Thrilled to Feel Alive

I remember first time I tried white water rafting. It’s maybe the first time I felt totally and completely immersed in “now”. I let myself fall through the cascades of raging waters—or so it felt. There was something magic about being in control, or maybe not at all, of both my own anxiety and the run through the roaring river. Maybe it was in that first white water rafting attempt I experienced my life’s most ecstatic seconds.

Part of the seduction is the intensity and the thrill that chase away anything else. All thoughts of yourself, your life outside of what is happening on the raft, any worries—except those for the forces of the river, whom you are and what you need to do tomorrow; all that is blown out of your mind.

Out of the river I live many lives—as I think we all do. One life at home, another at work, yet another when I am creative, a fourth life out with friends and so on. It can be pretty arduous. All thoughts that go into this can be like a clamp on the head. Thoughts, desires, worries, demons and daydreams behave like hectic sparrows in the fall. In my daily being, I am faced with many demands, many of which I create myself.

Down the roaring river, it was different. There it was just this one. The river and me. The water that squeezed in from all sides. The body that through the paddle fought with the raging water. It’s a reminder that resistance is a sure way to feel that we are alive. Resistance prevents us, but it also provides presence. That is why we are quick to seek it out.

Creativity in many aspects resembles the experience down the river. It’s encompassing—when you enter flow. Then nothing else exists. Just like with white water rafting or any other exhilarating experience. But you need to expose yourself to resistance, get out of the safe zone, out of the box, take chances. Only then will flow come and take over you mind, like when bumping down a boisterous river.

And like any thrill, when you get used to it, the thrill of creativity fades when what was first encompassing, becomes routine. We have to keep raising the bar, keep pushing ourselves out of the box as it widens, keep taking new chances.

Opportunities

It’s been almost two months now. Two months since the lockdown of Norway, the country I am presently staying in, my country. Since then I have tried to stay positive. I have managed—sometimes, and sometimes not so well. As such, it’s far from being a unique experience or reaction. We have all felt the impact of the virus outbreak, some certainly a lot more than I have.

These days, things are slowly starting to open up again, here in Norway and in many other places in the world. It’s with a feeling of relief and hope, that we are now able to venture out a little more, be a little more social, although still complying with the requirements of infection control and social distancing.

However, we all know we still have a long way ahead of us before the world will be back on its regular pace.

The long-term perspective is maybe the hardest part to handle, mentally and probably in many other ways, too. It’s not about the virus itself but about its impact on work, economy, heath, our social life, yes, all aspects of life. We cannot see into the crystal ball and predict how the outcome will be, how this will all end. The only thing certain is that the crisis is far from over. Maybe now is when it really begins.

Thus, more than ever, we need to stay positive. Perhaps then, a quote by John F. Kennedy can be of some inspiration: “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

Kennedy’s interpretation isn’t quite accurate, but it nevertheless gives us a message to hold on to these days. And something to strive for. In dealing with the crisis, we have options. We can deal with it as a danger or we can try to see the opportunities it provides. Well, the healthiest approach is both, of course. We shan’t overlook the danger of covid-19, but if we fail to hold on to the opportunities the pandemic provides, we do ourselves a disfavour.

In a newsletter by the Canadian photographer David duChemin emailed a month and a half ago, he wrote: “Unlike the dangers in life that come to our door and barge right in, opportunities knock and wait for us to answer. They need us to take hold of them. To act. It’s not just positive thinking, and hoping it all turns out OK. It’s taking responsibility for our mental health, for our time, and doing what is positive and healthy. It’s looking forward, and being hopeful. I think that in tension with the many challenges that we’re all going through right now, we can also choose from among many opportunities.”

To act. That is indeed what we need to do. In my first blog post after my country’s lockdown, I encouraged all of us to stay positive and fill the extra time that the pandemic has imposed on us with positive actions. Learn. Read. Expand our horizon.

