19 January 2022

When the photobook “Swedish Dads” was turned into an exhibition by the Swedish Institute (SI), the picture of Swedish dads on parental leave was changed. In the book, Swedish dads were portrayed as ordinary – in the exhibition, they were presented as exceptional. This has been shown in a new PhD dissertation at Linköping University (LiU).

Portrait of Sarah Mithcell.
Sarah Mitchell. Magnus Johansson

Unintended consequences

“What does the picture of middle-class Swedish dads on parental leave mean in countries where parental leave isn’t even available for women? I wanted to highlight the unintended consequence of taking a certain picture of paternity from a certain context and exporting it to completely different contexts”, says Sarah Mitchell.

Sarah Mitchell was born and raised in South Africa. After doing a master’s in sociology there, she moved to Sweden in 2014 to study the master’s programme Child Studies at LiU. After graduating she remained at LiU, where she did a PhD in child studies. Now, her PhD dissertation, “Fatherhood Images and Ideals: Transforming, Circulating, and Responding to the Swedish Dads Photo Exhibition”, is finished. “Swedish Dads” is a photo exhibition which, between 2016 and 2019, was exported to 54 countries via the Swedish Institute and Swedish ambassadors. The exhibition is based on a book of the same title by photographer Johan Bävman, and portrays Swedish fathers together with their children during parental leave.

Emphasis on diversity

In one part of her dissertation, Sarah Mitchell studied the changes that were made in the transition from photobook to exhibition. The photobook contained 45 pictures. The exhibition, meanwhile, consisted of 25 pictures, among which a picture of an afro-swede had been added. The texts accompanying the exhibition pictures had been made shorter, and some words had been changed. Furthermore, the fathers’ surnames had all been removed. A father and his child.A picture of Johan Bävmans "Swedish Dads". Photo credit Johan Bävman

“You might say that these are quite subtle changes, but my analysis shows that even small changes can make big differences to what is communicated in the exhibition. My analysis showed, for example, that diversity was emphasised – partly through changes in the picture captions, and partly through removing the fathers’ surnames, creating a more general picture of ‘this is how dads in Sweden are’”.

The dissertation found that while the fathers were portrayed as “ordinary” in the photobook, they were portrayed as “exceptional” in the Swedish Institute’s exhibition.
“I interviewed Johan Bävman, and was intrigued to hear that his intention with the book was to show that Swedish dads on parental leave aren’t that special – they do everyday things, just like the mums. When the pictures were exported by the Swedish Institute, it was almost made out to be the opposite, and special in an international context. The Swedish system of parental leave was portrayed as something exceptional, and the picture captions frame things in a more positive way.

Bridging differences

Several embassies combined their “Swedish Dads” exhibitions with portraits of local fathers and their children. Sarah Mitchell believes that the local exhibitions were used to bridge the big differences that were sometimes seen between Sweden and the countries where the exhibitions were shown. In the dissertation, the examples of exhibitions in Zambia and Zimbabwe were studied in detail. In the case of Zambia, a photographer at the Swedish embassy had taken pictures of highly engaged fathers – the subsequent exhibition “Zambian Dads”, later shown in Sweden, was the only one of its kind.

Post-colonial country

In Zimbabwe, the “Swedish Dads” exhibition was combined with an exhibition that portrayed “progressive paternity” in Zimbabwe. The exhibition was based on a photography competition organised by the Swedish embassy.
“Progressive paternity is, I think, a loaded word, especially in a post-colonial country such as Zimbabwe and in relation to ideals that come from western countries such as Sweden.

Sarah Mitchell believes that the pictures in the Zimbabwean exhibition expanded on the ideals of Swedish paternity and the Swedish nuclear family.

“It was exciting to see the pictures that emerged from Zimbabwe. There weren’t just nuclear families – they also included relatives and non-biological father figures.”


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