Author: Julie Lauritzen
Photographer: Chris Aadland

Chris Aadland


Commissioned by magazines like Telegraph Magazine, The Financial Times’ How to Spend It and Dagens Næringsliv D2, Chris Aadland’s striking and confrontational portraits are not something one easily forget. The embodied perception of these images are sometimes haunting, and you may find yourself wanting to seek more information about the people in them looking back at you.

Tell us about yourself, what was it like growing up on the west coast of Norway and when did you discover an interest in photography?

It wasn’t until I was 18 that I became interested in photography, and I only started taking pictures because it was easier and less time consuming than drawing or painting. Looking back at my childhood I now realise that growing up just outside Bergen felt quite safe. Everyone around me were the same white, middle class people, interested in the same things and wearing the same clothes. Myself included. But eventually I got interested in not so popular things, and I felt more and more out of place. In upper-secondary school I did an art extension course and I started to realise that not everyone is the same, and that I could find similar people like me. I am sure everyone felt the same way growing up and that it is not something new or exclusive to me, but it has become decisive to the work I do now. At the end of upper-secondary school drawing and painting, which I had enjoyed since my first years in primary school, became boring, it was simply too time consuming. I started playing around with Photoshop a lot, and eventually wanted to take my own pictures. It wasn’t until the year after when I had a gap year working abroad, that I invested in some kit and decided it was something I wanted to pursue.

Your practice juggles between commercial shoots for magazines and your personal, more art-orientated contextual work often aimed at subcultures. Although the starting points are quite the opposite, your work largely evolves around portraits, with the subjects often looking straight into the camera. Tell me more about your practice, how you find and work with your subjects and the difference between your personal and commercial work – if there is one?

My ideas are usually based on thoughts I have on subjects such as authenticity and social constructs. In photography, it is portraits that I find most arresting, so it’s only natural that my work evolves around it, no matter the starting point. I say I try to construct moments of potential authenticity when I shoot. By that I mean I am very aware of how I will pose and talk to my subjects in order to see how they respond to the given situation. I want to make portraits of people that no one else are able to make, and that might reveal the subject in a different way than how they are usually pictured. The pictures then become just as much about me and about who I am, as about the sitter. My subjects vary, they are not necessarily members of specific subcultures, but are people who confront my anxieties, fears and perspectives. That might be strangers I have approached in a park, or drag queens at an event I have been allowed to photograph at because I had gotten to know someone who co-organised it, for example.

You know, I think it is often easy to forget when you are a photographer that you started taking pictures because it was fun. When I am commissioned I am told to take pictures of someone or something with some constraints. I do not have to conceptualise it, it is all about the actual act of taking pictures, and because of that I quite enjoy it. For me, it is not so much about this is that kind of work and this is another kind of work, they are all pictures that I had fun making. What I learn from the methodologies I invent for my personal work I bring to my commissions.

What does a regular work week look like for you – how do you divide your time?

My weeks vary a lot, some are busy, others are not so busy, but the majority of my time I spend looking for commissions, sending e-mails, and going to see picture editors and other photographers. I still assist to learn new things, meet new people, and make ends meet. I also juggle spending time working on my own projects, which is more e-mail and researching than it is taking pictures, sadly. I also try to go on hikes, but it is not happening as often as I would like it to. Either longer day trips, or shorter city strolls, with a camera, of course.

How is your work process from idea to finished project? Is your commercial different from your personal process – if so in what ways?

I don’t think I work like that. I have tried to, but I get bored easily and change the course of my project frequently. It’s even hard to call my work for projects, because I have only ever finished one project, really. You know, to be making projects is something art schools invented so that they would more easily assess their students and since then it has become the norm of how to work with photography. I don’t necessarily believe that that’s the right way to work with photography. I am interested in certain subjects and I make various works that evolves from that.

Working for commissions are different. The majority of my commissions are portraits for magazines and they usually have a brief I need to follow. Most of the time it is just who, when and where, which are the main constraints, but also guidelines to what sort of images the magazine run. However, the picture editors that commission me usually do so based on my portfolio and roughly know what they will get if they let me go and do it my way. I try to organise to be at a location early to plan my frames, and I set up and test lights before the subject arrives. I work with the sitter for the time I have been given and near the end I will try to do something different and less “safe”, if you like.

Some of your images (commissioned by D2 for example) are shot using a Mamiya RZ67, although you have been known to shoot digitally as well. What is you preferred format and why? Does it change from project or weather it’s personal or commissioned, or is it strictly controlled by budget?

It is quite simple really. Even though I am quite new to film, I do prefer to work with analogue medium format cameras, but for most commissions digital is more convenient. I think the photographs I take on film are better because I work much slower, which changes my concentration and so I am much more decisive the moment I press the shutter. However, at the end of the day pictures are pictures, wether they’re shot on film or digital. That said, I have come to hate vertical images shot on DSLRs, because the format is simply too tall! Nowadays, everything I shoot for myself is on film.

Some photographers (like Nadav Kander) use the camera as an excuse and an opening to explore the unknown, ask questions and move where one wouldn’t usually dare to go. What does the camera as a medium mean to you?

