenomenon and the diversity of the reasons of the girls and their fathers who are attending the ceremonies. During the exhibition you’re able to hear their voices which I think makes it possible to have a more personal connection to them when experiencing the portraits, while the book allows more space for the interviews and allows for more depth in the content.
Through the combination of the portraits and interviews I wanted to create an interpretation of how my own prejudices were challenged when I started the research for the project and I read what the individuals had to say with their own words, and give the viewers the possibility to experience this themselves. It’s important to me to emphasize that I’m absolutely not trying to present any kind of answers or conclusions about right or wrong concerning the purity balls. As I mentioned earlier, to me this is a project about trying to understand something that was very different to me with my cultural background. I think it’s much more interesting to try and understand something that might be strange to us at first – even though that doesn’t mean that you need to agree.
Q: Compared to Sweden, did you find the States a bit surreal?
A: I set foot in the U.S. for the first time when I began to work on “Purity,” and at first I was struck by the way religion was present in society in a way I haven’t encountered earlier, especially in northern Europe and in Sweden. But I was also astonished at how open people were and the level of trust the fathers and the daughters were willing to afford in me, that they would trust in my idea and be confident about their decisions and share them, even though they understood it might be considered as something very controversial for a lot of people.
I think the United States is an enormously inspiring country with an amazing diversity of strong cultural expressions, which manages to work together in some way, and I always look forward to going back to the U.S.
Links for David Magnusson: Website | Book
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