Have you been able to make use of whatever opportunities the crisis has cast upon you? I hope so, and I hope you have been able to stay positive, too. Please share whatever you been able to turn to your advantage in these times of difficulties.

I for one, have had much more time at home and in my office—which is in my home, so no big difference between the two, as a matter of fact. The difference, however, is that before I was out meeting people, photographing people and experience the world in all its magnitude and misery (yes, both). Now I talk with people on the phone or online. And I don’t stress around trying to get from one place to another.

The latter has been a positive experience. Less stress—who didn’t dream about that before? Suddenly I have more time. Time that always used to be in constant demand, simply not enough of it. Now I have time for all those tasks and wishes I could only dream about before. I can workout every day. I can run four or five times a week. Last week I made it four times to the top of the mountain overlooking Bergen, my city. It’s not a big mountains, about 640 metres of elevation and a little more than an hour for me to reach walking or hiking from my home—and a little less than an hour to get back. I got to experience one of the most beautiful sunsets from the top one evening last week. How about that?

Generally it’s been a time in which I have been able to focus more on health in general and eat better. When rushed for time, I don’t always manage as much as I know I should.

Now it’s also been time to prioritize my tasks, for instance the time I use on social media. I don’t spend excessive amount on social media in the first place, but I always feel I am behind and need to do more. That I have all let got of. I have been able not to be sucked in, actually spend less time and not even feeling stressed about it. At the same time, I think I use the technology in a much healthier way, staying more in touch with people I care for and with communities I cherish, such as my blogger friends.

The extra time available has provided me with an opportunity to read more books. I always try to read, but now, over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to make a dent in the huge pile of books that always wait to be read. Right now I have started reading John Williams’ Stoner, almost an old classic now, which feels appropriate for these times.

It’s also been an opportunity to not be so overwhelmed and a chance to focus on more intentional things. Originally the pandemic itself, was overwhelming, but now that I have learned to live with it, the fact that the world around me doesn’t come crushing in on me, feels liberating. Less email, less meetings, no social gatherings, no travels. It’s simply a lot quieter now and I start to feel at peace and a calmness taking hold of me—how strange that might sound with the pandemic still hanging over us as a threat.

My biggest concern is for all those who are more impacted than me, who are desperate, who lack the resources to handle the pandemic in a safe way or are sick and struggle to survive. So part of the opportunities that have arisen for us with more resources is showing more generosity and empathy and sharing with those who need it more than ever.

Have you been able to make use of the opportunities that has come out of the present crisis? And how has that been for you? Please share your experiences, as inspiration and encouragement for others.

Happy Holidays


Christmas is soon approaching and with that a time of sharing, love and appreciation. For most people it’s a time of gathering and reconnecting, a time for the family, a time when we put aside old conflicts and show compassion and care for each other instead. Christmas is also celebration and good food, presents, the glow in the eyes of children, singing, excitement, relaxation, good company and prayer and spirituality.

At the same time Christmas is one of the toughest times for those who have no family, for those who live on the fringes of the regular society, for those who cannot afford presents to their children, for those who live in despair, for those who starve—for all those for which Christmas is a reminder of all what they don’t have. We who have may use Christmas to somehow show compassion and love for those who don’t have. That would really be within the notion of what Christmas is supposed to be. I would like to challenge you all—and myself included—to do at least one good deed, and it doesn’t have to be big, that will make one or more of those for which Christmas is a hard time, feel somewhat part of the celebration, feel somewhat part of the sharing that Christmas is suppose to be.

On a personal level I will use the opportunity to thank everybody of you, who have followed this blog and given feedback and tremendous support, who have given so much of yourselves through my blog. You have truly inspired me to keep posting and make me feel what I am doing is appreciated and more than just scribbles for myself.

Merry Christmas to all of you.

From the Heart

One factor that more than anything transpires to imagery that will capture an audience is photographing (or making any art for that matter) out of passion. If you photograph what you love, what you hate, what you enjoy, what you believe in, you will inevitably create images that others will be able to connect to, too.

