JRP Blog welcomes the talented Photojournalist / Documentary photographer Otto von Münchow to this segment of James Robinson Photography Blog. Thank you Otto for your participation.
Otto von Münchow: Thank you James for inviting me. I am delighted to be showcased here on JRP Blog.
JRP: Where do you call home Otto?
Otto von Münchow: That’s not an easy question to answer since I move around a lot, both as a consequence of my job as a photographer as well as my private life. I have two places I could call home. My work base is Bergen, Norway, where I also have my kids (from a former marriage). They are very important to me so I have made it a priority to keep close to them. My wife is an US citizen, living in Seattle, Washington USA, which means I spend about the same amount of time in both places. In a sense I am commuting between Bergen and Seattle if you will. Besides that, I was born and raised in Denmark, so part of me belongs there as well, and then most of my family comes from Germany. Finally I travel around the world for a big part of the year because of the work I do. It takes me to places like Bolivia and Malawi, two countries I will visit over the next month or so.
JRP: What led you to pursue photojournalism and documentary photography? Do you have any formal training?
Otto von Münchow: From very early on I got interested in photography. I was maybe 11 or 12 when I began shooting more seriously. At that time it was only with an Agfa Rapid camera (kind of similar to Kodak Instamatic). The interest started as a consequence of my interest in nature and wild life experiences. I began to photograph my trips up in the mountains, whether I went skiing, hiking, climbing or whatever. At that stage I never thought of photography as a profession to pursue, but we were just a bunch of young kids having fun with our cameras.
When I was around 15 I got my first SLR. During a summer job at an aluminum plant some years later, I brought my camera along and shot inside the dirty old plant. It ended up as a major article in one of the national Norwegian papers. By then I was studying biology at the University of Bergen, and some of my peers who were working for the student paper, picked up the story and asked me if I would be interested in shooting for the same student paper. That’s when my interest in photography got funneled into photojournalism.
Finally after my bachelor degree I made the switch to become a freelance photographer. I worked for maybe 6 to 8 years, when I decided to apply for the one year documentary and photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. I was accepted and attended the program in 1989-90.
JRP: Could you name a couple of photographers whose work has inspired you and helped define your approach to the type of work you do?
Otto von Münchow: There is really a lot. It started out with Ansel Adams, back in the days when my interests were in nature and wildlife photography. But already back then I was hugely influenced by W. Eugene Smith, too. When I finally attended ICP a whole world of photography opened up for me. Just to name a few: Gilles Peress, Josef Koudelka, Danny Lyon and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson. Of the more contemporary photographers I truly admire photographers like David Alan Harvey, David duChemin and the young Jonas Bendiksen.
Nowadays I also try to open my mind to fields other than photojournalism, and enjoy the work of for instance of Nan Goldin, Ryan McGinley, and Francesca Woodman. As I said the list is never-ending and I buy a lot of photo books from various photographers. It just gives me great pleasure to look at other people’s work.
JRP: What would we find in your camera bag for a typical assignment shoot?
Otto von Münchow: I tend to go small on the equipment. The older I have become in this game the less interested in the technical part of photography I have become. On a typical job I would bring my Eos 5D mark II (soon to become mark III), a 16-35 mm and a 24-105 mm. That’s it. Well, I always carry a Lumix LX-3 on my hip (which I am considering to update to the LX-7) as well. Depending on the kind of job, for instance covering a press conference or shooting in a national park, I could bring a 70-200 or a 100-400 in addition. And if I am shooting on the street, my favorite camera is Fujifilm X10.
JRP: Is there a lens that you tend to favor and why?
Otto von Münchow: Generally I favor wide-angle lenses. What I do best and what I most like to do is shoot people in their natural environment. I like to get close, I mean really close, which automatically forces me to use wider angels. For me the interaction with people I photograph is important. At some point my favorite lens was the 17 mm (before the 17-35 became 16-35), but after a while I had to accept that when you shoot close-ups of people with a 17 mm lens it’s really hard to avoid distortions. So today I am more in the range of 24-28 mm. Besides the fact that wide-angle lenses forces me to close up on people, I also like to capture them in their environment and for that the wide angle lenses are just perfect.
JRP: A visit to your website shows some excellent color files. Would you please describe your digital work flow and the software you use?
Otto von Münchow: First of all I shoot exclusively in RAW. There is just so much more information you can work on compared to shooting in JPEG. Back in the days of films and analogue shooting, I would use a lot of flash to compensate for harsh light or deep shadows, or lack of light for that matter. With digital imagery and using RAW you can just pick up all the details you need in Lightroom and Photoshop.
And here I disclosed two major tools in my workflow. After a job I important all the pictures, rename them and convert them to DNG-files in Lightroom. Then I caption and keyword them and finally edit down the batch to the few selected ones. This I usually do while still on the road. The A-takes are then adjusted in Lightroom (in the Develop-module) either back at the office or on the road if I need to send the pictures away as soon as possible. A lot of times that’s enough, I don’t have to do anything more. Other times I will then continue processing them in Photoshop. The fact is that any picture I can make better in Photoshop, but it’s also a matter of how much time you can or are willing to spend on a certain job. If the improvements are only marginal I will stop the post-processing in Lightroom.
