Take Risks!

There is nothing as boring as a safe photo. When the photographer didn’t risk anything. However, I don’t mean physically risk his or her life, like going into a war situation or into a dangerous neighbourhood. Instead, I mean going into a situation where you as a photographer feel vulnerable and exposed. Yes, of course that could be photographing in war, but it could be as mundane as photographing a total stranger. It takes guts to approach someone you don’t know and ask permission to take this person’s photo. For most of us, at least.

It could also mean shooting something you don’t feel comfortable with or in a way you have never done before. A photographer who comes to mind is Adrian Chillbrook. He does some amazing landscape photography. On his blog Cornwall Photographic he regularly posts images he captures, often from his favourite place in the world, Iceland. Some time ago he took a chance a posted for him unusual photos; very minimalistic, clean, almost empty but yet very expressive photos. Adrian was overwhelmed by the positive response. He took a chance and the result was magnificent. If you want to see for yourself, have a look for instance at his post Ice and Snow.

All this said, however, just not to tread all alike, there are all kinds of successful photographic approaches where the photographer is quite comfortable when taking his or her pictures. For example, I don’t think André Kertész, one of the old masters, ever felt uncomfortable when taking a photograph. Someone like Brassaï, however had a bodyguard with him at various times. The thing is, much of the best photography happens when one begins to overcome one’s personal limitations. I see for instance that participants in many of my workshops tend to be very shy, particularly when photographing people they don’t know. They often retreat to photograph in empty, abandoned places where no one will bother them.

To do photography, for the most part, we must manoeuvre our bodies around to be in the right spot to take a picture. As photographers, we must be physically in front of something. Once again, noticing what’s happening during my workshops, participants—and I think many photographers in general—are not getting themselves in front of things that really interest them because they aren’t quite brave enough. I try to remind my students that passion can’t really exist in the absence of risk, or feeling risk. Think of love. Falling in love means taking a risk. You don’t know where it’s going to lead, if it’s going to last, and it might even break you heart. Nevertheless, you—or most of us—are willing to take the risk.

And so it is with photography. You need to take risks. It could indeed be a physical risk, like visiting a dangerous neighbourhood, or a more emotional risk, such as visiting your estranged parents or face something you don’t understand. Or it could be, such as the case with Adrian, that you take a complete different approach to your photography.

Are you taking risks when you photograph? Would you be willing to? To try at least?

Facts about the photo: The photo from the Tierkidi refugee camp near the border of South Sudan was taken with a Canon Eos 5D with a 24-105 mm lens, set at 24 mm. Shutter speed: 1/200 of a second. Aperture: f/18. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Afterword: I always feel uncomfortable and at unease when photographing people in for them dire situation.

Averted Vision

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Sometimes shooting a subject straightforward simply gives the best representation of the subject in combination with the photographer’s intent behind the photograph. In many ways that’s often the journalistic approach, although increasingly we see more personal interpretations also in traditional journalistic media.

Shooting something head-on will often be the first thought for most photographers. Besides being an obvious—and unfortunately sometimes also a lazy—approach, it suggests the obvious significance of some discrete thing to be shown in the photograph, something that would be self-evident in a clear, straightforward rendering. The most extreme of this would be as evidence in a photographed taken at a crime scene.

But then again, sometimes, a more playful, less obvious and straightforward approach might produce a more interesting and captivating photo. As a photographer it means taking your time when approaching the subject. Maybe shoot the straightforward photo, but then ask yourself how you can shoot it differently, how can you bring an element of surprise into the narrative of the photograph? «Tell the truth, but tell it slant,» wrote Emily Dickinson, the nineteenth century American poet. Emily had a brother who had a mistress. The astronomer husband of the mistress would have known that looking directly at a faint object, is not the best way to see it. The reason lies in the fact that the centre of the retina is not the part most sensitive to light; there is actually a blind spot right there. So instead of seeing straight onto a star far away in the night sky the astronomer would be using a technique caller averted vision, looking a little off to the side. This technique will make it possible to see a faint object better.