You may be a technical wizard. You may be an expert of composition and light. You may master your craft. But if you photograph from, let me call it, an intellectual or rational stance and nothing else—looking for lines, modulating light and impeccable timing—your photos will never be able to move an audience. No matter how good you are. The reverse is true, though.

“If you do the work you do from a loving heart, then you will always be able to make something beautiful.” – Zen proverb.

When I started photographing decades ago, what I did was bring a camera along with me into what I loved the most: Being out in Mother Nature; backpacking, skiing, glacier climbing, paddling, hiking. Later on as my passion for photography of and for itself developed, my eye turned to other subjects. In the end, that’s where my photographic pursuit evolved around. For me human connections and relationships generate the most fascinating photographs.

I still love being out in Mother Nature—and do it plenty enough—and I still bring my camera along. However, the photographs I take don’t trigger me the way my humanitarian work does. It’s not because the photos are bad, but my soul is not in those photos. I have often pondered about why. In the end, I think it’s the pure and exalted experience being out in nature, that I don’t find in my photos of nature. It’s almost as if it’s impossible to capture that experience within a frame. The photos I take in nature are more for my memory than for creating photos of their own raison d’être.

Thus, I have come to the conclusion that I need to work on this. I need to find a way to transpire what I feel when I am out in Mother Nature into strong and expressive work. I need to find a personal photographic approach to my love to nature. And not just excuse myself for being another kind of photographer. What I need to do, is bring my heart into the photographing of my encounter with nature.

“’And now here is my secret,’ says The Little Prince, ‘it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.’” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

Last weekend I spent four days out on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, USA. We had a fantastic time—and of course, I took photos, plenty of photos. These are but a few from the trip.

The Contradiction of Creating


Some days I can’t get going. I know I have a deadline tomorrow, but I still can’t push myself to start editing the pictures. Or, in another setting, I am travelling in a new country, and I just can’t get myself out on the streets to photograph. Or I need to write an article – or a new post for this blog – but I can’t get myself to do it.

Some days I just can’t get going.

It all comes down to fears, insecurities or doubts. It’s the big contradiction of the creating process. On the one hand it’s the joy I feel when I am creating, on the other hand it’s this big obstacle inside of me which sometimes makes it impossible to get there. This resistance is something all creatives have to fight. It’s part of the creative process, the dark side one may say. But as strange as it might sound, it’s also a necessary part of being creative. Only by overcoming the fears, insecurities or doubts inside of us, are we able to reach our full creative potentials. It’s like entering a cold stream after a long hike. It doesn’t make you feel good until you have submerged your body into the water. But then it’s like rejuvenation.

Adventures don’t begin until you get into the forest. That first step in an act of faith.
Mickey Heart, drummer in Greateful Dead.

The fact is, creativity requires faith. We are heading down a road we don’t know where it will take us. Thus this faith we need to have requires us to relinquish control. That is frightening, and we resist it. We throw up roadblocks on our path in order to maintain an illusion of control. This resistance to our creativity is a form of self-destruction. To overcome it, having a regular practice is a must, whether it’s journal writing, sketching freely, taking photographs casually and spontaneously, or tilling our garden without an eye to the result. The energy is in the effort.

Don’t fear mistakes – there are none.
Miles Davis.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.
Albert Einstein.

What we fear the most is the very thing that we are called to confront and work with. Where we find fear, where we feel the most inadequate, is where the energy resides, where great potential hides, waiting to emerge into the full light of day. Once we begin, and move vigorously in the direction of our aim, a joyful moment comes when fear and resistance move into the background and become part of our experience, but not the dominating feature. Our bliss then often emerges from behind this dark, smoky wall of fear.

It is one of the paradoxes of the creative process that it is both immensely challenging and demanding and, at the same time, the source of real joy and true satisfaction.
David Ulrich in The Widening Stream.

Don’t Ever Give Up

It takes grit to pursue creativity. Being creative means fighting against all odds—most of all ourselves. However, the creative fight is less a battle for glory than a pursuit of personal spirit and finding a way to express it without fear. It’s not a gladiator’s brawl, but rather a solitary struggle with ourselves.

In previous post over the years I have used our playful relationship with water (at least before we grow too old) as a metaphor for creativity. Extending this metaphor, the creative fight is not Michael Phelps competing for Olympic gold but more like swimming to an inviting island off the coast somewhere. The Olympic Games are hyped up, and they are loud. When we swim to go somewhere, it’s discreet. We use ingenuity, agility and guts to accomplish our goal. Phelps swim against others, but swimming to reach that island is a fight within.

I think that we create with such a drive in mind. At least for me, I create for the sheer joy of making something for myself. Yes, I would like to get recognition, but that is not what is driving me. As when I have swum out to that island, there is great gratification to be had when I can enjoy the view from the island that I have earned.

The creative fight doesn’t gloat and it doesn’t crush. Yet the creative person isn’t some pushover that’s afraid of a difficult task.

One characteristic that makes someone a good swimmer is grit. Grit can be defined different ways. It can be thought of as tiny particles of crushed rock. Taking this perspective a bit further, the oyster reminds us that without grit, there is no pearl. Grit is a character that is a mixture of courage, resolve and strength. Like small granite rocks, grit is strength that won’t give up. Those who are gritty have a passion to pursue a goal over an extended amount of time. No one is born with grit. It’s grown into us through difficulties of life.

Earlier this year, I ran my head into a wall. Not literally, but in pursuit of a creative job. I was shooting an assignment for a magazine here in Norway. It was about a couple who had moved to an island to live off the grid, to support themselves as sheep farmers and of fisheries. They had been looking for a harmony missing in contemporary life—and had found their private Eden on the island. It was a fun assignment, offering plenty of creative possibilities. I didn’t have to swim to their island, but it still took some organizing to get there since there was only one regular boat transport a week. The shooting was really fun and I felt it went very well. However, when I got back and prepared to upload the photos, I discovered that the memory card was corrupted. It was a first for me, but nevertheless devastating.

I could have given up. Called the magazine and explained that I wasn’t able to deliver on time, knowing I would have to wait a week for the next regular boat to take me back to the island. Instead, I refused to give up. That evening I called all friends I knew had boats nearby the island and asked if anyone would be willing to take me back. One of the last on my list, agreed to do it. Early next morning I was back with the couple.

I don’t know if you have had to do a reshoot of something you thought went pretty good the first time. Mentally, it feels like having to clean up your own mess. Not fun and definitely not the best starting point for a creative quest. I pushed my worries and frustrations away, forcing myself to be present in the moment and not thinking at all about what I did the first time I visited the couple. It worked. In the end I think I returned with even better photos than the first time. The editor surely was pleased.

Grit isn’t easy to learn—there aren’t any classes offered in schools. Long time ago I asked a friend of mine who is a triathlon athlete if grit can be taught. He said: “The only way to learn grit is to get out there and get your ass kicked. You have to suffer and you have to fail.” My friend does Ironman triathlons. That is biking 181 km, running a full marathon of 42.2 km on top on swimming 3.9 km. He knows what he is talking about.

Grit isn’t something that you will find on an online course. It’s gained while in pursuit of something big. Grit requires belief that it can be done. It means don’t give up when the going gets tough.

Creating more Creativity


Trying to be creative is sometimes very frustrating. Sometimes it is as if the muses have died out completely, while we sit there waiting for some inspiration. In articular, it can be hard to get in touch with our creative self if we have been neglecting it for some time. It goes into hiding if you don’t massage it on a regular basis and keep it awake. If we leave the creative self hanging out to dry for even shorter periods—even if we have years of experience in the creative field behind us—it gets back on us but short circuiting the creative connection. The muses die out on us.

The reality is that nothing encourages and develops creativity more than creating—being creative. It doesn’t matter what field you are exploring creatively, be it photography, writing, painting, design, performances, music or any other creative activity. Whatever we do, we need to keep doing it on a regular basis. If we want to develop our creative skills, become better and more profound in what we do, we need to keep creating—all the time. And we need to work creatively even when the result is mediocre and not what we want it to be. If we stop and just wait for inspiration to come, we only stagnate even more. Even more so, when we feel we have lost the inspiration—that’s when you have to push yourself through the wall of self-doubt and discouragement. Make mediocre art if that’s what comes out of your creative self. And don’t worry about it—and certainly don’t whip yourself for it. It’s only a temporary state, anyway. At some point the muses kick in again, and you become inspired and your creative skills start developing again. It’s like playing on the beach. As soon as you start, it’s hard to stop.

Being creative encourages creativity. That’s why I have made it a rule for myself to do at least one personal photo shoot or project each week (I am a photographer after all!). I usually shoot much more, being assigned to do so. And that’s adding to the creative equation, too. But I want to make sure I develop my personal photography as well, and once a week is what I can spare of my time during busy weeks, and when it’s less busy, it still forces me to go out and be creative. It’s been a good way to keep my creative spirit going—and developing.

How do you keep developing your creative skills and staying inspired?

Don’t Give a Damn!

A week ago, I photographed and did an interesting and inspiring interview with an artist, actor and acrobat. She said something that made me think. In many ways, simple and yet so relevant for anyone engaged in creative work.

Some years ago while she was rehearsing for a movie shooting, the director of the movie told her: “You are too much of a good girl, doing what you are told. Loosen up and don’t give a damn!” She followed his advice and suddenly her creative career took a giant boost.

I think in my younger days I was too much of a good boy, too. I did what I was told. Creatively I certainly didn’t draw outside the lines. I follow the “rules” and did what I was supposed to do. Although nobody gave me the same advice as this artist I interviewed got, slowly by slowly as my creative self matured, I started to care less and less about doing the “right” thing. Instead, I have become more like a rooky, creatively speaking (not necessarily in my interaction with other people).

I think we all need to be less nice or good and rather let loose and don’t think so much about what is the right thing to do. When we start to don’t give a damn, we enter into a different mindset, our creative thinking changes, we see differently and begin to discover new ways of expressing ourselves. Our creative voice will take a boost when we loosen up, if nothing else, because we start to create and do things differently from everybody else. Giving ourselves permission to don’t give a damn will be the first step towards a distinctive way of seeing and expressing ourselves.

Thus being bad isn’t always bad. On the contrary, we need to be a little more bad—and please understand me right when I say so. There is a Swedish saying that goes like this: “Nice girls come to heaven, bad girls can come as far as they like”. Unnecessary to say, it goes for both girls and boys.

On a different note, some of you may have noticed I have been absent from the blog sphere the last week or so. It’s just been extremely busy times and I haven’t had a chance to engage in social medias. However, I hope to be back now that summer on this part of the hemisphere is approaching and life may start to become a little less busy.

Being Challenged

At its best a photo workshop both challenges each participant as well as give him or her a sense of achievement. Both are important. If you are challenged and don’t feel you can handle the challenge, you will soon lose your self-esteem. On the other hand, if you are not really tested beyond your comfort zone, you will hardly develop or improve your photography.

This idea has always been the basis for any of the workshops I teach, as it is for Sven Creutzmann, my friend and colleague with whom I teach the photo workshops in Cuba. For us it’s equally important that we challenge each participant at the right level. Good photographers need to be put to a harder test, whereas with beginners or less confident participants we cannot push as hard.

