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.

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.

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/

All You Need is Intimacy

Rafael Lafarguez, member and director of the traditional cuban son-band Jubilados Cubaneros (Retired Cubans) fixes his instrument, the traditional “tres” (similar to a guitar) in his house in Santiago de Cuba outskirts. To the right his blind mother. © Sven Creutzmann

Some time ago, my colleague and friend, Sven Creutzmann, wrote an email to a photographer. The photographer had asked about advice on how to approach a project in which the person was photographing people. I thought Sven’s answer was not only good, but gets to the core of what is essential when photographing people when you want to create captivating images. I asked if I could published his advice, and this is it, just slightly adjusted to make it coherent when out of context.

If you want to capture strong and compelling images, you need to have some kind of interest in the subject you are photographing. What I too often see in photos from many photographers is that they miss intimacy. That intimacy you won’t capture without being interested in whom you photograph. So first, invest yourself in the subject. Next step then is to approach the people. That is mandatory, to get close.

While the importance of equipment is usually overestimated, choosing a wrong lens can be harmful to a photographer. Here we are talking people photography and that usually means short lenses. I often see photographers approaching people they want to photograph with a long lens. It makes you feel safe some 10 meters away from people; therefore, you might use a longer lens.

However, for that intimacy, I would leave the long lens at home to begin with. And even though the 24-105 zoom is a nice lens, it has a little disadvantage of having a slight tele, which may tempt you to not get that close in the end.

Much over 90 percent of the photographic process (when talking about photographing people) is not actually taking photos, but to get close to the subject. I once did a story in northern Canada with a guy who was hunting bears with bow & arrows. While you can be some 150 meters away from a bear when shooting with a rifle, you need to be minimum 10 meters close to the bear if you want to hit it well with an arrow. However, that means, that the hunter needs to know exactly the habits of the bear, how it moves, what it was attracted by, what would call its attention. The hunter also needs to be aware of the overall conditions: what about the wind, is it changing, will the bear take my lead? Only if you are a true master in understanding and following all these rules and conditions, you will be able to get close enough, to get the decisive shot.

That is exactly what you have to do with human beings. You will have to spend many hours researching about the work of for instance the train workers, if that is your subject. Approach them by surprising them with you knowledge about their work. That will be your door opener. Spend time with them, watch. And then, take the silly look-into-the-camera-and-smile pictures, that is what they expect of us as photographers. Take pictures of all of them, let them explain their work to you, show interest in details, ask questions, keep taking pictures, optical notes at the beginning.

Then come back and again (maybe bring them some prints), you will see that they will start loosing interest in your camera, you will start blending in, they get used to your camera. That is when you will be making good pictures as you are close to them and as they are not posing for the camera anymore, because they got used to you already.

That is the approach I recommend if you want to capture strong and compelling photos of people. Spend time in this way. It’s about practice. Once you have a positive experience, you will take that to your next photographic mission. It will help you to approach people with the same recipe.

Sven Creutzmann is an award winning, German reportage and documentary photographer based in Cuba. His has been published all over the world in major magazines and publications. Let me add that Sven and I run photo workshops together. This year we plan to organize a photo tour in Nicaragua in the autumn—if corona will let us. Check out his work: Sven Creutzmann.

Vanessa da Silva Nascimento (2nd from L), samba dancer with the Rocinha Samba School, is getting dressed for a rehearsal, with the help of her mother, Silvana da Silva Melo, in the Rocinha favela, on September 11, 2001, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every year in February, Rio’s samba schools send thousands of dancers and musicians into the Sambadrome to celebrate the annual world famous carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is Brazil’s biggest shanty town with a population of an estimated 150,000. © Sven Creutzmann

Across the Universe

One positive thing the pandemic has instigated, is reaching out to one another using various digital platforms. It has opened up our eyes for new ways of collaborating. Or rather, made us adapt to and learn to use technology already existing, but maybe haven’t familiarized ourselves with enough to utilize to the full potential in the past.

One such example is Frank Girolami’s blog Beach Walk Reflections: Thoughts from thinking while walking. Frank invites photographer to collaborate by sharing their images for his beach walks. In his latest post 29 – Sea, Frank invited me to such a collaborative effort. His words and my photos. The topic: the sea—naturally.

