When Norwegian photographer Bjørn Wad and his friend decided to become professional photographers, they didn’t wait or waste time. While in school, they bluffed their way into meetings with record labels and advertising companies, earning themselves commissioned projects and much-needed experience. Not a bad way to start. But this feat also demonstrates Wad’s intelligence and consideration that’s present in all his work.
Take his Tåsenhjemmet series, which took 3 months to complete and is focused on the elderly living at a rest home. Instead of going for the easy shot, one that would pull at the heartstrings in an obvious manner, Wad spent the first-week spending time with the people he knew there — without his camera. He ate breakfast with them, laughed, joked, played around. He let his guard down, so did they. And because of this consideration, the series gives us natural portraits that are both honest and funny. Natural Portraits that are true to the beautiful people Wad was able to meet.
Besides working with well-know record labels, publishing houses, and magazines, Wad’s work has also been exhibited by galleries internationally, including Code C in Los Angeles.
In this interview, Wad explains how he approaches directing his subjects, talks about getting over taking photos of strangers in public, and reveals what it’s like shooting for high-profile clients.
You describe yourself as a fashion/advertising and portrait photographer. How did you get your start in commercial work? How would you describe your personal work?
I guess I’m mostly a portrait photographer, with some side jumps into other areas of photography. I started out while I went to photo school and formed a company with a fellow photographer. Together we built up a portfolio and began knocking on doors at records labels and advertising agencies. We got ourselves into meetings that were completely out of our league. But, united, we were a lot tougher and could take on bigger assignments then we normally would as solo photographers. I guess we pretended to be bigger than we were for starters and grew from there. But the industry bought our bluff and we kept on working together with a lot of exciting projects for about three years. The combination between going to school and doing assignments on the side, made the transition from school to real-life work much easier. But in the end there is no right and wrong way in becoming a photographer, it’s just your way.
My personal part of photography is mostly driven by long lasting projects. They often turn out differently then the way I begin them. I often let the projects evolve as I go. I work on analogue cameras and on film. I can divide my personal work between images containing humans and landscapes. Landscapes not in the Ansel Adams way, but more in the Eggleston direction. At the moment I’m working on a new project which is about a social group on the margins of society. I guess my personal work is really more about myself. It’s much more about what surrounds me, what interest me and what I think is photographically valuable.
When you first started out, how did you figure which style of photography to specialize in?
I was lucky to meet one of my all time heroes Anton Corbijn when I was around 19 years old and got some pointers from him. So I saved up and got myself a Hasselblad 503cw, so I could walk in Corbijn’s footsteps. This was a couple of years before I went to photo school. I walked into the street of Oslo and started asking interesting people who had a strong character for their portrait. No fuss, just myself, available light and the location the subject was in. Through that I slowly lost my fear of asking people for their time. Today I ask people for everything. And from then on I basically stayed with people as my main theme in photography.
Your series “Tåsenhjemmet” is a wonderful set of natural portraits. Many of the older subjects give playful expressions and gestures that show how comfortable they were in front of you. How did you approach directing them?
I used about 2-3 months on the Tåsenhjem series. The first week I left the camera behind and just hung out with the elderly. We ate breakfast together, took walks and through that I learned every person’s interests and their way of being. I knew a few of the elderly from when I worked there as an assistant nurse during my time as a student. Through spending time together I found the right setting for each person. Some of the images where created with a starting point and progressed from there, and others where of course moments that just happened in front of me.
The whole project was done with the Leica rangefinder M9 using only a 50mm and available light. No assistants, no strobes, no tripod and no reflectors. I didn’t want to scare people of with heavy equipment. Take Astrid (91) with the sugar cube on her tongue for example. She let a sugar cube melt on her tongue each morning. And when I asked, she told me that it was a meal for her brain. And that’s when that idea came about. Or the image of Oliver (89) smiling through his magnifying lamp. I observed him using it while reading, as the famous 1986 portrait of jack Nicholson by Herb Ritts came to my mind. So I linked those two together. And on the other side you have the images of the priest Tobias (90), the lady with the mirror Eva (94) or the nurse Gudrun (83), which were much more planned out.
What advice would you give to other portrait photographers who are just starting out and want to achieve that same connection with their subjects?
Let your guard down and just be yourself. Have fun and “play” while photographing, and maybe your subjects will play along. Let them into your mind and show them what you want to achieve. The most important part is to never stop taking photos. Never give up. And learn to communicate with the people you portray.
You feature a lot of street photography in your portfolio. Many of them are of people taken from behind. Why is that? Do you have any reservations of taking photos of complete strangers in public? Why, or why not?
Funny you say so. I really haven’t thought about it. If someone has their back towards the camera, it gives a kind of mystique to the image. So maybe it’s just another series that I unconsciously pursue. I always try to have my Leica on me, to snap those everyday moments. You never know when and where. I lost that sense of reservation for asking as I talked about in a previous question. But it is definitely a thing you have to overcome. The part of talking to a stranger and asking them to do something there and then and trusting you isn’t always an easy part.
What lessons would you share with other street photographers who may be hesitant to take photos in public?
Personally, I feel luck plays a big part as well as being at the right place at the right time. Wherever you go, always bring your camera. Make yourself invisible. Find great and interesting locations as a starting point. The street is all about observing and waiting for the one moment when everything fits into place. As Woody Allen once said, ”80 percent of success is just showing up”. If you have ever accidentally left your camera at home, you know how painful it is to miss that one decisive moment. Another part is to do your homework on great photographers like for example Elliott Erwitt, Cartier Bresson, Bruce Gilden, Robert Capa or Helen Levitt.
You have also completed many commissioned natural portraits of various artists. You pick really great locations to compliment them. How do you plan your commissioned portrait shoots? Is it collaborative with the subject?
I usually sit down with the subject and the editor-in-chief or management and discuss the look, feeling, and atmosphere we are searching for. Pitch ideas I have in mind and locations I want to use. When its commissioned, its always sort of a collaboration. The greatest assignments received are the ones that give the most freedom to do whatever you like. You also have to find out where the subject’s comfort zones are. The do’s and don’ts. How far can you push the subject in order to get the result you want. The rest is all about either building a location as a set in the studio or finding the right spot outside. It all depends on the subject, what kind of magazine or client.
Are there any mistakes you learned from in your early professional career that you could share with other aspiring commercial photographers? A short list of do’s and don’ts?
I think being a photographer is no regular job, it’s more a lifestyle. Learn to live it and to live with it. I think the personal mistakes I’ve done come from the struggle between my work and my personal family life. You get pulled between those two sides. It’s going against my previous saying, but learn to leave the “camera” behind from time to time.