“It feels like I have a high-speed processor in my head, that never stops observing. I can neither control nor stop it. So finally I figured I had to do something with that. I see things that other people seem to miss. I do not have a filter, as a result of which everything enters my brain. Working with a camera creates a frame, which helps me limit the flow of endless impressions wanting to get in.”
Sometimes you get lucky, which was the case when we were placed in the same art class as Ursula Jernberg back in the day. Ursula was one of those people that plotted her own course. She was in the documentary department and even though her subjects were the subjects you would find in documentaries, her work always had a movie like character. To us, her work always seem to be on that fine line between fiction and reality, with carefully cast characters in a storyline in search of identity. We’ve been dying to publish her work over at Sunday Mornings and were delighted she pointed her camera at an off the grid community in The Netherlands. Her new project Aurora is about to be launched in ‘Het Nutshuis.’ Time to have a little chat with an old friend.
Ursula, long time no see, how are you? What have you been up to since graduating the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague?
I am doing great. It has been three years since I graduated. My book, Characters of Jante, went global; it sold in Germany, Holland, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. I received heartwarming responses from people all over the world. The first year after graduation I mainly focused on commission work. I was hoping to get stuck into a new project, long-term, but at that particular point in time no mindblowing topic announced itself. In 2014 I did a project commissioned by Studio Mama (a gallery in Rotterdam), for which I travelled to Iceland to photograph landscapes. It resulted in a series about water in all its forms – streaming, steam, frozen. I exposed seven pictures in a group exhibit. The project however still has no title, and it has not yet been finished either. All in good time.
I have just wrapped up a project for DocuDenHaag. This initiative of Het Nutshuis offers starting photographers a chance to make and expose new work. I was wanting a productive summer and that is exactly what I got. Our exhibition opens September 3rd. This is my first big project since Characters of Jante.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I live in Amsterdam. I share a gorgeous, inspirational studio with a group of fellow creatives in Amsterdam North. That makes me very happy. Come to think of it, I have been feeling very happy in general the last couple of years, happy with the choices I have made. I started my Art Academy degree at a later stage in life. That was a huge step, to overthrow my life like that. I remember looking into an art history book as a fifteen year old and seeing Kandinsky’s work. It moved me, it resonated. And even though secondary school teachers encouraged me to go study at an Art Academy, I was too scared and insecure to actually go and do it. This resulted in me feeling lost for years on end. But now I am happy to say that I am travelling down my yellow brick road. Every day I am thankful that I get to do what I do.
For your latest project Aurora you emerged yourself in an off grid community in the Netherlands. Can you tell us a little about this project?
Aurora has its origins in the fascination I have for groups of people that have adopted a different way of living. In the beginning stages of the research I spoke to a futurologist. He told me that self-sufficient living is on the up. That instantly pushed my curiosity button, I wanted to know what self-sufficient living looked like in Holland. Hence I went online and searched for off grid communities. Quite quickly I found a suitable group of people to study for my project.
Where does your fascination for the subject come from?
My trips to Scandinavia made me aware of space and nature. How could you not, take Norway for example, it is a sparsely populated country. As a result of these trips, I started developing an urge to be in nature more often. It was at this time, that I also began wondering whether I might actually prefer living in Scandinavia to living in Holland. Next to that I started noticing a certain trend, of people longing for nature and longing for stillness in general. That was the moment I decided to commence researching this particular phenomenon. Does it exist in Holland? And if so, where do those people live? And how do they live?
When you think off grid, you think America and large empty stretches of land, what should we think about when we think about an off the grid community in Holland?
In Holland I ended up in a forest near the city of Zwolle (the capital of the province of Overijssel), situated at the river Overijsselse Vecht. A forest with cottages, one slightly more comfortable than the next. Some of them having bathroom drainage, others having toilets that are flushed by means of a bucket of water. The inhabitants try and be as self-sufficient as possible, both in food and energy. The forest itself is not very big, so it forces them to live together with one another as well as near to one another.
You spend quite a lot of time in the community, what was it like to be off the grid yourself?
That is correct. I travelled there on a weekly basis. My first off the grid experience was back in July this year, which coincided with my first day of photography for this project. It was quite an experience I have to admit. I am not a camping kind of girl at all, so the day before I left I quickly had to dash out and get a sleeping bag. When it came to spending the night, I had the choice of sleeping in a yurt or sleeping in an open cottage. The yurt appealed to me most, but unfortunately it was simply too cold at night, so I ended up in the cottage. Being in the forest, it goes without saying that an entire nation of mosquitoes assembled there every night, and from what I gathered they were planning on attacking me full force. Luckily a forest-inhabitant was kind enough to give up his mosquito net to me. I was really productive those first couple of days during my off the grid experience. For me personally, it works a treat, photographing somewhere I have not been before. I got to know the forest. It was sheer bliss, working in silence.
What did you take away from the experience?
