In-depth Interview with Photographer Jo Bentdal

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Jo Bentdal is a renowned Norwegian photographer with his own definition and philosophy of  photo journalism. I featured his Rio De Janeiro journal last week and today i was privileged to have an in-depth interview on his work and more. Enjoy!

2dots - Please tell readers about your background and how you started photography?

JB - I have a masters degree in applied physics, and a professional background in management consulting, web strategy, brand strategy and design management. While working as an adviser in a design agency for several years I got more and more into photography. My "training" in photography has been  workshops and close interaction with other photographers. One day (not so long ago), i became a full-time independent photographer.

2dots-Does living in Norway influence your work? and how is the photography aspect of Norway like?

JB - Norway is in many ways a great place for photography : nature, light, and (like everywhere) some interesting individuals with a distinct visual expression of their identity. But to me, getting away from what I am used to seeing is a key factor in finding motivation. Hence I do most of my individual projects abroad. 

2dots - How do you pick your photo journalism locations?

JB - I have taken an advice I got from Alex Webb quite far : shoot what you are drawn to. I go to places that i find both interesting and appealing on a personal level. Sometimes the "interesting" factor involves some kind of unfavorable media coverage that i assume is somewhat biased, sensationalistic or negatively focused. Going to those places to document a more "neutral" or positive aspect of people there and the way they cope appeals to me.

That is not to say that the critical coverage is wrong, but I think injecting a component of optimism as a counterweight to the general negative bias in the news can be a good thing and its more in line with the way i perceive the world. Basically I shoot what i am drawn to.

2dots - What is your perfect work flow or mode when working on a journal and how long does it take to complete a project.

JB - I go out with a varying degree of clear ideas of what im looking for. Usually, what i find is a result of uncontrollable factors and therefore often not what I expected.  

Sometimes a situation appears in a very limited window of time, and you have to nail it on the first or second attempt. More often, you get a chance to work a situation for a little while like seeing a urban landscape or environment that seems interesting and you have a feeling something might happen in it (interesting people coming around, or the people there moving into a interesting composition or situation). I also use the camera for experimenting and sketching. Going back to a good location several times is also a good approach (even tough i don't do it that often).
After a day in the field i often come home with 1000 or more pictures. I like to do a rough edit (choosing decent pictures) right away. During the progress of a project, which can vary from a day to two months, i also compile candidates for a final edit. 
When the shooting of a project is finished I look at the whole all over again, but the pictures that I "rejected" in the first round rarely comes back into consideration. Rather, Its about editing (choosing pictures) more critically. For the final edit, several rounds of reconsidering and rejecting is needed, and the more time you allow for the edit to mature, the better it gets. 

2dots - What is an important factor in photography that you think people seem to disregard or ignore.

JB - I think too much effort and focus is placed on a "trendy" visual style in terms of color correction and other aspects of post-processing and striking effects.
If the pictures are good to begin with, only subtle adjustments are needed. Also, a lot of pictures especially on the web tend to be screaming for attention, and once you are drawn in there is not much more to be discovered. But surely, If done well enough, anything goes.

2dots - With your experience what is your approach on large spread of digital photography versus the analogue photography ?

JB - I am neither a fan of "new technology fascination", nor "old technology romance", as a guiding factor for artwork. You can get better dynamic range for less money using film (medium/large format), and a film usually has a less "sterile"/"neutral" look than an unprocessed digital file, but to me digital is very practical. I only shoot digital but consider buying a larger format film based camera now, mostly due to better dynamic range than a "full-frame" digital camera.  This gives nicer gradients and hence more subtle rendering of light, provided there is  enough of light there. But using a camera with 10 exposures pr. film, I would probably still use a digital for fieldwork, sketching and security.  
The ISO performance (ability to shoot and give clean images in low light) of a Nikon D3s or the "un-intrusiveness" of a Leica M9 is not something I will give up in any foreseeable future (those are both digital cameras with a sensor size equivalent to 35mm film).  

2dots - What do you call a perfect picture?
JB - A picture that calls for attention and draws you in without screaming ; through a good graphic composition, light and colors (or gray-scale). A picture that is complex, but at the same time clean and tidy. And most importantly, a picture whose content gives an emotional and preferably also intellectual resonance. Nadav Kander, Phillip Lorca deCorcia and Alex Webb are some good examples of artists whose work i admire and respect.

2dots - When working on a portrait with a client how do you deal with them to get the high quality performance.

JB - I try to treat people with respect and move in carefully. Getting contact and achieving trust is also important, but I do it by allowing people to be themselves, which is the key. I try to avoid bullying them around and like to keep instructions at a minimum. But a dialogue that makes people relax, triggers emotional response or results in interesting body-language can also be good.

2dots - In your opinion how do you define creativity.

JB - Combining known and experienced elements in a way that is filtered through your mind and put together to something that somehow contributes with a new perspective, solution or experience.

2dots - Three words that will best describe your photography.

JB - Ambiguous, undogmatic and colorful (usually).

2dots - What do you believe is the power of photo journalism and what messages do your journalism deliver?

JB - What a picture does that a text will not do, i think is quite obvious, but a photograph, when compared to video allows you to contemplate details and layers without moving on to the next moment in time before you are ready to. 
When It comes to my own photography, I am quite genre-agnostic, i am not really sure what I have been doing so far is even journalism, as a lot of people seem to ask themselves "whats the intended story" when looking at a journalistic piece. I take a set of pictures, guided by my own mental models, preferences and interests, but trying to keep an objective, honest approach as far as the two are compatible. 
What people think when they see the picture is up to them. But I do hope my pictures will set you in a state of mind or make you think. My goal is to take pictures that resonates with whats already in your head, and ideally give you some fresh impressions. To me, my pictures mostly relate to identity and cultural constraints. How we all stage ourselves and how we are formed by our background, opportunities and our environment.

2dots - Upon your worldwide travels which country has been your favorite and remarkable so far?

JB - A hard one, I think I have to say Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Its a place i understand, but that is different. A place of contrasts and a city where people are approachable, hospitable and cool.

2dots - How has the experience and exposure to different cultures and people helped you as a photographer and an individual. 

JB - Its tempting to quote Pink Floyd (Dark Side of the Moon/ Time) : "All you touch and all you see - is all your life will ever be". 

Jo Bentdal's official webpage 
Jo Bentdal's Facebook page

Jo Bentdal's Behance page