If we transfer this into a photographic understanding it would mean to look anew at the subject. Frame it differently. Focus differently. Find another viewpoint that isn’t that obvious. Move around. As I just wrote; trying to find the unexpected approach. Take the photograph above. I was doing a story about the booming economy in Ethiopia (right now, by the way, there is a massive hunger catastrophe on its way to the Eastern parts of Ethiopia, affecting all countries on the Horn of Africa). In Addis Ababa this was evident everywhere in the newer parts of the capital. Modern office buildings and high rising constructions were popping up almost all over place. I went around shooting the construction sites and buildings in steel and glass, but at some point I looked for a more averted approach. I went inside a shopping centre and started to shoot out through the windows and got quite a different perspective. I waited for people to pass by in front of the windows to create some life and not only showing architecture and cars. The picture made as one of the main photos in the story.

Do you deliberately think of using averted vision when you shoot (even if you don’t use the expression)? If you do, let us know how you use it. I think it’s always interesting to learn different approaches how different photographers see the world.

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Lumix LX-7 with the equivalent of a 24 mm lens and the aspect ration of the frames set to panorama (16:9). The photo was processed first in Lightroom and then in Snapseed for a heighten boost. Captured at 1/1250 of a second and f/2.8.

Tell or Show – or Both?

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In 2013 the photographer Jerry L. Thompson published the small, but significant book Why Photography Matters. It’s not necessarily an easy read, but deals with some very important issues for anyone interested in understanding photography in a greater cultural and sociological context.

Photography matters, writes Jerry Thompson, because of how it works—not only as an artistic medium but also of a way of knowing. It matters because how we understand what photography is and how it works tell us something about how we understand everything. With his provocative observations, Thompson conducts a wide-ranging and lucid examination on why photography is unique among the picture-making arts. Thompson argues for photography as a medium concerned with understanding the world we live in—a medium whose business is not constructing fantasies pleasing to the eye or imagination but describing the world in the toughest and deepest way.

I read Why Photography Matters when it was published, but decided to read it again a short while ago, as it is sometimes challenging and often not an easy read—as I already mentioned. It’s very much a philosophical discussion, in which Thompson argues reflectively and thoroughly for a restored sense of the need and purpose of photography. As I read the book for a second time I came across a section that very much relates to the kind of photography I am often concerned about.

In understanding how a photograph renders a subject and how the photographer choose to render the subject, we learn that a photograph is not only telling what an object that is part of the image is, but also what it means—in the context of the world in which it is shown, according to Thompson.

He writes: «Photographers who care only about information might be called journalistic; their pictures need caption, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact the way museums-labels for “difficult” artwork does. Photographers who care only about how the picture looks might be called pictorialists; their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a “program” or story the music can be thought to tell. The richest, most fully realized photography is made by those who work somewhere in the middle».

This very much resonates with my thinking—and what I teach in my workshops. For a photograph to captivate an audience, it needs to be more than just «beautiful», just as it needs to be more than just «depicting» what is. A captivating photo needs to tell a story, and as such not only the obvious superficial content that makes up some subject matter, but more so on a deeper and more connective emotional level. In addition the graphics elements, the light and composition, needs to enhance and help telling the story, whether it’s a straightforward story or a more intangible expression.

One major concern for Jerry Thompson is that a photographer takes his or her time when working a subject. Only then are you able to find the link between what it is you want to tell and what it all means, as well as how most powerfully telling that story, through composition and what you choose to keep in or out of the frame.

Photographically speaking, do you regard yourself mostly as a journalist or mostly as a pictorialist—or something in between? Do you even think it’s important?

The Disparaging Gap

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Have you ever felt frustrated because the result of your creative endeavour didn’t live up to your expectations? Of course you have – it’s a rhetorical question. Everybody does. Ever so often we all feel we are not able to express strongly enough or good enough what we have on our mind or seeing for our eyes. Whether you are a photographer, like me, or expressing yourself through any other media, we all hit this disparity between what we want to achieve and what we actually manage to create. We have this great idea, but can’t get it out, can’t make it materialize in a satisfying way. Particularly when we start out as beginners we are often encountering this feeling of not being good enough.

There is a gap.

There is a gap between the result and what we set out to create in the first place. Particularly in the first couple of years as we try to figure out our way into becoming a photographer, or a painter, or a designer, or a writer – or whatever it is we are getting into – the stuff we make isn’t quite good enough, it’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambitions to be good, but it’s not quite that good.