Personally: the longest journey one makes in one’s life, is the journey from head to heart. Connecting with your heart and following your heart is most likely the most important thing you can do as a human being whilst walking around on this great planet of ours. If people were to spend more time in silence, they would actually hear what would be asked of them. Subsequently it would not be complicated at all to find out what makes their heart beat faster. The problem in today’s society is that we sadly seem to have lost the ability to hear.
When it comes to photography: it once more was quite a struggle. But then again when is it not? A nice struggle though. I noticed that I was limiting myself as a result of focusing too much on the concept of ‘self-sufficient living’. I constantly had the feeling that I had to explain something to the viewer. Like, these are the solar panels, this is the vegetable garden and over here we have the rocket stove. I was thereby sabotaging myself from working freely. Finally, after a long talk with one of my studio companions (who meanwhile has become a good friend of mine), my mode of working and my way of looking at things changed. I was able to let go of the concept, which resulted in me starting to create my own story within the community by means of short fragments.
What did you miss the most while being off the grid?
My shower. I love my shower.
Why is photography your medium? What is so special about it? Have you ever tried other media to tell your stories?
It feels like I have a high-speed processor in my head, that never stops observing. I can neither control nor stop it. So finally I figured I had to do something with that. I see things that other people seem to miss. I do not have a filter, as a result of which everything enters my brain. Working with a camera creates a frame, which helps me limit the flow of endless impressions wanting to get in.
You could say that it is a way of meditation for me. I find my focus whilst I am shooting. At that particular point in time the only thing that matters is what is happening within my frame. All the irrelevant things going on outside the frame are ignored. Something which I don’t seem to be able to do in real life.
I think in images. Short stories form in my head. Kind of like a film. Perhaps I am just a lazy filmmaker. For me photography is an appropriate medium because it allows me, with the help of minimal techniques, to manipulate reality and shape it according to the film that presents itself in my head.
At one point I did dabble a bit in the pool of film, but it is quite a laborious process, for which I did not have the required patience. Perhaps that is something for a later stage in my life. I do have to confess that it intrigues me. Who knows, maybe after this interview has gone online a filmmaker will come my way?
We met at the Royal Academy of Arts, how did studying photography help you develop your practice?
Without the Academy I would not be where I am today. It has changed my life. It has influenced the way I view the world, and the way I interact with it. It has made me more aware. The endless looking at other photographers’ work, as well as at paintings, shaped me as a maker. Next to that I gave myself a good kick up the backside during my time at the Academy. Focus is very important. Goalsetting. To do lists. Planning. Quite frankly, everything I do is geared towards furthering my career, my photography. At the moment, it is the most important thing in my life.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
It get my inspiration from just about anything. Sound. Light. Water. Love. Text. People. A film. A dream. A brainwave. A trip. A glance.
Lately it seems that I cannot tear myself away from the work of David Lynch. As a teenager I used to watch Twin Peaks religiously every week. I thought it was absolutely amazing. To me it was such a different way of making film, it caught my imagination.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying I like and/or understand all of his work, but as a creator I think he is highly interesting. He is so versatile. It feels as if he works without self-imposed restrictions. I can only imagine the freedom that gives you as a creator. That is what I strive for.
On my working table you will find his book ‘Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity’. And the other day I discovered his music. The Big Dream the album is called. It has something sinister, a certain mood that I find attractive for my own work. Thanks Lynch.
How do you hope to grow as a photographer?
The last couple of years, I have grown quite tremendously, even if I do say so myself. I used to hide behind my camera. I used to plan everything beforehand: location, models, light, timing, styling. It felt secure for me to do it like that. Now that I got closer to the real me, I can let go more. To carefully plan the show and its entire production therefore is no longer necessary. These days I let myself be guided by my inner voice, my intuition. That has not only been a very important lesson for me to learn, but it has also been a great relief. I have become more open and vulnerable, as a result of which it is easier to connect with people, and that is simply fantastic.
For now: very excitingly, my new project is done – it is time to show off my new baby to the world. What is next? That is something which has been occupying my mind for the last couple of months. Perhaps a long-term project in Holland, or maybe I will just up and leave again to explore a new destination, who’s to say?
What is the best advice you ever had as a photographer?
Think beyond the scope of your project. What platform would suit your project? Where would you like your pictures to end up? How will you convey your message to the world? So yes, our head teacher’s words are ringing in my head quite frequently and they help me time and time again.
What is your favourite photobook? Why?
I want to live innocent – Torbjørn Rødland.
The story is set in Stavanger, Norway, where Rødland grew up. He uses Stavanger as sort of a theatre in which he gives himself the freedom to shoot loose images. These images are all stand-alone and tell their own story. It is quite a strange edit. Vague. Some images are in colour, some in black and white. I would love to have a tour through Rødland’s mind to find out exactly how he thinks and to get to know why he works the way he does.
Any famous last words?
The world is as you are.
Who should we interview next?
Ehm.. David Lynch?
Can I do the interview???