Yes, it is a bit like that. For me, the camera is a means of exploring and expressing myself. It gets me in to situations I would not normally be in and I believe that by doing that I learn to grow as a person. These experiences open my mind to views and perspectives originally different to mine. The photographs are a documentation of those encounters. Often, when I think about ideas I want to do I think of subjects that I wouldn’t normally meet or dare to talk to, and so on. In that sense I use the camera to expand my own horizons. If you’ve got a camera and you ask nicely, you can get away with so much.

Are there any photographers or other artists whose work you love in particular at the moment? What else do you draw inspiration from?

My love for portraiture is based on the classic works of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus. Amongst contemporary photographers, I am interested in those who take on that legacy; Rineke Dijkstra, Stefan Ruiz, Spencer Murphy, Nadav Kander, to name some. I also quite like Alec Soth’s portraits. However, my inspiration is usually drawn from artists who are not portrait artists, actually, and often writers. For example, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle’ had a huge impact on me. If I were to draw inspiration from portrait photographers I am afraid I would put myself in a box where I would copy them, even if I didn’t intend to. By looking at artists who work in other mediums, or photographers who don’t depict people, I am inspired by what their works are about, and not what they look like. Then, there’s the challenge to make the ideas that come from that in to the work I do.

After you finished university in 2011 you moved back to Norway but ended up staying roughly a year? How was this first year post university for you, and was the plan always to go back to London?

It was not really the plan to move back to London, no. I stayed nearly two years, actually. I was very happy I managed to make a living taking pictures, but I felt I wanted to do more interesting commissions, which is why moving back to London did appeal to me. Do not get me wrong; I did interesting commissions in Norway as well. I threw myself in to quite unfamiliar territories shooting architecture and school photography, which I have learned a lot from.

As many other Norwegian photographers you left Norway to practice in the UK.  What considerations were behind this choice, and how is the English photography scene compared to the Norwegian?

I wanted to be able to learn from certain people, make certain contacts, shoot for certain magazines, photograph certain people and so on, and regardless of globalism getting that access is much easier when I am near it, I think.

Before I moved, I felt that the Norwegian scene was very small and narrow. Take Bjarne Bare and Behzad Farazollahi’s recent book New Scandinavian Photography, for example. They’re saying, “Look at this. This is what photography from Norway is about”. I know there is more to it than that, but that’s just how I take it. Norwegian photography is this, and that’s it, and I didn’t identify with it. It’s different with the UK, because it can’t be summarised in the same way, because it is so much bigger. When it comes to Norwegian photography, my personal taste lean towards the not so contemporary photographers, such as Mette Tronvoll, Kåre Kivijärvi and Tom Sandberg, for example. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I don’t find what’s going on interesting, but it’s just not the kind of work that I like.

What do you have to say to people that may think photography is for photographers and special interest people only? How can we make photography more accessible and welcoming to the common audience (to use Norway as an example)?

I believe we are already passed that. Everyone takes and views pictures all the time on their smart phones. I don’t think necessarily we have to push people towards the kind of photography that the establishment think is important, such as in galleries for example, because I believe there are many other interesting platforms to view photography, like social media. Photography is for everyone. However, I do believe primary school pupils should be thought how to read visual images, just as they are thought to read text. I think that would increase people’s criticism towards imagery, and probably also close that gap between looking at and thinking about what seems to be an elitist form of photography in the art galleries and the everyday snapshots on Instagram.

How do you feel like your photography has developed since you began taking photographs?

I did an MA in Photography last year, and over the years of writing and reading about photography in a university context, I have become much more aware of the choices I make when I photograph, for better and worse. Also, when I started out I turned my lens towards musicians and I was making a lot of conceptual, gimmicky portraits that were very influenced by photographers such as Mark Seliger and Annie Leibovitz. Since then my photography have become more serious, if you like, and if there is humor in any of my pictures now, it is a lot more subtle than what it would’ve been in my older work. I suppose it has to do with me having a lot more references now than I used to.

Are you working on anything particular at the moment?

Yes, I am!

Apart from your photography practice and interest, what other things and/or activities do you like to do in your spare time?

I have already mentioned hiking, which I like to do to clear my head. I play 5-a-side football with friends on Sunday mornings in Shoreditch, which I look forward to all week, actually! Then there is never really a lack of options for things to do in London in terms of going to exhibitions, coffee shops, exploring neighborhoods, finding great and cheap places to eat, and so on.

Do you have any advice for young photographers trying to make a living either freelancing or juggling several jobs next to their own practice?

Everyone is different and I just think it is important to be clear about why you want to be a photographer, what it means to you, and how it makes you happy. If you stay true to this and carry on making your work, without comparing yourself to others, it will feel meaningful and make you happy. Because let’s face it; very few will become the famous photographer everyone talks about, probably no one will get rich from it, and very few will have their work shown in the best known magazines, or in the most credible galleries. It’s also a good idea to think about what success means to you. To me, success means to be able to continuously fund projects I want to do.

And last, but not least, what are your plans for the future? Is there anything particular you would like to do or accomplish?

I am getting better and better at thinking about what I can do right now, instead of in the future, so I would like to keep doing that. That said, I do hope that the work I started this year will have become a body of work I can be proud of, by the end of the year, but if it hasn’t then there’s probably a good reason for it, and I will just keep working on it.