I surely remember when I (a very long time ago) slowly switched from photographing nature to become more documentary orientated and trying to photograph people in their various ways of living. It was a very frustrating period of time. I didn’t get the pictures I saw other photographers were able to capture much better than me in similar situations. I certainly wasn’t happy with most of my photos back then. They just didn’t capture some essence of life or were expressive in a way that could talk to others who hadn’t experienced the occasion I was trying to photograph. In retrospect, one reason was the inability to dare getting close enough, but it was also just getting around understanding the way these kinds of photos work in general. It took me many years to get around to the other side.

It has happened later, too. That I feel I am in a rut and not able to create anything worth keeping. As I said in the beginning; it happens to everyone. It’s part of the creative path. On and off we all feel we are banging your head against the wall and don’t get any further. That’s when we have to remind ourselves that it’s just a phase. Especially if we are beginners we will have to accept that it takes time, a long period of time, yes, years to get anywhere close to where we feel this gap between what we set out to create and what we actually end of with making, is diminishing.

The frustrating part when you encounter this gap is that your taste is good enough to tell that what you are making is a disappointment to you, but you just aren’t able to do anything about it. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get passed that point. They quit. But remember, then, all those who you think do the most interesting work, have been through these phases as well. All of them. They have just not given up, but kept working even when they felt that disappointment for their art work. They went through a face of years when they knew that the work they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it felt short. But they didn’t give up. If you go through a phase like that right now, you got to know that is totally normal. The best thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. And eventually you will come out on the other side. It’s only by doing a huge volume of work you will be able to close up that before mentioned gap, when your work will be as good as your ambitions.

You just have to fight your way through that phase. I know it’s easy to say. I know it is discouraging to stand with your legs stretched out across that gap. But if you know that you eventually will be able to create something that feels completely right, that in itself will hopefully be an encouragement enough to keep up with the hard work even when it feels less than satisfying in the moment.

How has you encounter with this gap been? And how did you get around it? Please share we us your experience.

On a different note, I want to apologize to all of you who follow my blog and faithfully comment on my posts for not having returned your visits. Since before Christmas I have been on the road and simply haven’t been able to follow up. However, I do appreciate every visit, every like and every comment. How no doubt about that. And now that life is slowly getting back to normal again, I promise I will start revisiting your blogs again. I will get back to you all.

Pursuing Passion

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«I would have loved to travel the way you do!» The statement came from a friend I met at the airport the other day. I had just returned from two weeks in Ethiopia – a trip from which you have been able to read daily posts on this blog as well as on Untold Stories, the blog I do together with my friend and colleague Øystein (and from which this photo was captured). Moreover, I was about to take off to go to Park City, Utah, USA, to cover Sundance Film Festival – and go skiing. My friend’s statement was an expression of both envy and awe.

It’s not the first time it happens. Many a time friends, acquaintances or random encounters pass on the sentiment. They think I am lucky, that I am fortunate to be able to travel the world. Usually statements like this make me both uncomfortable and annoyed. Yes, compared to the refugees in the camps of Ethiopia I have just visited; no doubt, I am extremely lucky. However, not the way they conceive of luck, those who usually express the sentiment. Mostly when I encounter statements of this kind I just smile and shrug my shoulder. Let it go. However, this time, inspired by the book The Element by Ken Robinson I have just read, I decided to speak my thoughts.

«No, you wouldn’t,» I told my friend. «You just love the idea. If you’d really loved to travel like I do, you would already be doing it.»

My friend got offended and curt. He was about to tell me all the reasons why he wouldn’t be able. And that, of course, was my point. I cut him short, and told him that he would never commit himself to the necessary sacrifices to be able to travel like me. «Would you give up your 150.000 dollars a year income? Would you leave your love ones behind for maybe 200 days a year? Would you love to sleep in a shed with no shower, no toilet, where the smell of sewer drapes like fog in the room? Would you be able to enjoy eating meagre rice porridge as the only food a whole day? Would you be willing to encounter poverty and distress almost physically as I do when I travel to places like Ethiopia?»

