No Easy Way Around

I often get questions about photographic voice and how to create a signature style—not the least since I regularly teach a workshop called “Your Photographic Voice”. However, there is no easy answer to the question, simply because there isn’t a quick and simple solution to finding this unique way of expressing oneself, not as a photographer nor in any other art form.

The not so helpful answer is; it takes time to develop your own signature. Moreover, it’s not something you can sit down and figure out or construct. As a photographer, you need to find the signature style, rather than create it. Or let it find you. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to allow yourself the freedom to grow into your practice and find your way. Once you fully accept this freedom, originality follows almost inevitably.

So keep in mind, the way in which all artists discover their individuality takes time. In fact, you develop your voice through your whole career or life span as a photographer. It’s in constant development, and the longer you have been nurturing your art, the more distinctive your voice grows to be. If you are concerned with developing originality, first of all don’t think about been original. This is something I have addressed before. If you try to be original, the result will rather be contrived. Instead, don’t think about being original, but allow yourself the freedom to experiment, exploring as many different mediums, subject matters, and approaches as possible.

It is only through the process and practice that a photographer develop true originality, as he or she slides subconsciously into repetitive patterns that build upon one another and over time form natural habits. Originality is the accumulation of a series of these subconscious processes, that when seen as a whole are a representation of the originality inherent in each individual. Not two people are the same, and thus no two people’s work is the same. When one photographer—or artist—makes work that appears similar to another’s, it either isn’t as similar as it may appear, or someone isn’t being true to their own individuality.

To be true to your own individuality, you need to pursue your passions. It’s through passionate work you develop your voice. Passion is simply the foundation of any successful, personal expression. As such, I think that is the strongest advice to take to heart—literarily. Photograph what you are passionate about. Find themes and subject matters you really care about, not only photographically but personally.

Then make photographing these subjects personal, that is to say photograph what you know. Photograph close to home, physically or figuratively. For instance, photograph your family or photograph your friends. Many a renowned photograph has made a name for him- or herself by photographing their personal relationships, among others Sally Mann, Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, to mention a few.

What makes your photography stand out—over time—is showing the rest of us how your world looks like photographed. Tell us your story—in your photos. When you share your personal life, you share your life experience and your heartfelt revelations. Just remember, when I write personal, I don’t mean private. Nobody wants to pry into your private life, but sharing your personal experiences will make us curious and capture us. Through a personal approach, your photography will be able to touch others and make them learn more about life, in general.

The late photographer, Diane Arbus, once wrote: “The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes”.

A final thought about how to pursue a personal, photographic voice or encourage this budding individuality is to take in as much art as possible, from as many different approaches as possible. And I don’t talk only about photography now, although if you are particularly interested in nature photography, for instance, open up yourself to other photographic approaches as well. If your only reference material is nature photography, it is easy to see how the work you make might quickly become a reworking of other nature photographs. When absorbing a vast array of different approaches to making, alas not only photographic approaches, some will filter their way into your work, distilled through the prism of your personality. So give yourself as much inspiration as possible, from as many varying sources as possible. Even seek out work that you dislike. It will refine your own signature.

The World Doesn’t Need Another Ansel Adams

«Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.» – Oscar Wilde

We all have our heroes. We all have our role models. Be it in arts or in other aspects of life. And that is all fine. The hardest part, though, is to break ties with those heroes. Particularly in arts. To find our own voice takes courage and determination. It takes consciousness and willingness to do those first stumbling steps on our own. Finding your own voice may take some time to develop. But there is no way around it if your want to become true to your own vocation, if you want to become a true artist. It’s just like the child breaking ties with its parents to become a grown-up himself – or herself.

As artists we have all copied others at some point in our creative training. That’s but natural. We learn by copying. One of the great artists may have been the inspiration for our own pursuit of artistic development. And we may have gained momentum by this artist’s vision. But there comes a time to break away. There comes a time to stand on our own, because we don’t want to remain copycats the rest of our lives. That is when your artistic vision starts to develop, and that’s when you start to develop your own artistic style. If you don’t make this initial break, you will always stay in the shadow of your heroes – and nobody will ever care about your arts. No success of any other artist will help you become successful yourself, no matter how good you are at copying their way of seeing, their way of doing and their way of expressing. If you are as good as Ansel Adams doing what he did, no one will ever see anything but his influence on your work – if at all they will cast a glance on your work.

