Learning by Doing

Sometimes the only way to learn is the hard way. You make a mistake that you will never do again. While the last week has seen further strengthening of lockdown here where I have been grounded for the last year or so (hopefully the last spell before things start to get better), I have spent time organizing my analogue archive—those stories and images that I never got around to properly store after they were shot.

One such story was from a travel to Japan and about sumo wrestlers. This is back in time, way before digital cameras were even thought of. Obviously, the story was captured on film. However, it never made it into a published story. I screwed up.

I had been in Japan already for some weeks, trying without much success to get access to a gym where the sumo wrestlers train. I had been attending a tournament but was not able to access their training grounds. Then someone, now years later I can quite recall whom and how, tipped me about a gym where the big fellows trained every morning. It was in the outskirts of Tokyo.

So, I just turned up at the break of dawn. And there they were, already into their morning routine. I had no appointment, but just started photographing. It was still dark inside the gym; with the only light provide being daylight streaming through the doors and windows. Aka, harsh contrast and difficult shooting conditions.

While I was in Japan, the big Japanese film manufacturer released a new slide film with, back then, the exhilarating speed of 1600 ISO being able push to 3200. Remember at the time a slide film with 200 ISO was at the high end—before this new film. I had just bought some rolls to test it out, and I thought it would be perfect for this dark gym.

First mistake! Never do important work with equipment you have not tried out beforehand, whether a camera, a new lens or, as in this case, a new film. I pushed the film to 3200 ISO. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rolls developed while still in Japan. When I got back home and got the rolls developed, all the images where too dark. Somehow, the lab hadn’t gotten it right, I believe because they had never developed this film before.

The second mistake, which wasn’t doing things worse, really, since the films were screwed anyway, but would have been, if not for the underexposed and/or underdeveloped rolls. I didn’t move close enough. I felt I was intruding, most of all because I had not made arrangements beforehand, and couldn’t communicate with anyway at the gym. It was a little intimidating being in a place where nobody understood, and I wasn’t sure they wanted me to be around in the first place.

As I was photographing the sumo wrestlers’ morning training, albeit not knowing nothing would come out of it, a crowd started to gather outside the gym. I slowly gathered it was me, that I was the attraction. Nobody out in this suburb of Tokyo were used to a gaijin—a foreigner. That sure put extra pressure on me, and maybe part of why I failed so miserably.

At least, I got back from the whole experience with a lovely memory. As I was packing down my equipment, believing I had done a scoop and would get the biggest story ever published in a major magazine, a young Japanese man from the crowd approach me and asked in poor English if I would like to come along and have breakfast with him and his family at his home. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the invitation—and wouldn’t want to—and had this lovely breakfast with him, his wife and their only child. We couldn’t say much to each other, but used the international sign language.

Today that would be quite unusual, to be invited home to a total strange in the middle a big city. At least I got away with something.

The images here are an attempt to recover some of the images, by scanning and processing them. Took quite some time…

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

Easter Ponderings

Easter is a special time for many Norwegians. Not so much for its religious significance, not at all in fact. Easter is when we seek up in the mountains, to go skiing and enjoy the last spell of winter. It’s one of our major holidays, and as such I think Norwegians are almost alone in the world to have institutionalized the whole week between the weekend of Palm Sunday and the Easter Weekend, included Easter Monday, as days off. That is 10 days of holidays in March or April—depending on when Easter falls in any given year.

For many Norwegians having a cabin in the mountains it what means to be Norwegian. Almost as their birthright. And part of that legacy is the pilgrimage up in the mountain during Eastern.

Certainly, plenty of Norwegian don’t own a cabin in the mountains. Some prefer one along the extensive coastline. And some don’t have a cabin at all. Me being one. I have never wanted the bonds and the limitations owning a cabin impose on you. I want the freedom to roam wherever I desire. Of course, it’s an economical question as well.

Even without my own cabin, I have sought out the high mountains during Easter, but then rather backpacking; sleeping in a tent, snow caves or public cabins or lodges spread out in the mountains. That is another special feature of Norway. An outdoor organization runs a network of cabins or huts all over the country. Some are run like lodges—with full board and lodging—but some are unattended, with only food you may use, stored in the cabins. The system is based on trust; that you leave payment for the lodging and the food that you use.

The alpine region of winter mountains can be quite weather prone. I remember one Easter, many, many years ago. A friend and I was captured by a full storm with heavy snowfall and strong winds. It lasted for almost a week. We dug a snow cave, and spent the next many days inside the cave. Safe, but pretty bored by the time the storm dwindled.