Of course not. No doubt, my friend loves to travel. And does so. However, he goes with his family on holidays to nice hotels in places where he will always be able to eat and drink well. That’s not the way I travel – most of the time. I love the simple and real life I seek out – and certainly wouldn’t be able to sustain myself on four or five star hotels or eat in luxury restaurants, but occasionally.

I don’t feel I am lucky to be able to travel the way I do. I have fought for it, I have carved it out for myself, I have been willing to sacrifice a steady income, I have never had any security. It’s not been the easy way. It’s been a fight – still is. But it’s the way I want it to be.

What I feel lucky about, is that I discerned my passion for photography, journalism and travel and had the guts to pursue it despite everybody saying it was a crazy and uncertain quest. Yes, it was, but I had the nerve and stubbornness – or maybe just the naivety – to go for my passion. In the before mentioned book, The Element, Ken Robinson writes about exactly this; pursuing one’s passion. Robinson’s point is that there is a powerful driving force inside every human being that, once unleashed, can make any vision, any dream, a reality. That is The Element. Robinson uses it as a term that describes the place where things we love to do and the things we are good at come together. According to him, The Element has two main features, and there are two conditions for being in it. The features are aptitude and passion. The conditions are attitude and opportunity. Or as he writes: I get it; I love it; I want it; Where is it? .

The thing is we all have something we are good at in us. We just need to find it in ourselves somehow. All those dreams and creative impulses we once had as children, are slowly by slowly removed by the society when we grow up. The conformity of the education system and the professional marketplace, doesn’t encourage us to find our own way. Nevertheless, somewhere deep inside us lives the dreams. When this aptitude is paired with passion, you have found your Element. Then you have to be willing to fight for your dream – and seek opportunities as they arise.

My friend I met at the airport and I got befriended at university when we both studied natural science. He pursued an academic career and a very successful one as such. As for myself, natural science was always easy for me. Without much work, I would understand physical equations, chemical laws or mathematical calculus. As a matter of fact I floated easily through my studies, still getting good grades. I could easily have become a professor in physics or mathematics – and having had a successful career as my friend. But the passion was lacking. When I realized it, I turned around and started to pursue my passions. And on that way it has been ever since, never looking back again.

I would love to hear about your dreams. How do you pursue them? And if not; what would it take for you to pursue them?

All Around!

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The new year of 2015 has hardly started – we are only three weeks into what I hope will be an exciting year for all of us. For me it’s already been exceedingly busy, more than I can remember any start of a new year has ever been. Right after New Year’s Eve I went to Ethiopia (from where the photo accompanying this post was taken) to report on the situation with the South Sudanese refuges – as any of you who follow my blog may have noticed. Now I am in Park City, Utah, USA to report on Sundance Film Festival – the maybe most important festival for independent films. In addition, in between the travelling – and parallel to the travelling – a handful of travel reporters and I have launched a new travel blog. So yes, it’s been quite busy…

As a result of these three busy weeks – and taking some time off around the Christmas Holidays – I have not been able to spend as much time as I want to in the blogosphere. I haven’t been able to visit any of your blogs since before Christmas – and apologize for this. While many of you have been commenting my posts on this blog, I have not been able to return the favour. As things start to ease off next week, I promise I will get back to you all. Hopefully – well not really; it’s been a couple of fantastic weeks to be honest, despite some tough weeks in Ethiopia – things will get back to normal again sometime next week. I will visit your blogs and I already look forward to being inspired by you all.

BortebraBy the way, the new travel blog is only in Norwegian. However, any of you my Norwegian readers – or anyone else who understands Norwegian, are of course very welcome to visit the blog. We have set high goals for us – and already the biggest paper in Norway has featured us as both the best travel writers and photographers, and as a very promising blog. The blog is called Borte Bra, which means something like being away from home is good. Go and have a look!

Ethiopians Hate to Lose!

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Ethiopian Haile Gebresalassie is one of the all time greatest long distance runners. The prize-money Haile won as a runner has been invested wisely in Africa’s fastest growing economy. But not only does he invest with profit in mind, but he want his investments to be a benefit for the country. Read about our meeting with the 42-year old celebrity on Øystein’s and my blog; Untold Stories.