In his book «The Accidental Creative – How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice», the writer and creative consultant Todd Henry opens the last chapter with the title «Cover Bands Don’t Change the World». The same could be said about any arts – our arts. If we don’t free ourselves from our heroes, we will never be able to impact anyone with our arts; in fact it will hardly be worth the term art at all.

Henry continues: «It’s my desire to continue to strive to find my own voice and to weed out all the places where I’m being “cover-bandish”. This can be very tricky because it often means turning down more work than I accept, but my hope is that the original value that I bring to the clients I chose to work with will create raving “fans” who want to continue to work with me and trust me when I develop new products or ideas.»

Back when I started out pursuing a photographic career one of my heroes was Ansel Adams. I thought his black and white landscape pictures spoke directly to my heart. I was very impressed with his way of bringing out details and tones in all parts of the landscape and his dramatic visual language. He inspired me to learn about the Zone System – and needless to say, my pictures started to look very much like his – if far from as good. In my case breaking loose happened by itself, simply because I lost interest in landscape pictures and moved on to other fields. Of course I found other role models, but then I was already more conscious about my own vocation and my own way of seeing.

Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even if it’s clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. – William Klein.

A few years ago the magazine Wired had an article about 10 photographs one should ignore. One of them was no other than Ansel Adams. The writer Blake Andrews wrote about him: «Adams created some remarkable images and he wrote the book (literally) on photographic technique. Yet on the whole he’s probably done more harm than good for photography. How many young photographers have fussed over which zone to put the shadows in while the light fades and the photo disappears? More importantly, how many perfectly exposed black and white vistas of snow-capped peaks or rivers snaking into the background do we need to see? Yes, nature is majestic. We get it. Saint Ansel showed us, and he did it better than you ever will, so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.» Point made, I should add.

To sum up my point then: The world doesn’t need another Ansel Adams. It needs a genuine you.

On a different note: For the next two weeks I will take some time off from blogging – I am actually gonna have some holidays, padling and travelling and visiting friends. But alas, by mid July I will be back blogging again. See you again then. Have a great summer (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or great winter (for those of you in the southern hemisphere).

The New Visual Language

I come from a tradition of classical story telling with my photos. It’s the way documentary photographers have emphasized both content and moment in the stories each of their photographs tell. My friend and colleague, Sven Creutzmann, comes from the same tradition. And this—you may call it traditional visual language—is what we teach in our workshop, like the one in Cuba earlier this month.

We are not stuck in the way we see photography and of course let each student develop his or her own voice. At least that’s what we try to stress for ourselves as well as the students and that’s really our focus. Even though we believe in the classical use of visual language, I think it’s fair to say that we are both open to other approaches in ways of shooting and expressing oneself.

Nevertheless, over the last many years, we have seen a shift in how for instance award winning documentary photography are less and less accentuating the clear story telling, and we have both been puzzled by this change. In documentary photography, a more artistic or ambiguous approach has become more prevalent. Personally, I like photos that are open to interpretations, in which the message is not clearly set by the photographer, and where there are layers of understanding embedded in the photo. However, the photos that win these contests have quite often baffled both Sven and me.

It’s the postmodern or even post-postmodern school of young photographers that are now dominating the spearhead of photojournalism. It’s a kind of photography that is often described as deconstructed in which traditional rules or guidelines are broken in order to create a new visual language. Again, I am one who promotes not following any rules or established guidelines. However, I have found a lot of this new photography rather boring, drab and uninteresting. As I wrote in my post The Emperor’s New Clothes? a couple of years ago, the postmodern approach is often plain and boring—almost as intended—but is raised to the sky by pretentious acclamation.

I admit. This sounds like an old, outdated photographer ranting about times that are changing. And maybe I am. Still, I have always been one to push myself and try to go into unknown territory. So, after Sven and I were done with this year’s photo workshop, we decided to sit down and figure out what this new visual language is. We looked up a bunch of award winning photographers and tried to deconstruct their deconstructed photography. I tell you, the result was quite surprising.