When we start a new workshop, we always commence with a desire to boost both ourselves and the participants as hard as possible. It’s a matte of motivation. It’s fair to say that we are very ambitious, both with respect to ourselves as well as on the behalf of the participants. For some participants this may come as a surprise. They might have attended other workshops without having the workshop teachers pushing them much at all. In the beginning when they are met with our determination to challenge, they may actually feel a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t take long before they start to thrive, particularly when they see some dazzling development in their approach to photography.

I think it’s reasonable to say that over the years we have become good at finding the right balance between pressing each participants beyond their comfort zones and making sure they keep a sense of achievement. I also think our feedback during daily picture critiques have become precise and immensely valuable for the participants. After all, we have taught workshops for quite some years by now.

Although I have organized workshops longer, Sven’s and my first Cuba workshop took place in 2006. Quite a few changes have seen daylight since then. This year’s workshop in May took us to a different location, for instance. In addition to Havana, we went to the beautiful, colonial town of Trinidad. We, as workshop teacher, are also more out on the street shooting along with the participants, whereas during the first workshop we went to the rural Viñales. Particularly photography one-to-one with us has become something our participants value. It gives them a change to see how we work as professional photographers as well as letting us guide them better in their own shooting.

Most notably for this year’s workshop, was a new meeting point for lectures and picture critique the days we were in Havana. At the end of last year, Sven open his own art cafe in the district of Vedado. It’s probably one of the coolest cafes in Havana, displaying a lot of Sven’s photography as well as colleagues’ and friends’. ArtCafe Belview has already been picked up by many travel guides as well as gotten ravish reviews, and is a perfect place for teaching a photo workshop.

Do you want to come to Cuba for a photo workshop? Our next one, In the Footsteps of a Revolution, will take place from Nov 24th to December 7th later this year. Or maybe you’d rather go for an extended weekend. From September 21st to 24th I teach the photo workshop Street Photography in Bath, in England.

The group with participants and teachers during the Cuba workshop this May.

Learning for Life

The creative process goes hand in hand with a willingness to learn. The day we decide we have learned enough, we stop developing our creativity. Vincent van Gogh began painting when he was twenty-nine years old. He did not have an abundance of natural ability at the start. Hand-eye coordination did not come easily for him. But he knew how to learn.

Those who accept that learning is a never-ending process develop an ability to grow beyond whatever talents they may have. Winston Churchill, considered to be one of the greatest orators of the twentieth century, was not born with a silver tongue. He began his career with pronounced speech impediments, and he could not speak extemporaneously. In order to compensate for these difficulties, he wrote all of his speeches and practiced delivering them before a mirror. Over years of practise and work, he continually learned.

As a photograph I naturally read as many photo books as I can get my hands on. It may be about Photoshop, it may be about other technical issues or—and that is more often the case—it may be photo books by other photographers, because nothing teaches me as much as looking at other photographer’s work. But my learning process doesn’t stop with pure photography related issues, even reading a novel may teach me something I can use in my creative process. I look at all kinds of artistic work, I listen to music, I search the web, and, not the least; I read a lot of books about creativity in itself. I also attend workshops and I teach workshops – which is just as much a learning process for me as for the students. I keep my eye open for any possibility to learn. Sometimes I get nothing out of whatever it is that I immerse myself into and sometimes I find a treasure of knowledge I can make use of.

The learning process may be filled with moments of failure, disappointments, and perhaps even embarrassment. Yet each failure can lead to greater competence when it becomes a basis for learning. It is only those who don’t believe in learning who assumes that failure is not a legitimate stage of development. They do not recognize that learning often means they may be «bad» before they get «good». To those willing to learn, perfect performance is not an issue; it’s all about the final results. Furthermore, this ability to create results is closely tied to learning and be willing to learn. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well, the saying goes. One may add that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly until you can do it well.

We may all have various natural talents, but we can all learn and we can all grow. That’s why I think creativity is not connected to talent, but the willingness to learn. We all have creativity in us, as long as we are willing to look for it and learn so that we can express it.