In the post, Frank reflects on the relationship between man and the sea. He walks the beach and contemplates about the endlessness of the sea, and how it connects with us human beings through time and history. Water is vital for any life on earth, and that transcends in Frank’s words into poetry and philosophic consideration. Mirrored and expanded by my photos.

Beach Walk Reflections is only a couple of months old. Frank wrote the introductory post in last October. The aim is to share his thoughts hoping to stimulate the readers’ thoughts. Frank and have been walking beaches together with his wife for many years, and that is the origin for the blog.

The blog may be new, but Frank has been blogging before. For many years he brought out A Frank Angle. After a break he is now back with Beach Walk Reflections

Take a look at our collaborative effort: 29 – Sea.

Photo Workshops and Tours in 2021

In the hope that the world will return to some normalcy and open up again, hopefully towards this summer, I and Blue Hour Photo Workshops are announcing new photos workshops for the later part of the year.

These are the workshops we plan to offer later this year:
“The Personal Expression”—a weekend in Bergen, Norway with focus on how to develop your personal, photographic expression. June 11th to 13th 2021.

”Telling Stories with the Camera”—five days in the beautiful village of Bleik in Northern Norway. A dream spot for any photographer. The focus will be on storytelling and the visual language. September 15th to 19th 2021.

”Photo Tour in Granada”—a week in Nicaragua for the adventures. We will explore the colonial city and its extraordinary countryside. November 6th to 12th 2021.

Are you interested in developing your photographic skills? Do you like to travel? Do you want to make your photos tell a story in a much stronger vocabulary? Find your own expression? Develop your vision and become more creative? Any of these workshops would take your photography to the next level. I promise you, you will be in for an amazing experience. Click any of the links for more info.

Last Month’s Instagram

Each day up to Christmas Eve last year, I posted a new landscape photos on my Instagram account. They were photos from previous travels around the world, which I had processed anew and differently. The idea was to make a visually coherent expression and evoke a little bit a feeling of how it was to travel—when we actually could.

It was a fun little project, of which this images here was one of the 37 seven photos I ended up posting on Instagram. In hindsight, it was a fun experience, to do and to see how it was received. I certainly got much positive response, even from people I incidentally met on the street. And an increase in numbers of followers Maybe the sheer amount in the end overwhelmed my audience as the comments and response decreased towards the end. But that’s OK. I would definitely do a publishing project like that again.

Maybe something for you to think about if you have an Instagram account?

This post marks a little change in my blog when it comes to showing images that I have first posted on Instagram. Previously, I had a weekly posting on my blog with Last Week’s Instagram, one image picked from the week’s collection. As from now, I will only pick once a month, so that the column becomes Last Month’s Instagram. If you want to see all images I post on Instagram, you may follow me on: www.instagram.com/ottovonmunchow/

New Year New Possibilities

We have turned a page. A new and fresh year has been born. And with that change follows hope and new energy. The year we have left behind, will be one to forget in silence, one with too many disappointments and setbacks, a year that knocked the world over and brought it to a standstill—at best. For many people it turned out to be a disastrous year.

We are still not in safe heaven, far from. The virus that came upon us last year, is still making havoc, in fact in many countries, is creating more mayhem than it has so far. Nevertheless, we are facing the prospect of better times again. Hope is back. As new vaccines are put in production and more people are being vaccinated, although it will take time, we are on the track to some normalcy again. Slowly by slowly we will get there.

Personally, I am going to embrace the new year with aspiration and anticipation, both creatively and socially. I believe in changes and that any demise, even a worldwide pandemic, can be used for positive changes. As the saying goes, what doesn’t break you makes you stronger. New possibilities will arise in 2021. I will be ready to grab them, and even instigate new opportunities as much as I can. The waiting is over.

I hope you reader is ready, too. To get going again, if only slowly, as the world gets back on its feet. One thing I hope to accomplish is to be of some sort of creative inspiration with this blog. The blog has always been about creativity, but this year I want to focus even more on the creative part of photography—after all my own craft.

As some of you have noticed, I slipped away from the blog sphere part of last autumn. I needed a break and also to find a new direction. Towards the end of the year, I was slowly getting back in to blogging again. However, I admit I didn’t reciprocate your visits. That is one of my goals for the new year, to visit your blogs again. It does take a lot of time to comment on other blogs, so I need to restrain myself a little, but I want to be more active again.

I wish you all the best for 2021. What plans do you have for the new year?