To quickly sum up what we found: One aspect that we took away was the fact that a lot of the photography we looked at for us would have been mistakes we wouldn’t have selected and certainly not submitted to any photo competitions. Furthermore and to be more specific, we found that these photos often put elements in the foreground that are unsharp and add a visual disorder to the imagery. Photographers who shoot with this new visual language move further back or move out of the story (whereas I always teach that you cannot get close enough). They seem to capture in-between-moments where Sven and I have trained ourselves to be able to capture the peak of a moment. They use less wide-angle lenses and they often shoot reflections or through windows or openings. They often include weird details or something that is not quite clear what is and often the composition is static or symmetric. Their photos are often simplified and does not try to build a story, at least not in a classical sense, and part of this is that they often do not include moments at all (not only off-moments as already mentioned) nor people. Finally, we found that many of these photos are heavily worked over in post-production.

One thing that puzzled us was why some of these approaches were used, until a friend of us who is not a photographer, told us that maybe it’s to leave more open to interpretation instead of showing a clear-cut story, simply to be less clear. Of course, that is at least part of it.

Deconstructing is one thing, though. After having done so, Sven and I went out in the streets of Havana and tried to shoot with this new visual language as a template. At first, it felt a little weird and uncomfortable, but it didn’t take long before both of us got a sense of freedom in our shooting. The next couple of hours we completely lost ourselves in the process and captured thousands of photos. We had fun, we felt inspired and it was simply liberating to do something completely different.

Even the result took us aback. I am not saying this is amazing work, by far. But it certainly gave me a different perspective (you can judge by yourself). I think I am more open to the new visual language. Furthermore, I am sure I will pick up what this lesson taught me. It won’t shift my photography completely, but I have gotten a new tool in my photographic tool box. I really enjoyed this new visual language. Of course, by now what is new has already moved ahead to a new place. But that’s OK. I will just have to repeat this exercise every so often.

The Inner Voice

Do we end up doing the kind of creative work we do by coincident or is there a bigger reason for why we end up doing paintings, songs, novels, graphics, poems or whatever we like to do? Like I am a photographer (but do other stuff as well, it has to be said). Was it purely coincidence that I ended up choosing this path?

At some point in my early life, I was surely inspired by close friends who picked up the camera and eventually got me interested in photography as well. None of them ever became professional photographers, but we had great fun in the exchange of our increasing passion. Later on during my academic studies the friend I was doing a master thesis together with, decided to pursue a photographic career instead. We were both avid photographers then, not professionals however, and were often out shooting together. Not long after he got a foot into a photo studio, I began pursuing a photographic career myself, but rather in a documentary direction.

Would I not have become a photographer without the push from my friends? Maybe so, but then maybe I would have discover my passion for photography anyway. I don’t know, but what I do know is that photography feels right for me. Generally, I feel alive when I can be creative, so maybe any other artistic work would have been just as fulfilling for me. Of course, there is such thing as talent, so maybe I wouldn’t have become good at sculpturing, for instance, or performances. However, I have never put much trust in talent, as I think it’s more inhibition than lack of talent that makes us turn away from certain endeavours.

What I know is I am a visual guy. I experience the world in a visual kind of way. I love reading, nevertheless, but when I read a novel, it’s like a movie running before my inner eye. It’s the same the other way around, when I am writing. Now I’d rather use an internal movie that I transcribe into words. Unnecessary to say then, that I love watching movies, and have probably watched more movies than most.

There are so many examples that show the way I visually orientate myself in the world. Like when using Google Maps to find direction from one place to another, I know many people who would rather print out a written description of the way. I, on the other hand, will always print out a map with the route. That is so much easier for me, and I never get lost.