Despite both the danger and the nuisance of possibly bad weather during winter in the mountains, I have learned that waiting for good weather, will only make sure you never get going. In fact, I have discovered that defying foul weather often gives the strongest, most exquisite and most memorable experiences (at least as long as you play it safe). Not the least for a photographer. It’s in the moments of transitions between bad and good—or good and bad—that the mountain show off its best. Besides, I live in the part of the world where, if you wait for nice weather, you may wait for a long time.

And here comes what this is all leading up to: It’s exactly how inspiration and creativity works. You cannot wait for it to show up. You will have to go after it with a club, as the writer Jack London once said. Or as the American painter, artist and photographer put it: “Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work”.

Inspiration isn’t prone to show up when you need it—just like nice weather in the mountains isn’t. If you wait for it, you might wait a long time. Instead, get yourself properly dressed, to use the outdoor metaphor¸ and get going. Set yourself down in front of the computer or the drawing pad, or grab your camera and get outside. It might be hard work and rather unpleasant in the beginning, but suddenly everything changes. Suddenly, you find yourself in a magical moment, the light of inspiration spiriting you away, the flow of creative taking you to unknown places.

Enjoy Easter, whether you celebrate it or not. And enjoy being creative.

The photos in this post have been captured over several Easters.

Regretting Those Images not Captured

I don’t think I have ever regretted photos that I have actually taken. But I sure have regretted those I didn’t capture. The reasons for not taking those photos may vary. Sometimes I just didn’t have the energy to start photographing, for instance after a strenuous a hike, and sometimes it was my inner self that lost the guts to take photos, most often when I wanted to photograph people.

No matter what the reasons were, I still clearly remember those times when I thought to myself, I need to capture this moment—and didn’t.

During the passed weekend, I went through my old film archive. I wanted to clean up and get it all in better shape. One of the first shoots I came across was captured long time ago, when I still was a student—and before turning myself into a photojournalist.

It was a weekend. A good friend and I wanted to go for a hike up in the mountains on the west coast of Norway. My friend knew about a mountain farm we could stay at, beautifully situated in a lush but steep valley.

It was about a two-hour hike to get to the farm. There was no road to the place, only a steep and at places quite narrow trail. It was summer; the weekend was blessed with gorgeous weather, sun warming from a clear blue sky. The hike up to the farm was almost effortless despite the steepness and quite rough path. We arrived when the sun was about to set, everything was bathed in the golden rays of the sun. It was like a fairytale. I remember it so clearly.

At the farm lived two sisters and a brother. They were in the 70’s and had been born and lived their whole lives together at the farm. They had some sheep, a couple of horses and some other animals and made do with a very simple living. No electricity. Whatever they didn’t produce themselves they would have to carry up the same trail my friend and I had arrived by.

My friend and I had a lovely weekend with the three elderly siblings. We relaxed in the meadows and hiked up on the mountains surrounding the farm. And of course I took photos. Of the landscape, the farm itself, and some with my friend as an extra. But no, I did not photograph the two sisters and the brother. Well, I captured one photo of him from behind walking towards a shed.

Why didn’t I take any more? I was thinking about it all the time, but couldn’t muster the courage to push the camera in front of their faces. I just didn’t have the guts. Today it seems ludicrous, but then I couldn’t make myself do it, despite the fact that they were the sweetest people on earth.

To this day, I do so severely regret not having documented their lives. Today it’s history. No one, not in Norway, does farming in places without infrastructure, having to carry everything on their backs, and nothing like motorized cultivation.

In fact, I went back twelve years later with the intention to document their lives. But it was too late. By then I had established myself as a photojournalist and knew what I had missed. When I returned, a road had been built to the farm. An urbanization project was underway, new house popping up all over the valley. One sister and the brother stilled lived at the farm, now in their early 90’s. One sister had passed away. Of course, I photographed them and had a last, by lovely time with the siblings. But the historic opportunity had vanished.

So, the moral is: Don’t postpone or don’t let go of photographing when you have an opportunity. You will regret it later on.

Capture Unique Photos

In the first months of 2021, we have been blessed with some lovely winter here in Bergen, Norway, where I have been grounded for the last year. Blessed for those of us who like winter, that is. Right now and for the recent weeks, winter is receding, though, but it might still show up again for an occasionally appearance.

