A photographer’s intimate, decade-long portrait of his brothers.
Looking at my Brother by Julian Slagman is a coming-of-age story spanning over a decade, with tender photographs documenting the process of growing up with scoliosis
Cassie Doney for Dazed

In Julian Slagman’s family, photography is an act of love. The German-Dutch photographer’s grandparents, Fritz and Sabine, travelled widely to shoot images for Fritz’s job as a landscape photographer; in their downtime, they took it in turns to stage photos of each other. “I have this idea that somehow they founded this idea of a relation between love and seeing. It was a relationship that was made by photography, in a sense,” Slagman says. “The camera became a bit like a member of the family.”
It was only natural, then, that Slagman would apply this connection to his own familial relationships. In his teens, he gained two younger brothers – Mats and Jonah – with whom he shared a mother, but not a father. His photo book, Looking at My Brother, is a decade-long chronicle of their relationship and originally began as a way to navigate this evolving family and find his own space within it. “I was learning how to become a photographer at the same time I was learning to be a brother,” he explains.
The book compiles around 65 of the thousands of images Slagman took of his brothers over the years, and captures the formative experiences of all three. Just as Mats and Jonah go from chubby-cheeked toddlers to long-limbed teens in baggy jeans and neat suits, Slagman’s photographic style undergoes a similar kind of evolution. “Almost every image is taken with a different camera,” he says, likening his use of different styles and mediums to a teenager experimenting with ever-changing fashion trends.
Many of the photographs detail the various treatments and surgeries Mats had to undergo to treat his scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. Throughout the book he is pictured on crutches, wearing a stark white medical corset, during the aftermath of an operation with stitches running the length of his back and later, when they have faded to purpling scars. The images are intimate and unflinching, refusing to either sensationalise or turn away from the more graphic elements of his condition. “We used photography to understand what was happening at that moment,” Slagman says. “It's like witnessing how someone is suffering.”
But with this focus on the body also comes an intense tenderness, especially when the images of scars and sutures are juxtaposed against more commonplace childhood scenes. In a particularly striking spread, a small child sits with his arms tucked inside a dinosaur t-shirt: on the next page, Mats is similarly constrained by the medical corset used to try and straighten his spine. These fragmented moments feel like glimpses of the snapshots that make up a life, and contrasting the pain and mundanity is a deliberate choice on Slagman’s part. “I try to look at it a bit democratically. The bloody scars, for example – of course I remember being in the room looking at them at the first time, but that has the same importance as this image where he’s whispering to our mum in a restaurant, the same sort of fragility or softness about it. So for me, it’s not that one of these moments is more significant than another.”
Another decision Slagman made was to avoid a chronological retelling of their childhoods. “I really wanted to have these time gaps and these rough jumps in between,” he shares. “Sometimes you will see Mats looking at Jonah when they are maybe 16 years old, and then the next spread is six years earlier. And I really liked this kind of tension that gets created there. I like that it’s a little confusing, and that sometimes you’re not sure if you’re looking at Mats or Jonah.”
The result is a book that feels like a collection of jumbled, hazy memories, some of them half-forgotten or misremembered, rather than a precise timeline of events. We’re left wondering about the spaces in between the images: how the boys became youths and how the stitches healed into scars. It’s a reminder that even the most comprehensive photo albums can never capture the full story. “I think photography is quite brutal,” Slagman says, “because you’re always cutting out one tiny bit out of an entire thing.”
But even when that incision is made, it is transformed by what Slagman calls the “relationship between love and seeing”. By recording, as well as living through, the fleeting moments of his brothers growing up and the lasting impact of Mats’ pain, he becomes both observer and participant in the project. “The title is Looking at My Brother,” he says. “We specifically chose that and not Looking at My Brothers because it’s really this kind of triangle where Mats is looking at Jonah, Jonah is looking at me, I am looking at both of them and both of them are looking back at me. The direction of looking becomes a part of it, and you see how a relationship is built on looking.”