Generally, I don’t get lost no matter where I go. It’s like my brain draws an internal map wherever I go, as I go. I never feel disorientated—well, almost never at least—even in places, I have never been before. After breaking up from my academic studies I went travelling for half a year, sort of my first attempt at making a living as a photographer. At some point two friends of mine, I was travelling together with for a while, and I flew into Hong Kong. It was night; it was dark and all quiet overwhelming with its busy streets and chaotic city layout. From the airport, we took a buss into downtown Kowloon on the mainland. Even if this was my first visit to Hong Kong, I could tell when we needed to get off the bus, knowing we were close by the hotel we had chosen to stay at. All from looking at a map in the airport.

The same many years later. I had just met my love one and was visiting her hometown, Seattle, for the first time. Back then she was teaching at a massage school situated in downtown Seattle. One of the first days, she took me up in Space Needle. While walking around the platform high above the city, she started to look for the school, wanting to point it out to me. We had visited the school the day before, and I could immediately pick it out from the top of the Space Needle. It took a minute or so before she could ratify I was right.

So, yes, I am very much a visual guy. What is my point? It may be coincidence however we end up doing the kind of creative work we do, but I still think we need to listen to our inner voice and bring it out in whatever way feels right for us. It’s not about talent, but finding the creative expression that spurs our passion.

What spurs your creative passion?

Invent the World

Ortodokse kristne ankommer Medhane Alem katedralen for å be julemorgen

I have written about this many a time: If you want to captivate viewers with your photos, you have to invest yourself in the photos you take and in the whole photographic process. It’s paramount that you feel the photo is necessary for yourself to capture, that whatever you are capturing you have to capture. It may sound strange and quite intangible, but without your feelings and sensitivity invested in the photo you take, it will never become a photo that will interest others. It may look nice, it may be well compose, it may be lit beautifully, it may have some strong content, but without yourself present in the photo you take, it’s never going to become a meaningful photo—for others.

If you don’t care about the photo you take, from the bottom of your heart, why do think others would or should?

I, for one, have many a time been guilty of just taking a photo because it looks like a photo worth taking. You know, you learn from photo books, from peers, from discussions on internet or in camera clubs what a good photo is suppose to be. And you start looking for those kinds photos. You see photos in terms of «perfect» compositions, in terms of gorgeous light, in terms of beautiful graphics or even in terms of what you think is interesting content. However, if you aren’t able to invest yourself, your feelings, your commitment, your enthusiasm, in whatever you are shooting, it becomes merrily an exercise. Instead of being honest with yourself in the photographic process, showing your face so to speak, you enter into what could be called an intellectual game. You reproduce what you think others would like, where instead they want to see what you like.

Photographers who do invest themselves in the photos they take know exactly what I am talking about here. But those photographers who still haven’t gotten to that place often have a hard time grasping the meaning. I know because I have been there myself, thinking this all appears so fuzzy and convoluted. Sure, on some level it does sound nice and snug; but what does it actually mean—to invest yourself and your emotions? This is one of the hardest parts to convey to participants in my workshops that are still tied up in a believe system based on visual rules and what they think is a good photo.

In the book The Photographer’s Playbook, the photographer Ken Schles (as one out many writers in the book) maybe comes up with one of the best descriptions of what it means to invest yourself in your photos. He writes: «Take me on journey as best you know how. Investigate the things that trouble you or show me who you love. Tell me what you think you know or are discovering for the first time. Most important, show me what you have seen as you have seen it. Invent the world for me. Reveal the nature of your curiosity. Go forth and be as convincing and compelling as possible. Muster your best argument. Go deep and go with conviction. Show your renderings in a way that I may be convinced of your vision and so that no other rendering would be as convincing or as compelling in their place. Show me your images so they enter my consciousness and I may dream your ideas anew. Change me and change yourself through your discoveries. And do this without artifice or pretension. Do it simply in a way that I can clearly hear your voice and know the power of your mind through the choices you present in the practice your have chosen to share.»

I have mentioned the The Photographer’s Playbook in previous post. It’s a book published by Aperture, subtitled 307 Assignments and Ideas. It’s a book I truly recommend for photographers looking for inspiration.

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX7 with a 4.7 mm zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/80 of a second. Aperture: f/1.4. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Averted Vision


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.