Of course, when winter showed up in its full splendour, I had to take advantage—photographically—of the snow, which suddenly adorned the city (contrary to what one should expect, we only irregularly have winter come for a visit).

While walking the snow-covered streets and photographing Bergen in winter garb, I came across another like-minded fellow photographer, who was out on the same errand. I noticed he was both capturing stills and shooting videos. Naturally, we ended up talking with each other.

It turned out he had only been photographing for little less than a year, but already had a Youtube channel up and running. About photography. He told me he was adamant about wanting to capture images that weren’t like anybody else’s. If he had already seen another photo of a scenery, he would go out of way’s length to find a different angle, something distinct. He wanted to capture unique images.

That is a worthy approach, something most of us aspire to. However, in retrospect I thought a little more about the desire to create original photos. You see, there is a danger. In wanting to be original, we might just end up been possessed by what is different, and instead of capturing something unique we end up with a result that is rather contrived. Maybe different, but most likely uninspiring.

We risk losing ourselves in the search for the different.

All good photos emerge from a personal engagement; they materialize through our hearts. In fact, that is all it takes. Yes, you still need to know you craft, understand the visual language, be able to use your camera, but to create captivating and compelling images; you need to become emotionally engaged with your subject. If you do, you don’t have to “look” for the different.

You are unique. Your person is exceptional. No one is like you. That’s where the creative uniqueness surface from. Be yourself, involve yourself, lose yourself in the process, and your photos will be yours, different from anyone else’s. The point is; everything has already been done, been photographed. However, nothing has been done with your eyes and through your emotional filter.

That is the secret to captivating, compelling—and unique photos.

The Curse of Hit Rate

The photo above was captured on my last overseas photo workshop before the world closed down. That said, I am not going to rant about the pandemic and what it has deprived us of—we all know that too well. Neither am I going to write about photo workshops I hope to get going again—if the pandemic will allow me to do so.

The reason I chose the photo has to do with the photographic process, the workflow of capturing images, if you will. As much as it isn’t depicting something I could plan, but rather capturing the unpredictability of life as such, neither is it an accidental photo.

The photo was taken in La Higuera, a tiny village in Bolivia with only a handful of dwellings. It’s where Che Guavara, back in 1967, was captured by the Bolivian army—or more precisely in a gorge right outside the village. Irma Rosada, the woman in the photo, was only a girl when the world came crashing down on her village. She clearly remembers the capturing of Che Guevare, his imprisonment in the local school and the subsequent execution the next afternoon.

Today, Rosa runs the little store in the village, and the photo shows her baking bread for her store.

Everything in the photo tells the story of Irma, or adds to the story; obviously herself, the bread and the brick kiln, but also the water melon, the dirty ground, the sunset behind trees, indicating the landscape beyond, and even the bit of laundry hanging out to dry. And more so I captured Irma as she was about to empty the kiln from a batch of rolls. Her gaze, her lifted right foot, the habitual handling of the baking tray, her facial expression—all say something explicit about Irma.

The photo tells a story about Irma Rosalind. I took the photo, and it turned out very nicely. I am happy with the result. However, as mentioned, it wasn’t accidental. First of all, I was ready. Secondly, I took a lot of photos to ensure I got it.

The latter, I am not the least embarrassed to say. I take a lot of photos that are crap, not working, looks like shit and will never make it out of my archive. The thing is, I don’t care about all the bad photos I end up with. What I care about is the few left that I can be proud of or feel good about.

Too many photographers have a thing with “hit rate” and being good enough. They think that some day they will be able to take 40 photos in a day that are all masterpieces, because that is kind of the idea you get when you look at exhibitions or a photo books and see the masters’ images. You somehow think they did them all in one take.

Reality is that every photographer who ever did any master images only did a relatively few good photos and even fewer great photographs in a lifetime.

If you look through the negatives, slides or digital files of master photographers, you will see plenty of photos out of focus, too over- or underexposed, empty streets (because the subject hasn’t entered the frame yet or has left before the photographer pressed the shutter release button). Even more importantly, when you study the best photos that define history, you will see that the photographer actually captured a lot of photos of the same scene—and only one survived.

As Elliot Erwitt once said: “It takes a lot of photographs to make one good”.

If you do an internet search on “hit rate in photography”, you will find a lot of articles and posts about how to boost or increase your amount of so-caller keepers. Why would it even matter if it’s 5 percent of 20 percent of captured images that are good? What matters is how many good ones you have in the end. All the rest, and how many, is of no interest at all.