Julian Slagman photographs the nonlinear journey of boyhood
Daniel Milroy Maher for Creative Review

“I have been photographing my brothers for the last ten years, watching them grow up and seeing myself growing up with them,” says German-Dutch photographer Julian Slagman on his series Looking at My Brother, which has previously been awarded the Aenne Biermann Prize and shortlisted for the Carte Blanche Students prize. Newly published as a photobook by Danish imprint Disko Bay, the body of work forms Slagman’s most extensive to date.
Based in Stockholm, Slagman has long been fascinated by the medium of photography, explaining that “the photographic image cuts itself through time on every level”. He continues: “It’s surgery. Like a doctor sealing a wound, with careful stitches. Like me, sealing light onto film. More than a beautiful comparison, this analogy actually speaks to one of the key themes within the work. The human body, and in particular the scars that adorn his brother following a surgical procedure for scoliosis, is a prominent feature in Looking at My Brother.
Mixing individual portraits with group shots, the book follows the boys as they journey through adolescence, navigating the world around them. Intimate compositions reveal moments that are by turns pensive and playful, wild and serene.
We see the brothers hug, wrestle, swim, run and explore. They pose for revealing close-ups and unknowingly fill the frame for candid shots. There is the sense of a slow passing of time, as the faces change, and the bodies grow, but this process is not presented in chronological order. “It became very clear to me that the edit of the book could not work chronologically,” writes Slagman. “I wanted to keep big gaps and jumps in time and work mutually opposed. Turning the pages and jumping back and forth in years, days and hours, even seconds, underlined this feverish dream of coming of age. This slightly disorienting experience of reading the book [was] very interesting to me.”
Slagman explains that this feeling is further cemented by his choice to pair certain images together that were taken only moments apart, giving the impression that “the camera [is trying] to keep its subjects in time and place, while they move forward, backward and to the sides.” As such, the experience of boyhood is communicated authentically, shown through snapshots that speak to a fragmented journey many young boys go through – “one day you can feel strong, confident and without doubt about yourself, and within moments all this inverts”. “Growing up does not follow a simple timeline – it is a process which unfolds itself on many layers and in all directions at once,” he says.

Looking at My Brother by Res
For many of us born at the end of the 20th century, we learned something about photography from our family photo albums. Through the photographs we became a family, we saw what we aspired to, what moments were worth remembering and recording, and what the passing of time looks like. The camera was taken out with the good silverware, at the big game, with the diplomas and the travelers checks, its presence wasn’t uncommon, but it wasn’t casual. We focused on what we were seeing, not necessarily aware of how we were seeing and who was doing the seeing, “Once the picture was made, the photographer disappeared, to be replaced by the viewer,” we saw a family telling itself the story of itself.

What Julian Slagman saw in his family albums was a little different in that he could see what the photographs couldn’t show. He explains, “both of my grandparents were photographers … when my grandmother accompanied my granddad on his trips through Germany, she would photograph him, focusing on him disappearing underneath the cloth.” He could see the photographer and the reverence for the act of photographing, and although Julian couldn’t always see what they were seeing, he inherited their deep dedication and love for looking and acknowledges the sharing of this role as foundational to his practice, stating “Their intimate relation, that they found through photography was perhaps what made me look at my brothers in a similar way.”

Julian was born in 1993 in Hamburg, Germany. Years later, after his mother remarried, his brother Mats was born in 2004 and the youngest Jonah in 2008. Julian was 15 years old when he began photographing and reflects, “I found myself in a great situation, of being a teenager, witnessing how a little boy is being brought up and raised in our society, while I was myself kind of still in that process too. The camera made me learn a lot about growing up.”  We can see Julian coming of age behind the lens as he tries on different photographic approaches and experiments with different cameras as most teenagers do with styles of clothing or genres of music. As Julian ripens, we follow these boys blooming over the nearly 15 years of photographing, resulting in a collection of images that holds together and distills the wild, unpredictable, and often divergent processes of three evolving individuals circling each other as they move through time. Looking at my brothers, is a dedication to Mats and Jonah, as Julian asks both them and us, “to understand our vulnerability in relation to time.”

1 Peter Galassi, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, The Museum of Modern Art: Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1991, p. 7
2 All quotes from a series of conversations held between Res and Julian Slagman in the spring of 2023 in Gothenburg, Sweden.
3 Konica Hexar AF, Leica M6, Leica M9, Leica S007, Sony Alpha 7r III, Fuji X100, Mamiya 7 II, Fuji GFX SII, Nikon FE2, Yashica Electro 35, Canon 5D M2, Fuji X-Pro 3, Rolleiflex 2.8F