Become a Better Photographer


I have been pondering about what it takes to become a real good photographer. I mean everyone can capture a decent photo – particularly with today’s cameras that take care of the basic handling. However, to make your photography stand out requires a bit more than just having a camera. The question is, how can we make that transition happening? Yes, understanding and learning the craft is maybe one springboard, but it can only take you this far. The difference between good photography and photography that stands out is subtle, but at the same time makes a substantial difference. As mentioned, I believe everyone can take a good photograph if they just put a little energy into the process. But the next step, how do we get there?

It’s actually not that difficult, either. Yet, it takes commitment and finding a way to connect with you inner self – and finally make that wisdom be expressed through your photography. I know, it sounds a little phony, but it’s quite how it works. There are no simple tricks, really, but just dedicated steps towards mastering photography at a more profound and more personal level. As with everything else in life, we are talking about making priorities, that is, if you really decide to become an accomplished photographer – and this decision gets ingrained in your backbone, then you can become just that, a photographer who creates captivating and even outstanding photography.

The obstacles, of course, are that it takes time, effort and sometimes even money to make such a commitment. In addition, it follows that you’ll need to downgrade other things in life, often things that you care about, things that you enjoy, or just things that simply is easier and more pleasurable to do. The difference between a photographer who creates outstanding photography and one who merely captures good photos, may be that former is the one that works relentlessly and don’t mind standing in muddy water for hours – figuratively speaking. Nevertheless, we can all make progress, and he are a few steps that can help you on the way:

Look to other photographer. Read photography books, go to exhibitions, watch other photographers’ work and find photography online. Surely, there is going to be a lot you will not like, but the point of this is just to find photos and photographers that inspire you. Bury yourself in what you find inspiring and that which gives you energy, whether it is workshops, photo books, exhibitions or anything else. Whatever it is, see as much photography as you can find in any media or outlet, and immerse yourself in it.

Work on a personal project. Nothing brings your photography so much energy and is pushing yourself more than working on a personal photo project. But keep in mind, complete freedom is not inspiring. Instead, set some limits you will have to stick with. Find yourself a project or even a couple of projects, and work within the limits you have set for yourself. Do not be tempted to expand the boundaries simply because it is easier and more relaxing. For something really good to come out of your photography, it must have a core of authenticity and a nerve that is being expressed in the work. That is something you won’t get through boundless and leisurely respite. A project can be done in a weekend or it can take years to accomplish. The theme is not important – as long as it somehow touches or is relevant to you.

Care for more than the photography itself. Remember, photography is a tool, not an end in itself. A tool must be used for something. Whether your goal is an art expression or to tell a story, that goal must be foremost in your thoughts, not photography as such. Some of the world’s best photographers do not see themselves neither as photographers nor as artists: James Nachtwey is primarily a social reformer, and the same can be said about Nick Ut, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastião Salgado and several other of the world’s foremost documentary photographers. This also applies to many of the world’s greatest art photographers, but in a different way. They often choose to turn to the world and the viewer differently, but the desire to tell, ask questions, provoke thoughts, to make the viewer smile, react and feel alive, remain the same.

Seek cultural experiences. Cultural impulses are important, even more so it’s important not only to seek impulses from the same field you feel familiar with. The Matrix films would never have come into being without the inspiration from cartoons and their idiom, and the same applies to famous and beautiful movies like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Sin City, just to name a few. Photographers such as David LaChapelle are possible largely inspired by film and music, and others are inspired by literature, sculpture, painting or numerous other artistic expressions and cultural forms. Keep an open mind, take your pick and expose yourself to different concepts, cultures, thoughts and impressions. Somewhere in there, you might just find your brilliant idea, which you would never know exactly how in advance.

Photograph a lot and often. It takes a lot of work to master a discipline such as photography. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect – no less true in photography. What you do a lot, you will excel in, and although 99.9 percent of your shots might end up being trash, in the process you have trained your eyes, brain and finger. Moreover, taking 1000 photos of which 0.1 percent is good, well, then you have gotten at least one good shot. Not bad at all, or?