Yes, some photographers blast away and aren’t mindful when photographing, but usually I see the opposite; that is, most photographers are not photographing enough. I see that in every workshop I teach. They may capture three or five images of a situation—and think they have photographed a lot. When in reality they have hardly started.

As you can see the screenshot beneath, I took a lot of photos of Irma Rosado, to get then one I was satisfied with. That’s why it isn’t an accidental photo. And I don’t care for a second how many captures it took to get the one. So, don’t worry about your hit rate. Just photograph.

Last Month’s Instagram

Once a month I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last month. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. The pictures are displayed without any comments, hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have. For more photos; visit www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

A Project Long Time in Coming

There is a valley. The mouth of the valley opens up right into the city. You can step straight from the urban settlement into Mother Nature. And vice versa. The name is Isdalen—Valley of Ice. And the city is Bergen, Norway—my city.

Ever since childhood, I have been drawn to the valley. There is something enigmatic about Isdalen. I have always felt it wasn’t typical Norwegian. More like the Swiss Alps, with its deep bottom, steep walls and ragged peaks surrounding the valley. If you have ever read Heidi, a children’s fiction from the 19th century by the Swiss author Johanna Spyri, then you get an idea.

My first photograph of Isdalen dates back to April 1978. Over the next many years, I have photographed in the valley, on and off and very inconsistently. However, after finishing the photojournalism and photo documentary program at International Center of Photography in New York in ‘90, and upon returning to Bergen, I made Isdalen a personal project of mine. However, after the intensity of photographing in New York, starting to photograph nature in Isdalen became more like an anticlimax.

I got some stories about Isdalen published in papers and magazine, but the project never really went anywhere.

Much later, I realized that my fascination with Isdalen, was much related to a handful of ruins of old farms that once were a community deep in the valley. As I wander around the centuries-old ruins of the farms, I get filled with a sense of belonging and tranquillity—as if I have returned home. I feel in myself the toil that those who ran the farms must have felt. I feel the exhaustion, the stoutness, but also the spirit and the glow that emerges from living so close to nature.

Today, Isdalen is a favourite hiking area for inhabitants of Bergen. But for centuries up until WWII, Isdalen was a vibrant but small and poor farming community with four farms living off the crops of the land and what the lush nature in the valley could yield.

In the spring of 2015, I started a new project photographing Isdalen, but now with the focus on the traces of this once vital community and the feelings it invokes in me. This time, though, I realized that the right expression would be by use of the facets of triptychs.

It is these feelings I tried to describe above, from which my photo project materializes. The aim of the photo project is not to create a tangible and unambiguous expression, but to inspire the viewers to uncover their own experiences in the encounter with the farm ruins and their surroundings. Through my photos.

So far, I have completed seven triptychs. In addition, and over the last few years, I have photographed and processed enough single images to be able to put together another ten triptychs.

Let me add that I have always been fascinated by those places where once people lived. There is something almost magical about the remnants of once thriving cultures, whether urban communities such as Machu Picchu or small farms such as the ones in Isdalen. I am struck by awe, thinking about how their lives were. How did they go about their everyday chores? How did they think about their future? Were they happy? Or was life a struggle? And then I think about present day’s cultures. How will they look like for future generations if what we know today would then be abandoned? What would the remnants tell about our lives?

These are some images captured from my first project period, after returning from New York:

You See What You Are

This weekend I went for a walk with a friend of mine who is also a fellow photographer. The purpose wasn’t photographing, but obviously, both of us being photographers, we never stop looking for images. So, as we strolled along, every so often one of us—or both—stopped and raised his camera to captured whatever had poked his interest.

Naturally, what we noticed and reacted to wasn’t necessarily poles apart but still different. That’s the natural order of things for photographers. I didn’t reflect much about what we did and what we photographed.

Then something happened that prompted an afterthought. As we passed something I initially didn’t even notice at all, my friend turned around and re-tracked to a woman sitter on a bench. She was wearing the most gorgeous hat in spectacular colours and on her lap, a dog was sitting, wearing a coat with the same pattern and colours. She was a character, to put it that way, and my friend got his best shot of the day. And I didn’t even see it?

How could I miss that opportunity? Not even noticing the lady and her dog? I consider myself to be quite observant, but still didn’t even register the two in the first place. The lady and her dog had simply passed under my radar.

