‘My pictures are inside me, waiting to come out’

March 4, 2009

Celebrated photographer, Morten Krogvold speaks of his memories of sweeping the floors of a gallery he longed to be showcased at, the moments of rejection and success, his passion for art and his life as a photographer, in an interview with Tahmina Shafique

Photos by Momena Jalil

If the biography of photographer Morten Krogvold were written, there would be little space in it for the exclusive nature of his still-life images, his powerful portraits and the fame he has achieved, all around the world. Instead, it would be full of stories that belong in the domain of fiction.

It would be the story of struggle and zeal. It would be the story of a seven-year-old boy who spent three years in a hospital room, owing to a severe hip injury. It would be the story of being rejected and yet never giving in. Of a 19-year-old, who worked as a helper, bringing in coffee and sweeping the floors of the Institute of Norwegian Film Board and often longing to be one of the photographers showcased on its walls. It would be about sleepless nights of hard work and learning through mistakes. It would be the story of his passion and association with all forms of art—poetry, music, painting, and above all photography.

This past week, in the middle of the political chaos and blockades, as I walked into Pathshala, the Dhaka-based South Asian Institute of Photography, there were a bunch of students laughing and chatting with a lively and cheerful looking man in his mid 50’s. The most fascinating thing about him was perhaps, the warmth he conveyed through his simple smile and undoubtedly, his gregarious personality and spirit. He is no ordinary man; he is Morten Krogvold, Norway’s leading ambassador of photography and a legendary name across the globe. His photographs, primarily his dynamic portraits, have been celebrated and exhibited throughout the world, including USA, Canada, France, China, Sweden, Iceland, Botswana and, of course, Norway.

Morten, as in the previous years, is here in Dhaka to display his photographs at Chobi Mela, Bangladesh’s premiere international photography festival and to conduct workshops. ‘Being a part of Morten’s workshop is a different kind of experience. You are bound to fall in love with him. He is an inspiration, someone who does not order rather shares,’ says photographer and colleague Momena Jalil, an ex-student and now, a teacher at Pathshala. ‘He makes you think and question. It’s amazing how he assembles the different forms of art with photography. Most importantly, he tells you about life and the mind, which he says is intertwined with photography.’

Indeed, his workshops are the most awaited event for countless students across the world. It’s the intensity and passion that he carries with him in his workshops in USA, China, South Africa, England, Qatar, Greece, Italy, Germany, Bangladesh and many more, that has marked him, as an extraordinary speaker. His students tell me he is restless, questioning, lively and impossible to ignore or be indifferent to.

Our meeting amidst the chaos and activities for the workshop he is conducting, was unhurried, and yet full of energy.

At the age of seven, while other children of his age went to school and enjoyed life to the fullest, Morten spent days and in fact three years, in the gloomy hospital room, owing to the hip injury which had crippled him. ‘My brain did not support my hips, it was a complex case which could not be healed in those days,’ says Morten. He remains silent for a moment, perhaps remembering the most difficult times of his life as a child.

‘Since I couldn’t go to school, I didn’t know how to read or write. My father would then bring me books of pictures and images, which would be my only source of recreation.’ It was perhaps then, that he grew an innate passion for photographs and most importantly, the human face. After the three dreadful years in the hospital, Morten went back to school at the age of eleven. I ask him inquisitively, ‘did you like it?’

‘I hated it, I just hated it and wanted to get away from there so badly,’ he says, imitating a child, who hates school. ‘Horrible.’

According to Morten, his association with art has made him a better photographer. ‘They are distinct artistic media, sharing a common objective—turning a piece of creative work into an experience’. Perhaps, that is what sets him apart from others: his passion for art. While his father was not at all into art, his mother was an amateur pianist, which brought Morten closer to music. It was during those terrible school years, that Morten read poetry, studying painting and music alongside. In fact, he learnt the violin and had bright prospects in the field.

‘But it was time I chose one, photography or music, and photography stood out as a career.’

Why not music?

‘Perhaps the lack of possibilities in that field,’ he adds ruefully. ‘But, I still love music. Time seems to stand still when I listen to music- Mozart, Bach…and the list will go on,’ he says smiling.