Live Your Photographs


Why is it that some photographers are able to come up with wonderful and engaging pictures even about the smallest trivial details that most of us wouldn’t even consider worth a picture – not only once in a while, but again and again? While others make nice, well composed pictures about important and presumably engaging subjects, but still never manage to engage with their pictures? What is the secret of the profound artistry of the former? The answer of course isn’t a simply list of tricks an upcoming photographer – or any artist for that matter – needs to learn and understand about her trade to excel. It’s a little more complex than that. Still, I don’t really think there are any secrets to the engaging artist, although it’s still a kaleidoscope of characteristics that goes along with artistic excellence.

For one, the photographer who manage to engage us with his pictures, has found his own voice, not by specific techniques or postproduction manipulation, but coming naturally from within – as I wrote in my post A Personal Voice last week. Another feature about the engaging photographer is that she herself is engaged in what she photographs. I think this is something we all need to learn. We need to have interest in what we photograph; we need to feel that our subject is something or someone we can relate to ourselves. What we really need is to want to photograph, not for economic reasons, for fame, for stock, for publishing reasons, for someone else, but because the picture matter to ourselves. The reason? The engaging picture is actually a picture of ourselves. It reflects our own life.

If you feel that your pictures are boring and not engaging, maybe it’s because your life isn’t as exciting as you really want it to be? I repeat again; our pictures reflect of own life. So maybe you need to bring some excitement into you life. Mind you, I am not talking about the grand expedition, being the big adventurer or living la vida loca, but really just living the life that is fulfilling to you. If you thrive with home sweet home, that’s where you will find your pictures, those pictures that will engage all of us, too. Ernest Hemingway once said «In order to write about life, first you must live it!» If you replace the word write with photograph, you will get the equivalent for us photographers. Of course it’s not easy to live up to Hemingway’s way of living the grand life, but that’s not the point. The point really is; if you want to tell something as an artist, you need to live it. You are your photographs – no matter what you actually photograph. If your pictures are boring your life is probably boring, too – for yourself.

That’s where I started out myself. I was good with the technical part of photography. I was good with composing pictures. I had a good eye for light. But I never really engaged anyone with my pictures. It all changed when I started to travel for real, meaning going to countries and places that aren’t made for mass tourism. I started to relate to people on the places I travelled to, and I discovered I enjoyed meeting people. That’s when my pictures switched from beautiful and boring landscape and nature copies to more interesting human stories. And that’s still how it goes. I love photographing people, I love the meeting, I love the interaction, and I love to understand a little bit more about human life. Back then travelling was in many ways just the catalyst, not really a requirement for my engagement. Not any more at least. Today my photos certainly don’t have to be taken in far-away places any more. They might just as well be of my love ones close to me and in my own neighbourhood. It’s not about place – for me – but about people.

A Personal Voice


I believe that every photographer brings something of himself or herself into the taking of a photograph – simply by being a different individual than any other. What I mean is (and I have written about this before on the blog); I believe we all show something original in our creative work. It might not be grand, but it’s ours. However, does this mean that every photographer has a specific personal voice? Originality – as I see it here – and a personal voice are closely connected, but does that mean that every photographerer – the occasional snapshooter as well as the pro – has his or her own voice?

I think not. It takes more to have a photographic voice than just being a person who shoots a snapshot now and then even then when that same person inherently – consciously or not – brings some of his or her personality into the picture. It takes a clear vision and a coherent body of work to be able to be able to distinguish a photographer’s personal voice.

What is a personal voice then? It’s a fingerprint of the person behind the camera that clearly relates to the photographer’s personal vision and expression. It’s this vague something that makes a photo stand out and shout this picture is taken by this photographer, no matter what the subject matter is and what technique the photographer has used. It’s a reflective projection of the person’s idea through the whole process of taking and making a photograph.