Lightroom is also the software I use for my archive. I really like the idea of having one singular software for the whole workflow – and even though I use Photoshop in addition, it’s well integrated with Lightroom.
JRP: Do you make use of a lot of custom white balances when you shoot?
Otto von Münchow: I never even think about white balance when I shoot. That’s one of the beauties of RAW. It simply doesn’t matter.
JRP: Do you prefer working with artificial or available light? What are your most often used light modifiers and why?
Otto von Münchow: As I said I used to work a lot with flash, and I was really good with the hand-held or shoe mounted flash (I guess I still am, but I hardly use that skill any more). Nowadays 99 per cent of my work is with available light. I like the natural feeling it creates. As a photographer you just have to be more aware of the quality of the natural light and take advantage or whatever form and shape it comes in. If I use any modifier these days, it’s mostly a shoe mounted flash.
JRP: Image printing, how do you handle that?
Otto von Münchow: Don’t ask me that, because then I have to tell you I don’t print. It’s a little embarrassing because I believe photos should best be viewed as beautiful prints on a wall. But since I work with publications that only want digital files, I never have to and never take the time to really print my work. Yes I do think about having my work showcased in galleries which means I need to get around to printing it myself or getting some else to print for me. I haven’t had time to pursue exhibiting my work , but one day…
JRP: What is the most critical moment in the capture of your images?
Otto von Münchow: It’s the actual moment of capture, when you are face to face with the subject and the situation. When you need to react without thinking to those small changes that makes an OK photo a really good photo and at the same time be able to frame and compose the chaos in front of you.
For me it’s all about getting into what I call “the creative tunnel“, where it’s only me, my photography and what is going on in front of the camera that matters. Being completely in the moment and being completely absorbed by the event you are photographing. For me this is such an intuitive state of mind, so much that I know when I am actually thinking about how to get a better picture out of this situation, I will not get it. As Cartier-Bresson once said, “thinking you do before and after, not in the moment of shooting.”
JRP: Name a shoot or project that opened your eyes to the distance you’ve come as an artist.
Otto von Münchow: This “creative tunnel” I just talked about I first discovered back when I was studying at ICP. I was shooting the Chinese New Year celebration, and went around in Chinatown almost completely unconscious or in a coma, and got spat out of this tunnel four or five hours later completely exhausted, but knowing with myself that I had captured something really strong and different compared to anything I had done before – without knowing or remembering any single frame of the shoot.
A more recent project I shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Me and a writer were following two siblings that for two years had been away from their parents as a result of the ongoing war in the region. They had stayed most of the time in a refugee camp in Goma and been temporarily adopted by another refugee couple there. By the time we got there, the International Red Cross had located the parents who obviously then were still alive, and they arranged for re-uniting the family. We went along with Red Cross, the brother and sister. Five hours on bad dirt roads to a small village where the parents had been told to go to as well (they had to walk about the same amount time to get to this village because there weren’t any roads to their village). The moment of re-uniting of the family was one of the most intense moments I have ever experienced. Really touching, and all while this was happening I was again shooting in this “tunnel“, and again knowing after-wards with myself that I had really gotten some excellent shots. The big difference between the two examples is that in the latter I was more open to the emotional side of the story including my own emotions. This made it so strong photographically speaking than the former.
Today I know you have to invest yourself emotionally in the shooting process if you want to capture pictures that will be interesting to others as well.
JRP: With today’s economy what changes are driving the photojournalism market place and how have you adjusted?
Otto von Münchow: The fact is I have not really been affected much yet. I guess I have been lucky. But it is also a fact that conditions for photojournalism is deteriorating, although I think it’s only temporarily doing so. I think there will always be a need for well done journalism, including photography, but with today’s technological development paired with the economic changes, it’s a matter of finding the right platform to be able to make money in support of quality journalism. At the present time for photographers it means you have to be diverse, you need to be able to work with various platforms, be able to shoot video, make multimedia productions, etc. It’s a bit scary, but if you turn it around it is giving photographers a whole range of new and exciting ways to work. It has opened up a lot of possibilities.
JRP: If not photography what would Otto von Münchow be doing with his time?
Otto von Münchow: I would still be shooting but then I would go skiing, kayaking, hiking. I would travel. I would spend time with my kids. I would read books. I would write books. I would attend concerts. I would watch movies. I would do all this.
JRP: What advice would you like to share with photographers starting out?
Otto von Münchow: Two things: Nothing comes easy in this business, not even with talent. You have to be prepared to work your hours, I mean really work. Secondly all photographers need to work on personal projects. It’s those personal projects that you showcase in your portfolio that is going to bring home future jobs. You might not get to shoot the same kind of photos, but it’s the way to bring attention to your photography.
JRP: Thank you Otto for sharing your thoughts and images with us. It has been a real pleasure talking with you. We wish you continued success.
Otto von Münchow: Thank you, James, it’s been a pleasure.
JRP: To view more of Otto von Münchow’s photography please follow these links: