How did you FIRST GET INTO photography?
I got to borrow my dads old mechanical and manual camera with 50mm and 135mm prime lenses when I was a little boy. When I got my first roll of slide film back from development, I was hooked! There was a blurry frog in one frame, a seagull in another. I ran around like crazy with that camera, but I noticed that it mostly turned out rubbish. So I started making lists of what I was going to capture, even at what settings. So by trial and error I noticed and learned what worked and what didn't. The frog turned out better at f-stop 8 and maybe it was more fun when it wasn't centered. I convinced my parents to buy hens at our summer home and then I took my bike around and sold eggs to buy film. In my teens my dad suggested I should lecture at a retirement home, show my pictures and try to inspire other people too. "You are such a good storyteller, I'm sure they would love it" he said. I hesitated at first, of course. They paid me enough to buy three Kodachrome film rolls - I thought it was a great deal! It was also amazing to experience how moved some people became. Some were even crying. A blind woman came up to me and said "Young man, I have been blind for many, many years. I could't see your pictures, but through your words and passion I could hear them." That kind of feedback was sensational and convinced me that this is the best job for me.
HOW DID YOU START TO MAKE A LIVING FROM IT?
I felt out of place in school as a teenager. Only a few teachers managed to motivate and inspire me. At the turn of year 85-86, when I was 17 years old, I decided to drop out of school to my parents great dismay. "How are you going to make money? Who is going to buy your pictures? Nobody knows who you are. Don't you understand?" they said. Which spurred me on and obviously made me realize that that I had to work really hard to make it work! "Just you wait and see!" I said and set up my own landline telephone at my parents house and worked like a maniac. The first picture I sold was to a printing house who wanted to test their new printers. The next one was to the local newspaper. I attracted some attention by being so young and fiercely determined to live my passion. I ended up in interviews and got some sponsors. That really helped.
How dID YOU get published in National Geographic?
I was invited to the graduation party of my class, even though I had dropped out. I saw another photographer standing in the room and I walked over and talked to him. He told med his name was Cotton Coulson and that he worked for National Geographic. He was there serendipitously together with an Estonian Natgeo staff writer, Priit Vesilind, to do an article about the countries around the Baltic Sea. Before that moment I hadn’t considered or even thought of working for National Geographic. It was, an a way, unachievable and not even a dream at that point.
A couple of years later, I stopped by their headquarters in Washington D.C. on my way home from an expedition in the Amazon. Priit had set up a short meeting with an editor for me to show my images. I had to make it clear that I wasn’t looking for a job to get the meeting, I just wanted feedback. He looked through the pictures and devided them in to three categories. One bunch he dismissed as too ”postcardy”. The second was good but nothing special. He took the third stack of photographs in his hand and said, "This bunch, young man, shows real potential. I'd like to try to set up an appointment with the directors of photography. The people that hire and fire..." By the end of that very day I got lucky enough to meet with Susan Smith, Tom Kennedy and Kent Kobersteen. They apparently liked what they saw and said, "How would you like to work for National Geographic?" I was in shock. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It was overwhelming. I was 23 years old. First I did some smaller assignments for their travel and youth magazine. I think they were waiting for me to mature... The rest is history. My first big assignment became the first time I got my picture on the cover. I was the first Swede and the youngest photographer ever at the time to be granted this honor. (1997, Malaysia’s Secret Realm)
What equipment do you use?
I am an ambassador for Nikon and use their latest and greatest cameras and lenses. I also have a RED Epic and a RED One which I use with my Nikon lenses and a Panasonic AJHPX3000G camera with a HJ40 zoom. I have underwater housings for most of the cameras and scuba gear as well as climbing and camping and expedition gear for any climate or location. Bags from Lowepro, monitors from Eizo, cars from Audi...
Have you ever been in danger during an assignment?
I have been bitten in the head by a three meter long forest cobra in Cameroon, attacked by lions, chased by elephants and had my fair share of tropical diseases. One time I wanted to photograph on top of a hot air balloon in mid air, that did not work out so well. I got too close to the flame and jumped straight in a river when I got down! But I never ever purposely agitate animals (or people) and I never seek out danger. I am always very respectful of all animals and have by years of experience learnt to read most signals quite well.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE GETTING INTO PHOTOGRAPHY?
If you are going to live off of your photography it is important you know why and how you are doing it. You don't get much for free necessarily. You have to decide what you want, what makes you happy, inspired and content and then work hard to make it become reality. Personally I need a huge chunk of passion to get going and stay focused! Stay curious and hungry! Photography is to many people very much geared toward technology and expensive equipment. Good gear helps but important to mention is that one does not need the latest and best technology to tell a story. It is after all not the most important thing. In my my book creativity and determination are on top and great gear are essential tools... but after all... just tools...