For a photographer a personal voice results from many specific choices the photographer makes in composition, focal length, timing, lighting, the colour palette – or black and white – and other technical variables. But even more important is maybe the subject and subject matter at least for some photographers – such that Ansel Adams’s well known voice is closely related to bold and majestic landscapes or the voice of Henri Lartigue is very much connected to his choice of subject matter; his family and his relationship with the wealthy Paris. On the other hand some photographers, such as Albert Watson and late Brian Lanker, shoot across a whole range of subject matter and still have a clearly recognizable photographic voice. Finally for many photographers post-production is where the personal vocie emerges and where the photographer’s own vision and expression comes to together in a specific manner. I believe before mentioned Ansel Adams’s photographic voice is a clear case of the latter. Without his eminent darkroom skills none of his photographs would have reach iconic level, his photographs would actually have been pretty boring. On the other hand a photographer such as David LaChapelle builds his photographs in the studio with bold colours and a bizarre, at times grotesque, and sexual twist to his approach.

Yet, even when a photographic voice seems to be grounded on one specific part of the production, be it in the studio or in the darkroom or a specific technique, I still believe that a conscious approach through the whole process from the first vision to the end result is necessary for the personal voice to develop. Ansel Adams wouldn’t have been able to do his elaborate darkroom work if he hadn’t used the zone system already at the time of shooting the negatives. And LaChapelle still needs to have control of the output of his complex studio pictures. The whole process involves so many choices, these in turn; depend directly on our personal tastes and interests. This is why it for most of us takes a while for a personal voice to develop, because at in the beginning the photographer might simply explore all the possibilities in photography, and not yet have fixed ideas about how images ought to look according to his or her taste.

Now, this last statement, is interesting in connection with what I wrote in a posting not long ago, Trust Your Instinct, that to be creative we have to let go of preconceived ideas of what a photograph ought to look like and tap into our unconscious mind. Does this mean there is a conflict of interest between a personal voice and creativity? I actually think so – if you think of a personal voice more as style. I think a well develop style – if used consequently – can inhibit our creativity. That’s why we as photographers need to take chances in between, let go, lose control and give ourselves assignments to break with everything we believe in. To encourage creativity and to not be inhibit in our approach. Creativity after all means to bring into being something new and surprising. Then later we can then always bring that new revelation into our palette of styles and make it part of our photographic voice.

Don’t Chase Style

Gatelivet i San Querico går i et langsomt tempo

A personal style is like a signature for any photographer – any artist for that matter. As we at a young age set out on our photographic endeavour this easily becomes a major mantra, and we start searching for our own style. We think we can skew the horizon, and that becomes our style. We think we can make dark and mysterious pictures, and that becomes our style. We think we can increase the colour saturation or do some other post production trick and that becomes our style.

I remember at one point I became very good with my handheld flash, I would even say I became an expert getting the most out of this devise that many photographers otherwise struggle with. Particularly I got very enthusiastic about the result from using open flash. In the end all my picture ended up being shot with open flash. Open flash became my signature – or so I thought back then. But I was only fooling myself. I finally realized that style is not something we force our pictures through, like a filter or some magic transformation, in order for it to become «our» signature. Instead of becoming a signature, it becomes a limitation. When my mantra was open flash, I stop looking for other qualities of light that could be used – and better used in many occasions – in my pictures. My craving for a personal style turned in to a self-inflicted inhibition.

Yes, we can impose various styles on our pictures, and should do so to enhance whatever we try to tell with the pictures. But that isn’t the same as a personal style our an artistic voice. It’s just using tools we have to our disposal. Chasing style in one way or another is never going to give us a personal signature or an artistic voice. There isn’t any quick-fix to the outcome. The artistic voice comes with time, and it comes from within. When we stay honest, authentic and true to ourselves in the way we photograph, over time our voice will crystallize and become apparent. We get a signature that is not depending on various tricks and enhancements, but is by character a reflection of ourselves. With time we develop our vision – we look for certain aspects of life and emotions and graphical qualities that we related to, and this vision again will develop our personal voice. The more conscious we become about our vision, the more clearly our personal style will develop. Style is – put simple – an outcome of becoming aware of our vision.

As for me, open flash has long time ago ceased to be the all-encompassed answer to my lighting needs. As a matter of fact I hardly use flash any more. Today I prefer available light, which is so much more varied and full of depth and tonality than anything I could do with a flash. Nevertheless, available light hasn’t become «my» signature, I still use flash when I think it’s appropriate or when it will enhance the visual expression in my pictures.