Alice Hattrick for Granta Magazine of New Writing
Julian Slagman has been taking photographs of his younger brother for over ten years. A child grows up, becomes a teenager, a young adult. You can see the photographer grow too, experimenting with
different styles and approaches, from staged portraiture to more candid snapshots of the child in play, captured from different angles, often from above (as the older and therefore initially taller brother). Fairly little of the ‘stuff’ of childhood is shown; Slagman’s focus is on his brother as he ages, and the marks of experience his body retains, which in this child’s case includes the purposeful scars from medical procedures rather than juvenile accidents.
At first, I am looking for signs of scoliosis beyond the healing
incisions and purple scars. But Slagman’s images also capture human interventions in the natural world: a perfectly straight contrails in the blue sky, the branches of a shrub or tree tethered together to keep it growing upright.
Slagman’s photographs counteract the medical narrative as well
as the medical gaze. His brother is shown in motion or still, crouched down, or in bed asleep, at bathtime or playtime, times of rest as well as movement. He is acting out an imaginative battle game with his whole body and facial expression; he is sitting cross-legged surrounded by boxes of Lego; he is facing his brother and then turning away. Including these moments in the series, as well as the stems of the shrub that defies human intervention and control, we are encouraged to look at him another way: as a child, captured inside of time unfolding, uneven and contorted. -

Camera Austria (Forum), Christina Töpfer 
Immer wieder wirft Julian Slagman in seiner Fotografie einen Blick auf die Unbeständigkeit eines Zustands, eines Moments, eines Menschen. Looking at My Brother (seit 2004) nennet Slagman sein Langzeitprojekt, in dem er seinen jüngeren Bruder Mats über ein Jahrzehnt hinweg fotografisch begleitet - aus dem Kind entwickelt sich ein Erwachsener und aus dem sanften Körper wird ein infolge von Operationen von Narben gezeichneter.

VERK Tidskrift, Oskar Kardemark (Swedish)
Slagman och barndomens avgörande ögonblick by Oskar Kardemark
Konstnären och fotografen Julian Slagman intresserar sig för klassiska teman inom fotografin. Ljus och tid återkommer ständigt som ämnen. Särskilt närvarande är de i hans examensarbete från HDK-Valand, The Child of a Moment Ago Enters Without a Word, som visades på Röda Sten konsthall tidigare i år. Där kunde man se åtta monokroma fotografier föreställande tunna, krökta ryggar i små variationer. De meterhöga bilderna var monterade i en svetsad metallkonstruktion. På konstruktionens baksida, nästan undanskymt, pulserade diabilder med ojämn rytm på en liten yta. Bilderna kom ur Slagmans pågående kollaboration med sina yngre bröder Jonah och Mats, ett samarbete som pågått i över tolv år. Genom verket fick besökarna ta del av brödernas uppväxt, men också se Slagman formas som fotograf.

Mats vänder sig gång på gång från betraktaren. Ryggkotorna spänner mot skinnet och håret ligger rufsigt i nacken. Att ryggraden skevar får vi veta beror på en åkomma som krävt en rad operationer, något som också avhandlas i verket. En effekt mellan fram- och baksida, in- och utsida framträder genom presentationen. De obarmhärtiga ryggbilderna omgivna av svetsat stål i motsats till de intima bilderna av ljus. Huden är ytan som möter världen, och där bakom breder det inre landskapet ut sig, den privata sfären av ömma ögonblick. Diakarusellen är dock inte full. Många av facken saknar diabildsramar, ibland är flera fack i rad tomma. Då klickar projektorn troget vidare medan vitt ljus är allt som träffar projektionsytan. Inte olikt hur minnet faktiskt fungerar, i vissa av facken finns det bilder, i andra är det tomt.  

Bröderna försöker förstå något om sin omgivning med sinnena på vid gavel och utsträckta händer. De för sina händer över trädstammar och vatten strilar mellan deras fingrar. En av bilderna visar en späd kropp i kostym. Posen är trevande, händerna placerade djupt i fickorna och tyget hänger bylsigt kring de smala armarna. En bild av tillblivelse, varken här eller där utan på väg. Vad är barndomen gjord av för ögonblick? I efterhand minns vi en handfull scener och detaljer. Allt från det triviala (varför minns jag det här?) till avgörande stunder, vägskäl i ens uppväxt. Frågan är hur triviala de där tillsynes oviktiga minnena är? Möjligen bär de på något viktigt som vi ännu inte lyckats förstå. Och kanske har vi tvärt om fäst allt för mycket vikt vid några få scener, som tagit sig mytiska proportioner? Just hur vårt förflutna och våra minnen utövar makt över nuet är onekligen komplext. Det tycks vara en av de frågor Slagmans arbete rör sig kring. 

