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Interview: Photojournalist Thomas Nilsson

Thomas grew up in the seventies and eighties in a suburb to Stockholm. At one point he found his dad's old Instamatic camera in the attic and had a lot of fun taking pictures of his brother skateboarding. That led him to buying his first SLR Camera when he was 15. At the same time he also built a simple darkroom in a walk in closet at their home. He was hooked. After 9th grade he managed to get in to a photo school where he graduated in 1985. by then he started to freelance as a photographer in Stockholm. At first for the local paper and also for a photo agency covering horse racing. He slowly expanded his network.

In 1997, after 12 years of freelancing in Stockholm, he felt that he wanted to try something new and decided to move to New York. His plan was to stay for a couple of years, since he went there without any guarantees for work. Twenty years later he still working in New York, Since 2002, he has been the U.S. photographer for the Norwegian daily newspaper Verdens Gang, covering news and feature stories across the United States and Latin America.

Thomas in the Oval Office at the White House. He is sitting all the way to the right, in front of the table. Photo: Daniel Sannum Lauten

What made you want to be a photographer?

To be honest, in the beginning I think it was because it seemed like a cool job involving fancy cameras and famous people. But pretty soon I became interested in the power of photography from an esthetic and emotional point of view. I remember in my early teens going to an exhibition with the legendary Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm and it blew my mind. His raw documentary style portraits and street photography made me realize that photography can be so much more than sunsets and glamour shots.

What inspires you?

The short answer would be: Life. There are so many intriguing stories to tell, so many interesting people to describe. Sometimes it might even be something as simple as how the light falls a certain way, making a familiar place look all different. When it comes to photographers that inspire me, I tend to go back in time. To mention a few: Robert Frank, Gene Smith, Elliott Erwitt, William Klein and Henri Cartier-Bresson of course plus previously mentioned Strömholm.

There are also right now many hard working talented photojournalists, not least in Sweden and Norway, out there doing amazing and important work, inspiring me every day to become better.

Bruce Springsteens lyrics have inspired me tremendously from a young age. The way many of his songs are like compressed movie scripts. It also came to influence the way I see the United States to this day. It also made sense when I recently read that he has several copies of Robert Frank's photo book "The Americans" laying around in his house to look in for inspiration when he’s writing songs.

A couple of Swedish writers that I read in my early teens that influenced me a lot are Hjalmar Söderberg (1869 - 1941) and Per Anders Fogelström (1917 - 1998). The first writing about unhappy love, existential ruminations and moral dilemmas in 19th century Stockholm’s upper classes. Painting pictures of melancholy and beauty with his words. Fogelström was more for realism and often described the hardships of Stockholm’s poor downtrodden population, people being to busy trying to survive to ponder existential questions. They might not have been photographers but they still thought me how to to tell stories.

I also have to mention the punk music movement that came about in the late seventies. I was only about 10-11 years at the time but my friend's big sisters had the records and we listened to them when she wasn’t home. There were no more listening to Kiss or Abba for me from that moment on. The core message coming from punk was that you can become anyone you want to no matter what others tell you. This is something I’ve always carried with me and something I believe helped me a lot in life, especially in the beginning when becoming a photographer seemed like an unrealistic and out of reach dream.

You have been the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang’s photographer in New York for the last 15 years. What is it like being a photographer from a foreign media outlet covering stories in the US?

A lot of times I feel it’s an advantage, people get curious and often very helpful when they hear that you are from a small country far away. Surprisingly many have some kind of connection to either Sweden or Norway. Often there is some great grandfather etc. that moved here hundred years ago and even if they never been in Scandinavia or speak the language many of the ancestors still identify themselves as Swedish or Norwegian and therefor becomes extra helpful to us.

When you are covering big news events, like Presidential campaigns for example, it of course often makes it a little bit harder to represent a foreign media outlet since the large American news organizations are obviously going to get better access, but for me that is also an inspiring challenge to try to find my own ways to still produce good journalistic pictures. During the last election there were a period of 2-3 months during the primaries when it was impossible for foreign media to get credentials to Donald Trump’s events, they claimed it was because a too great of a demand from media and that there were space limitations. Instead we went in with the audiences at several events. Trying to blend in, I only brought one camera body with a 24-70 lens. I’m of course used to carry more equipment so you would think that this would have felt like a limitation but instead it was liberating working with only one camera and one lens. It also brought me to areas of the venues I wouldn’t have had access to had I been with the media who for most of the time were restricted to an area in the back of the room. At one event in Las Vegas where I went in as audience I ended up taking the picture of Donald Trump (below) for which I was awarded a prize in the Norwegian Picture of the Year competition earlier this year.

You travel throughout the United States for work, often on a short notice when there is a news story breaking. How do you work that into your daily life?

When you are in the middle of a nice dinner with good friends and you have to scramble to get out to the airport ASAP to cover some breaking news story it doesn’t always feel that great at the moment but it's a passing feeling, because when you are on the plane there is nowhere else you want to be at that moment than on your way to the next big story. However it isn’t so often that we have to jump on the next plane like that. On average it doesn’t happen more than a handfull times in year. But you never know when so you always live with knowledge that the phone can ring at any point. This is a certain kind of stress, but you get used to it.

Even if it’s not breaking news, I often travel on relatively short notice. Verdens Gang's correspondent and I usually have several different stories in the pipeline and a very common scenario is that we on Thursday or Friday decide where we will travel the next week. We usually fly out late Sunday evening or very early Monday morning and then we are often out on the road 3-4 days doing several stories before heading back to New York.

You get used to the traveling. It’s always a nice feeling to get back home but then I get restless to get back out if I don’t travel for a while.

That said, we do have a new situation at home now since my wife Roseann and I got our first child earlier this year, in January. But I do think it will work out ok. My wife is also a freelance photographer who works mostly in the New York area, so we both have flexible schedules. When I’m in New York I’m at home a lot so regardless of all the travel I think I will spend at least as much time, if not more, with our son as I would have done if working in an office.

How do you approach your assignments. How do you keep it fresh?

I’ve been traveling quite extensively for the past 20 years and and I guess all the time spent at airports and in airplanes could have worn me down but I’m pretty ok with it. I’ve just decided that I’m not going to let all the frustrations that are common, like delayed or canceled flights, long security lines etc, affect me. It works in 90% of the cases. And I still very much like meeting people from all walks of life telling their stories. My job have taken me to the White House, to high security prisons and to everything in-between. These encounters are something I carry with me long after the pictures have been published and forgotten and it’s something that have educated me and developed me a lot as a person.

Taking the best pictures possible, pictures that tells the story at hand, is of course the most important thing on my assignments and I think one way to do that is to read up on the story beforehand. The more you know the better. When it comes to photographic style I try to stay consistent to my style and not change to much with new trends. My approach is to not overdo the technical aspect and to not “insert my self” to much, but to let the subjects and the story be the most important part of my pictures.

What’s your advice to your younger self?

Believe in yourself and don’t give up. Be humble. Listen, observe and read. Work hard and have fun. And also, don’t buy that used SAAB 900! Trust me on this one..

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