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Travel, documentary and landscape category winner Kristofer Dan-Bergman on combining personal projects with assignments successfully

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Today we share the story of New York-based Swedish photographer Kristofer Dan-Bergman – the winner of the Spotlight Awards for Photographic Excellence Travel, Documentary and Landscape category.

‘Evidence of Resilience’ by Kristofer Dan-Bergman | Travel, Documentary and Landscape Category Winning Image – Spotlight Awards 2018

Production Paradise: Tell us about the winning image: the idea behind it, how was it shot?

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: The photo is just one in a series of 40-50 portraits depicting the inhabitants of 15 villages in Eastern Africa (Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda). I met the founder of the Spark Micro Grants NGO at a convention hosted by Global Good Fund (GGF) that I helped out with documenting their work -leadership and fundraising development for smaller NGOs- and I took a liking to Spark’s approach in helping these villages. I spoke to GGF, who helped me get in contact with Spark. The agreement was that I was going to document their work in the villages with stills and video as long as I could do my personal project with these portraits.

I didn’t have much time to shoot my personal project on this trip, so I had to be very quick in my decisions regarding where and how I was going to shoot it. Usually what happened was that as we approached the village on a tiny little road or path, I looked around quickly and decided on a spot right away, no time for second-guessing. Then I would unload my two backpacks (one with cameras and one with the lights), set up the lights one to the left, one to the right. I then I would ask a person to bring in anyone from the village to come by and stand in front of the camera… it took probably about 5-6 quick shots of each person (to vary it I had them sit on a chair in one village or sit on the ground, etc). I had a soft box and umbrellas with me but realised quickly I couldn’t use them, because the sun was too strong at the time we were visiting the villages, so I had to shoot with bare bulbs with a little plastic diffusion on them. I knew it would work because of the dark skin color, had it been white skin color it would not have worked so well.

In terms of a successful project and the circumstances around it, the ‘Evidence of Recilence’ series is my biggest professional achievement. I decided to be as ambitious as I could possibly be without having any assistants with me. I carried two backpacks full of equipment in the countryside for a month and was able to carry out not only my own project but also the NGO’s without losing focus or energy. Suffice to say I ‘crashed’ when I got back but with a smile on my face… I accomplished what I set out to do and I didn’t lose one single item.

Kristofer Dan-Bergman

Production Paradise:  How would you describe your style?

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: My style is probably pretty spontaneous. I have learned over the years to approach a shoot with an initial idea but to be open to quick changes especially when it comes to location shoots. When one photographs people you have to be very flexible to be able to get the best out of everyone and at the same time to make sure you get what you set out to do.  If we are talking commercial shoots you usually have a very set idea to translate into an image, however, the mental preparation beforehand is key. I always go through different scenarios in my head, to do as much as I can to be prepared. Also in commercial shoots, the first hour is the most crucial for everybody but especially between me and the agency and client, if they feel confident in what is going on they step back and relax and I can work better with the models and the crew. This way I can also be spontaneous. If time permits I will always give the client a few extra options that they might not have thought about (of course I would have spoken to the agency first about this) and believe it or not, many times that is what they finally use.

Production Paradise: How did you end up behind the lens? Tell us about your career path. 

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: I took a darkroom course at ICP on weekends (darkroom 101) and when I developed my first photograph in the tray I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I showed my photos to an ICP teacher for admittance to a course but he said I shouldn’t take the course but instead come to him with my new work every now and then and show him my progress… and here I am many moons later.

I was also brought up on a theater with both my parents actors and my first 15 years my father ran his own theater… if that had any influence I don’t know but I am sure it played some role.

Production Paradise: What do you think is necessary to become a successful commercial photographer?

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: Well first you have to believe in yourself as a photographer and have a passion and curiosity for what you are doing then you have to realise that this is a business too. There are many aspects to being a successful commercial photographer than just taking great pictures. You have to be organised, you have to have people skills, you have to have leadership skills, you have to be able to work in a team, solve problems, manage crises.…. To get the business you first have to have a great portfolio and then an agent or representative that understands you and one that you understand (this is teamwork and the incentives for both of you could be very different).

One crucial thing to accomplish a job well done is to have a great crew that you can trust, from assistants to stylists, hair and make-up and producer. This is teamwork with you as the leader. Making sure that the communication during a shoot goes in the right directions, meaning the agency speaks to you and you speak to your crew etc. otherwise, it can become very chaotic. So with that said, organisational skills are a very good asset to have as well.

Kristofer Dan-Bergman

ProductionParadise: We believe you are not resting on your laurels – what are you working on now?

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: Right now I am working on two personal projects, one I call ‘Raging Mother’ which is the power of the ocean and doesn’t yet have any people in it but only water and sky. The other one I call ’stiLife’, which is a continuous exploration of time/space and consciousness. My framework for this is a blank painting canvas and I am shooting it on a specific location. I also have an ongoing project I call ‘LESwalk’, which is about the rapidly changing Lower East Side in Manhattan, an area that was predominantly inhabited by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Chinese and Jews but is now being taken over by the whites, hipsters, business people, tourists… I am planning to make this into a coffee table book. All the shots are of people walking past a specific wall that will be gone after March 2019.

Production Paradise: The Spotlight awards had a judge’s panel composed of potential clients for commercial photographers – did that influence your choice of image(s) selected for your entry? 

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: Honestly no. The image I choose I personally liked a lot, not only because they way it looked, but because of my experience  photographing this old man; he had such enormous presence and we connected so deeply, even though we didn’t say a word to each other. I did, however, think that the image also could be thought of as commercial because it is so straightforward. Also, it could be ideal for some creatives for annual reports, or for global companies.

ProductionParadise: What made you want to participate in these Awards? 

Kristofer Dan-Bergman: The panel looked very impressive and in any case they would see my image and hopefully get some impression from it. To win is anybody’s guess – it is about personal taste so you can’t predict the outcome, but the hope is always there, so to win would obviously give me a lot of exposure and recognition.

I have followed Production Paradise for a long time and I am very impressed by you and your focus and I am very happy and honored to have been chosen as the winner in the Documentary & Travel category. It is a real honor to win among such high caliber group of photographers and photographs and I am especially happy to win with series, since it has a serious message behind it. Hopefully people that see the photograph will look into the geographical area to see the hardship these people have gone through, and still are.

We would like to thank Kristofer for his time to do this interview and invite you to see more of his work on Production Paradise and Kristofer’s website.

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