Creative Quarantine: Photographer Thilde Jensen

Gareth, walking all the way back home to Kentucky from Oregon. Route 66, Arizona 2017 | ©Thilde Jensen

Thilde Jensen is no stranger to wearing a mask and managing isolation. Her first book, The Canaries, is about living with environmental illness. Given the current state of the world, it is fitting, that some of this work is currently part of a group show, Shelter Is, at Art Yard. She recently spoke with Esthetic Lens about upcoming exhibitions in support of her latest book, The Unwanted, reworking a show to accommodate the new COVID world and her deep dive into working with nature.

1. How are you holding up?

The pandemic itself hasn’t affected my life too much, I already have many years of practice wearing masks and staying isolated which is what my first photobook The Canaries dealt with. Though I have to admit I had never imagined seeing mask-wearing becoming so normalized, as the collectively shared experience it now has become. Some days I just sit in the parking lot at the supermarket for a few minutes before going in and enjoy watching people with their masks, trying to remember the days when I was the only masked person that everyone else would stare at. It makes me hopeful that in many ways we have been able to adapt to this new reality fairly quickly. Other days when I spend too much time reading the news it is hard not to get depressed and wonder if we are this divided now, how will we ever be able to tackle the much bigger climate crisis looming ahead?   


Me showering in a newly renovated bathroom. Liberty, New York, 2004 | ©Thilde Jensen

Maria in her chemical-free metal rental unit. Nine layers of fabric cover her eyes to keep out light. Dallas, Texas, 2011 | ©Thilde Jensen

2. Has Covid-19 had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?

I finished up my second photobook, The Unwanted, about homelessness in America last Fall and have been working on two exhibitions of this body of work in Europe for next Spring. One of the shows has recently been totally reworked partly inspired by our new COVID world. Instead of showing the work inside in the museum, we are now working on creating a street show which I’m very excited about and for me presents the perfect way to experience these images since they were created in the street in the first place.


Ed, Las Vegas, Nevada 2017 | ©Thilde Jensen

Terry and his brother waiting in line for the soup kitchen. Homeless for 4 years after being laid off. Las Vegas, Nevada 2016

The quarantine has also been an opportunity to dive more deeply into my other passion; working with nature and her web of life in a healing manner. Trying to find a way to bridge the much needed global change in land use with a more personal and artistic desire to recreate paradise. Following this path, I have undertaken a scientific education into the soil food web, the microbial life of the soil, which is the foundation of life, fertility, and health for our planet. Unfortunately, we have destroyed much of this microscopic food web with our current agricultural practices and continuous human sprawl. The good news is that most of this damage can be reversed and reasonably fast using inoculation of bio-complete compost (compost produced using a scientific method and tested to meet the minimum requirement for biological life). This approach has the potential to not only grow healthy food without chemicals but more importantly, if we get the fungi, nematodes, and protozoa back in the soil then plants and trees in conjunction with mycelium hyphae networks can sequester and store massive amounts of carbon in the soil which could significantly help in reversing climate change.


Old gas station. Gallup, New Mexico 2016 | ©Thilde Jensen

Eric in the bushes. Syracuse, New York 2014 | ©Thilde Jensen

This is what I have been busy with lately looking at the magical wondrous world of the soil food web under the microscope, a good escape from the troubling times we humans are going through. I haven’t yet found the precise artistic form for this new way of working which of course will involve photography but where the real art medium will be nature itself, though I’m sure that somehow our human struggle will find its way into this project too. So far I have multiple conceptual ideas that I’m working on along these lines which for now is titled “Nature Works – Future Paradise.”


Drake, Las Vegas, Nevada 2017 | ©Thilde Jensen

Cindy wanting a friend. Las Vegas, Nevada 2016 | ©Thilde Jensen

3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?

For me the one good thing that has come out of this changed reality, is a new perspective on what is important, recognizing the value of my time, and becoming more focused on how to best be part of the solution with whatever time I have left.  


Faye Dunaway. Syracuse, New York 2015 | ©Thilde Jensen

Laura feeling down. Las Vegas, Nevada 2017 | ©Thilde Jensen

4. Of the artists you follow, who is handling this particularly well?

I recently spoke to my friend photographer, John Gossage, who is working on his next photo book which from what I have seen is going to be quite amazing.  


Bobby dragging his blanket to untangle the energy fields. Homeless for 13 years. Las Vegas, Nevada 2016 | ©Thilde Jensen

John, Las Vegas, Nevada 2016 | ©Thilde Jensen

5. Are there any artists, albums, or genres of music you’ve been drawn to during the crisis? If so, why?

I have to admit that lately, I have enjoyed the soundtrack of nature right outside my door. However, if I am to mention a person that has been helpful for me to get through this difficult time it would be John Oliver and his show Last Week Tonight. It is good to be able to laugh a little at the madness of it all and I recognize that it is not easy to be funny when the stakes are this high.

A friend of mine sent me a link to this wonderful and genius poem,
Spoiler, by Hala Alyan that precisely captures this moment and how I
think a lot of us feel :
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/28/spoiler


Maria by her low radiation phone box. Dallas, Texas, 2012 | ©Thilde Jensen

Craig on the phone in his car and his home for 8 years, Portal, Arizona, 2011 | ©Thilde Jensen

Thilde Jensen was born in Denmark and moved to New York City in 1997. Six years later her life and career as a documentary and editorial photographer was cut short by a sudden development of severe Environmental Illness. The struggle to survive took Jensen into a hyper-sensitive world that she never knew existed, to capture the harsh realities of those afflicted like her.


Thilde Jensen, Selfie | ©Thilde Jensen

Thilde Jensen’s first monograph The Canaries about Environmental Illness was published in 2013 and has since received international acclaim. The Canaries book has made it into many collections, including MoMA and SFMOMA.

Her work has been featured in The New York Times, FT Magazine (UK), Il manifesto (Italy), De Standaard (Belgium), Esquire Russia, Wired.com, Vision Magazine (China), Business Insider, Slate.com and selected for Slate.com’s Best Photography Shows of 2012.

Thilde Jensen is a NYFA Fellowship and Light Work Grant recipient. In 2017 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the completion of The Unwanted project about homelessness in America. The Unwanted photobook was published in Oct. 2019. 

Thilde Jensen can be found online on Instagram, Facebook, and her Website.