Interview, Nicola Odemann -
The Existential Experiencer
Nicola! Growing up so close to the mountains, were you always pulled to explore, and be nourished by the mountains, like a mother?
I did, yes. The mountains, the lakes, and the forests have always been there like an extended backyard and spending time outdoors has always been one of my favorite things to do with my family or friends. But while I mostly spent time in the outdoors because it was fun when I was younger, I grew a deeper connection to nature when I got older. Everything seemed to make more sense in nature. I tend to overcomplicate things and being in nature somehow strips away all of the unnecessary thoughts and expectations I’m surrounded by in the city. It doesn’t feel like I’m being nourished by the mountains like a mother so much but the mountains are rather my refuge – a place where can I withdraw within myself and charge again.
..and did that allow you to become a more sensitive being?
Definitely. The experiences I have made in the mountains are a part of me and accompany me through all of my encounters every day. The simpleness I’m surrounded by when hiking a mountain is always present in my mind and serves as a good reminder whenever I feel overwhelmed by whatever trigger. In the mountains, I recognized my own (and human’s in general) insignificance and once I accepted this insignificance I realized my real significance. What might sound contradictory at first is one of the most important revelations I have ever learned because once you accept that you are merely a guest on this planet, your life gains a whole different meaning. The ongoing seek for the purpose of life fades into the background and enables you to concentrate on life itself. And maybe that is enough, maybe life itself is the purpose and for me, that is enough. We’re being part of something bigger than us, but we are a part of it and isn’t that enough purpose and motivation to try to live the best life we can?
While you are exploring the outer world, were you surprised that your inner world was simultaneously becoming explored? As your insights got deeper?
I feel like I’ve mostly answered this question in the previous one but yes, definitely, although it wasn’t really a surprise. More like a clarification. This is also reflected in my photos I think. While they depict nature and people in nature and all that, for me, they predominately depict my feelings. The way I think and feel influences the way I see nature and what I see in nature influences the way I think. It’s a circle and it continues to go round.
..and simultaneously, another experience is to be immersed in the deepening silence of the mountains, a state of solitude. Do you now feel that solitude within yourself - regardless of where you are? or you always need the mountains for that?
I feel like that state of solitude has always been a part of who I am even before I was drawn to the mountains. But it is in the mountains where this part feels home, where that solitude is becoming company instead of this yearning feeling that often consumes me when being away from the mountains for too long. The mountains have definitely taught me a lot about myself and this state of solitude, as you call it, has definitely been a part of it. But I can only evoke that solitude within myself to some extent. To merge with it fully, I just feel the grass under my feet, hear the silence of the walls and see the peaks and clouds form a perfect symmetry.
Are there any stories of your encounters with nature - which brought out the poetry in you?
It might sound strange, but in some way, I had to lose the poetic view I had for nature in order to find the real poetry in nature and myself. When I was in Nepal some years ago, we did several week hikes through the Himalaya. We went really high where the oxygen was low and it was then that I realized the boundaries of nature. It was funny because before that trip I had always regarded nature as the ultimate platform to live out one’s freedom. It was a really romantic view of it but when I experienced this wilderness in all of its elements I realized that there is no place for romanticism in nature. The wilderness is real, and so are the dangers. And as a human, you are never actually free in nature because its boundaries keep you in a set place. Some people try to exceed these boundaries and some succeed but many also die. I think that you fully have to subject to nature in order to be able to succeed in it. The mountains have always been there and will be there long after we die and while it is totally normal and good even to regard nature in a poetic and often romantic way we must never forget the whole extent and force it is.
I was reading a description of one of the photographs you posted, in which you were talking about the rain now allowing you to photograph much, and how that made you angry. Don’t you think a camera falsifies the experience, distracting you away from the moment - when you have the vastness and the beauty of nature in front of you? Do you take moments without your camera, to fall in sync or become one with existence?
In the caption you are referring to I am talking about a day of a recent trip to Iceland. We were on a three-day hike and on the last day of the hike, which was supposed to be the most beautiful one, it was raining and snowing nonstop and the slippery path made it quite difficult to concentrate on anything else than the road ahead of us. And although I felt angry at the time, when I thought about this day later at home I realized that this way my favorite memory from the whole trip actually. Sometimes the best moments are only realized as such when looking at them afterward.
But I do not think that taking a photo of the moment falisifies the experience. On the contrary, actually. To be able to freeze a certain moment and feeling on film enables me to make that moment infinite. Without the photo, the moment will become only a memory and unfortunately, one day, the memory will fade due to the thousand new memories we make throughout life. But to have that moment on film and to be able to go back to that feeling when looking at the photo somehow makes the memory caught on film more real than the one that only lives in my head.
And for me, that is calming to know. I love the feeling that the experience doesn’t just fade but that it is prolonged through the film. And it only takes two seconds to take a photo, so it is not really a distraction in the moment but rather an enabler to enjoy the moment fully because the feeling it evokes, will never fade due to the photograph it entails.
Now that brings us closer to your creative process. Can you tell us more about how you experiment with film, compose your photographs? Basically, everything that goes into your photographs!
As I try to capture moments and feelings in my photos, I don’t really plan or compose a lot. I mostly just take a photo of something that means something to me when I’m out exploring. I then have the photos developed and scanned and when I’m looking at the photos afterward, I’m often overwhelmed by some sense of yearning for that moment, that feeling. I then sometimes slightly post-process the photo on a computer to give that feeling some space. By doing that I’m trying to combine the wonder of the moment when I took the photo with the amount of nostalgia I feel when looking at the photo afterward. By combining both the past and the present, the photo becomes truly infinite to me.
In a lot of your work, there’s nature and there’s only one person in the frame. How symbolic is that to you?
It’s very symbolic since, for me, it represents the human desire to embrace nature but also the insignificance that we as humans feel (or have?) when compared to the magnitude of nature. This ongoing thought of mine I talked earlier about, about the human purpose in this world is thus also depicted in my photos.
..and how comfortable are you with aloneness?
I’m very comfortable being alone, actually. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family and friends and spending time with them is the best thing there can be. But when I’m alone there’s some sense of clarity that I don’t get when I’m in a company. I think that when you’re alone, you truly learn who you are. There is nothing to distract you from yourself and that provides the opportunity to pay attention to the thoughts that are accumulating in your head. I think that nowadays many people don’t often take the time to really listen what they want and what they think of things. There is an overwhelming amount of information and stories out there and it is easy to lose yourself in them. For me, I have to be alone in order to find out what my story is and where it is headed and while I agree that it can be a scary process, there is also nothing more worthwhile.
Lastly, what would you suggest or share with other photographers? and could you share with us your favorite poem?
I can only say that the best photos are the ones that make you feel something and the more you feel for your own photos, the more it will evoke in its spectators.
My favorite poem is by Laura Gilpin and it is called ‘Two-Headed Calf’
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
Interview with Nicola Odemann