I felt annoyed with myself or at least embarrassed. Yes, a little jealous, too, that my friend had seen the two and I hadn’t. That’s a natural reaction, regardless of the fact that I know that’s the way our perception works. None of us can see all that is surrounding us. Our minds pick and choose what is important to become consciously aware of.

In teaching photo workshops, I experience it time and again. Some participants see the beauty of the universe in everything there is whereas others see nothing at all. The latter may stand there next to the former, bewildered, lost and confused, while the one, who has learned to see, points the camera three feet away and focuses in on something mundane that nobody else has noticed. The others watch with amazement and then ask the most often-heard question at workshops: “Why didn’t I see that?”

We humans constantly receive millions of sensory impressions. Our consciousness is only able to absorb a few of these at any one time. The impressions you take for granted are unique to you, because no one perceives a situation, a place, a mood exactly the same way. As a photographer, you portray reality as you see it, as only you have filtered it. Only the photos you take can be taken by you.

What you see is not accidental. Things you have seen before will control your gaze. We only see what we expect to see. While the world is filled with limitless information and stimulation, our brain cannot, and should not, process everything we see. If we did, we would be overwhelmed with data. Physiology has shown us that ten times as much nerve fibres travel from the brain to the eye than in the opposite direction. Thus, more than anything, it is the brain that controls what we notice. This means that the pictures we take inevitably become an expression of who we are.

You see what you are.

Our photographic vision or our distinctive voice is related to how we see the world. And we all see the world differently. What we see is simply depending on who you are. You shape the photos you take, but the photos you take will also affect you and influence what you see and photograph next time.

What about the lady and the dog? Did I capture any photos of them? No, I let my friend have the experience to himself.

Are We Making Things Better?

A couple of years ago, I came across a post written by the Canadian photographer David duChemin. He was telling about an episode when eating in restaurant in London, during which he happened to eavesdrop on a dialogue next to him. The conversation was between two tech guys. At some point, the discussion turned into whether their technology is helping people make better things, or make things better.

The distinction has philosophical, ethical as well as practical implications, as duChemin continues to elaborate on in his post.

Ever since I read his post, I have wanted to pick up on duChemnin’s pondering. Not the least, because this goes to the core of what I do as a photojournalist.

Of course, in my line of work, I want to capture better and more compelling images, but in the end, I also hope and wish that my stories may have a positive impact, one way or another. In fact, at least judging purely journalistically, without the latter, journalism becomes meaningless. The whole point is to inform in order for members of a society to be able to make informed decisions for necessary changes. That said, I have been in the business long enough to know that any single story of mine will not change the world in any direction. However, I believe—or at least hope—that every piece will add to better our combined knowledge so that over time it all together will lead to positive advancements.

Right now, for instance, I am working on a story about the impact of isolation. How do we cope with being isolated and how does seclusion affect us? The story will have a broad focus on various aspect of isolation. Of course, the idea springs out of the corona pandemic, which holds the world in its grip. Everywhere we are all affected and forced into various degrees of isolation. I will meet with students who have lost their social arenas because universities have been closed down, I will meet with elderly, who will not receive visits in order to protect them, but I will also meet with inmates, who are isolated independently of the pandemic. To the latter, I originally had set up to go to prison tomorrow, but this week newer and more severe restrictions have been imposed here where I live. In fact, my city has been completely locked down due to the new mutated strains of the virus, so I have become secluded myself.

Anyway, the point is, yes, I want to capture strong and compelling images, whether showing students, elderly or prisoners, but when push comes to shove, I hope the story will have some sort if impact, if only educationally.

And isn’t that the case for anyone photographing, or anyone involved in creative activities, no matter at what level? Of course, we want to improve and develop our skills so that we can make better photos (or things), but don’t we all hope that our images will have some positive impact? You want your image of a magnificent winter landscape to produce some kind of awe in the viewer, you want your photo of a newborn to touch others, and you want you art, whatever you create, to bring joy or enlightenment or amazement—at some level.

One doesn’t exclude the other. However, maybe we sometimes forget the question about making things better. Or at least becomes less aware of that side of the creative coin. As duChemin writes: “Does making this thing, whatever it is, make the world a better place? Does it add a little more light? Does it bring me joy as I make it? Does it help me ask (or answer) bigger questions? Does it contribute to the experience of being more fully human and alive?”

Let’s not be oblivious about that part of the equation. In fact, being aware of how to make things better, will help us make better things. Creativity is at the very core of what it means to be human. Nevertheless, the equation is reciprocal by nature. Pushing myself to make better things will most likely result in making things better.