Today, I was supposed to be somewhere close to Ny-Ålesund, a tiny little city on an island in the Arctic north from Svalbard. I was going to be part of a photo expedition led by my dear friend Chris Michel, who first took me there in 2017. Three years ago was a time of self-discovery and the beginning of a voyage into listening to my heart. It was a year of experiences: Japan, Iceland, the Arctics. By exploring these places and others, I was also able to explore myself. It was a year when words and visuals became interchangeable for me. It was the year I realized that I am what I think and feel I am — not who others think I am.
And while I captured images as I roamed the planet, I was not yet able to fully interpret and render those feelings into photographs. The journey to far off places was supplemented by learning some vital tricks on how to use the tools of modern technology — Photoshop, for example — to help with the interpretations. If I have learned anything over the past three years, it is how to break down images into soundtracks of silence, which is an exercise in simplicity.
In many ways, this has been part of my overall evolution as a person. My wardrobe has been simplified through elimination. My musical tastes have evolved from complex to simpler forms. Solo performances bring me more joy than intricate rhythms. Even the smells that please me have become singular. A part of me wants to respond to the ever-increasing complexity of the world (and my work life) by focusing on just the essence of an experience — the story told in as few words as possible.
“You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple,” Steve Jobs said. And he was right: simple is harder. To appreciate the solo performance of a creator, you need to imagine what was going through their heart when making something so poignant. (Check out Anne Muller’s work to understand what I am talking about.)
My visual journey has followed a similar trajectory. Where I used to produce cluttered images, now I focus in entirely on reflecting how I felt in the moment when i captured the image.
A few weeks ago, when folks from Leica Camera asked if I wanted to participate in an event to talk about my work alongside Chris, I said yes. We have been on many trips together. He has been a patient teacher, and he has often guided me through moments of self-doubt. Our photos aren’t anything alike. We don’t even see the same things when we look at the same vista while standing a mere four feet apart. That’s the magic of photography — it is not a journey to a place (something you can easily do without taking a single photo), but instead, it is a journey within.
I wanted to create a special set of photos for this event with Chris, something that conveyed a shared journey of two friends with cameras. I went back to my unedited photos from the Svalbard trip. And there were many. But the ones that spoke to me were from a visit to the little hamlet of Ny-Ålesund. 78 degrees North. Population 35 — most of them scientists and researchers.
We landed in the middle of a snowstorm, which only got progressively worse. And the worse it got, the more magical it became. We walked around the island through the falling snow and howling wind. I remember sitting down at times and cradling the camera as I got a photo or two of the colorful huts jutting out of the snow. There was a museum. A radio tower. And even a graveyard. In the distance were remnants of the past. Somewhere, we came across a meadow with solitary reindeers in search of food.
The vastness of nothingness said everything.
May 3rd, 2020, San Francisco.