Av alla områden där fotografi haft inverkan måste hemmets sfär räknas. Det är inte otänkbart att majoriteten av världens alla bilder visar familjen, i alla fall historiskt. Julian fortsätter traditionen att avbilda sin familj, samtidigt som han utmanar konventioner kring vad man skulle kunna kalla fotoalbumets etnologi – vad som anses värt att fotografera och fotografens roll vid fototillfället.

Varför menar Slagman att hans arbete är ett samarbete mellan sig själv och bröderna? Många konstnärer tar bilder av sin familj utan att vilja peka på något slags kreativt utbyte. Men Slagman vill betona just den symbiotiska historieskrivningen som pågår i våra nära relationer. I en ny kärleksrelation märks det särskilt väl. Där synkar man ständigt sin historia, om hur man träffades och hur relationen kom att utvecklas. Ett liknande förhandlande och omförhandlande förekommer i familjer, tidigare manifesterat i familjealbumet. Idag har vi vårt egna bildalbum i våra telefoner och på sociala medier, där familjemedlemmar figurerar mer som biroller i berättelsen om våra liv. Slagman har uppehållit sig vid fotografins kollaborativa möjligheter, bortom en knivskarp indelning mellan subjekt och objekt. Kärleken till bröderna är svår att skilja från kärleken till fotografin. Det var genom fotografin och bilderna som vi blev en familj, skriver han i den text som följer arbetet.

Att kameran i en och samma rörelse både dokumenterar och skapar ögonblick är numera en gammal sanning. Slagman är inte omedveten om hur kameran påverkar varje sammanhang den introduceras till, hur kamerans närvaro i ett rum ger upphov till en rad beteenden och konventioner. Man rätar på sig, vänder kanske kroppen mot kameran, ler – blir självmedveten. När det kommer till familjealbumet så fanns det också konventioner. Konventioner för vad som skulle avbildas, vad som ansågs vara avgörande ögonblick i berättelsen om en familj eller ett liv, värda att höja upp ur vardagens flod av ögonblick. Ingivelsen att fotografera uppstod ofta kring ritualer, ritualer som vi idag gjort oss av med. Jubilarer sitter inte längre på en soffa omgiven av blomsterfång, och konfirmationen som inträde i vuxenlivet är sedan länge på nedgång.

Slagmans bilder ställer frågor kring vilka ögonblick som då blir avgörande, och pekar på vårt behov av riter. Detta genom att medvetet rikta kameran och trycka av. Att ta den sortens bilder är för Slagman en kärlekshandling som kräver en omsorgsfull blick. Kameran blir en förlängning av den blicken. Impulsen bakom familjealbumets bilder – känslan att vilja spara något, kapsla in det, en person, ett ögonblick – finns även i Slagmans bilder. Men serien utgör ju trots allt ett konstnärligt arbete, ett trevande på osäker mark, ett irrande genom barndomens labyrint.

Rent fotografiskt är bilderna en blandning av stilar, ett gränsöverskridande i uttryck som pågått en längre tid inom samtidsfotografin. Det ger ett kalejdoskopiskt perspektiv som lämpar sig väl för ämnet. Bilderna är både snapshots och resultatet av fotosessioner tillsammans med bröderna. Vissa bilder framstår därför som sakligt redogörande, medan andra bär på en poetisk ambition, en ambition att fånga något sublimt. Ibland är det ojämnt och spretigt, det kan förklaras av att Slagman tog de första bilderna vid 15 års ålder. Trots detta visar bilderna på en förtrogenhet med tekniken och en fingertoppskänsla för komposition. 

Bildmaterialet har tagit sig olika uttryck genom åren. Beroende på utställningsplatsen har presentationen skiftat, urval och titel likaså. I presentationen på Röda Sten tog brodern Mats ryggradsåkomma sig an metaforiska kvalitéer. Ryggraden blev en metafor för att växa och växa upp, ta höjd och ta plats. Vi säger att djärvheten och modet sitter i ryggraden. Här är det inget grandiost hjältemod vi pratar om, bara det mod som krävs av oss alla som vill växa och ta plats. Och det är visserligen inte ett litet mått mod som krävs.

Till hösten presenteras bilderna i ännu en skepnad. Då publiceras nämligen den första boken i en tilltänkt serie böcker, alla med bilder av bröderna.