At 17, Morten had his own dark room where he experimented with photography. ‘And trust me, they were horrible,’ he chuckles. Soon, he got a job at the ‘Institute of Norwegian Film’ as a helper. ‘I would clean up the place and serve coffee and observe the different kinds of people coming to have their portraits done — architects, actors, painters, scientists and all kinds of artistic people. I would finish my work early and try to learn from the people who worked there. I must say it was a unique opportunity for someone as young as me.’ But the best was yet to come.

As time passed, Morten learnt more about photography. ‘I would spend nights in the studio and I must say, those were the best times of my life’. The turning point of his life came, when the famous Polish scientist, Jieremy Sasientinsi, joined the Norwegian Film Board. ‘The photographer who was supposed to take his portrait fell ill, and I was asked to take his picture. That paid off all my hard work’.

Indeed, that single exclusive portrait marked a great significance in his career. ‘Later when the scientist died, the government ordered for that portrait to be put up,’ he adds. It was then, that his ascent began.

Morten booked a studio and started working with his subjects, either portraits or still life images for hours. His unique work through interview and photo sessions with well known faces including actors, directors, writers, painter etc in Norway and abroad, resulted in ‘Images’, a book that features a compilation of his early work.

‘The greatest moments of my life as a photographer has been in the studio; late in the evening, in a darkened room with a couple of subdued light sources, a camera, two people and some music,’ says Morten.

It is perhaps his compelling and lively personality that forms images that speak for themselves. He does so through the use of natural background, the dark room, producing a portrait that not only shows the person or the object, but also exposes the inner being. Morten has also produced powerful works of art such as images of death, the essence of optimism and joy despite the difficult life in Africa and much more. Besides the publication of countless photography books, he has made 16 cultural television programmes presented by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. Among the many other honours, he has been awarded ‘Knight of the First Class’ of the Norwegian Royal Order of St.Olav.

Morten tells me about his recent work. ‘It is in many ways a repetition, yet different. I have been given the project of doing the same work of portraits with young faces,’ he says. ‘Only this time, they are coming to me because I am famous, unlike before when I approached people who didn’t know me, yet gave me a chance,’ he laughs. I ask him which one he prefers more, he remains silent more a moment, and says ‘the first one, because it was more challenging and I was hungry to explore, although I still am but that would be more special’.

Morten speaks of his earlier experiences much more than the present ones. It’s evident, that, in many ways, he loved the struggle, the challenge of breaking boundaries to capture many images. This is his fifth visit to Bangladesh and he tells me that he adores the fact that people love to be photographed. ‘I think the country has bright prospects in terms of everything. Most importantly it has a bunch of vibrant and keen photographers, who will leave a mark in the world of photography.’

He can’t seem to stop laughing when he tells me about his experience in Dublin. In many ways it was a challenge for him to break his single barrier to success, the lack of confidence. ‘I was so nervous. I didn’t know the people or the place. It was then that I challenged my self to go and approach people. The most challenging was however, knocking on people’s door and asking them to let me photograph them!’ he says. ‘…And there were people who asked me to buzz off but I thought it was not all that bad, so I pushed on and as a result met a diverse bunch of people’.

The man who has conducted countless workshops all around the world, tells me about his struggle to speak before a large audience. ‘I still remember the first time I had to speak before a large audience, in New York. And, they told me that just five minutes before I was due on stage!’ he says, excitedly. ‘I could feel my knees shaking, but about fifteen minutes later, I went with the flow and thus came a list of workshop invitations.’

With Morten, stories alone could be his stock in trade. His experiences and adventures from his many journeys, from various tasks and meeting different kind of people in all continents almost have another-worldly feel to them. He tells me exciting stories of being soaked with water and soap and going to photograph the President of Iceland, the tales of photographing people dying of AIDS and cancer and his projects, his experiences in Africa, his time in Italy.

Anything more about photographs? He tells me smiling, ‘they are inside, waiting to come out at all times. They are responsible for the restlessness that drives me to different places and different images. Most people think it’s the camera that does the wonder, but it’s the mind and the soul’. His eyes sparkle with warmth and passion. ‘Remember, if you are taking a photograph for love then don’t use the flash, it’s the natural essence that expresses the true image’.

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