Thomas Ekstrom, who now resides in Oslo, Norway, was born & raised in Finland. In 2005, Thomas moved to the UK to study photography at the University for the Creative Arts, where he met his Norwegian wife. After graduating, the couple chose to stay in London, hoping to break into the photography market there. Unfortunately, the credit crunch hit London hard, and the couple had a rough time finding work as a pair of fresh freelancers. They chose to move to Oslo, which had fared much better economically, and Thomas found work assisting photographer Kimm Saatvedt. For 2 years, Thomas worked under Kimm, taking on his own personal assignments whenever possible. Requests for his solo work became more & more frequent, and for the last year, Thomas has been operating on his own as a freelance photographer. “The past 6 months have been extremely busy; so, I’m really looking forward to the coming years. Having a steady increase in work, getting my foot in with a couple of international publications and some decent exposure, such as the cover on Monocle, has been a very helpful boost in knowing that I’ve made some decent career decisions.”
Ekstrom’s talent for capturing engaging and down to earth photographs in a uniquely documentary way, made him Monocle’s photographer of choice for an article in their 56th issue. The piece, on the Norwegian Army’s officer training school, was a good fit for Thomas’ style of shooting. “I like to work both fast & spontaneously and just let things unfold in front of me, but I also like to have some control over my subjects. I often pose people for portraits much like a portrait or fashion photographer would do.”
View the striking sincerity and emotion in the faces he captured and read on to learn more about Ekstrom’s experience photographing officers in training. Thomas used VSCO Film™ to process these images.
I had worked with Monocle on a few assignments before, and they contacted me about doing a large 7 page story about the Norwegian Army’s officer training for their #56 ‘Defence’ issue. I flew down to Kristiansand, in the very south of Norway, and spent about 13-14 hours out in the forest with this group of people. They were in the middle of ‘hell-week,’ where they sleep out in the forest, only for 2-3 hours a night, carry rucksacks weighing almost half their bodyweight and go through both physical and mental trials. I think this was the 5th day; so, they were pretty exhausted and didn’t care about me being there whatsoever. This really allowed me to capture some unfiltered emotions.
How long did the aspiring recruits spend in the field? What did your schedule photographing them look like?
The whole programme lasts 3 weeks, and this particular group we were following went on for a total of 7 days in the forest during ‘hell-week’, but they never knew when the last day would be. They were actually told they were only halfway, when in truth, it was the day before the last. This was just to see who could push themselves to go on or who would drop out. Me and the journalist worked basically from first light until it got dark, which is quite long here in the summertime. I was pretty tired at the end of that day, so I gained a fair bit of respect for these young men and women who managed to push themselves that far.
I always try to capture a feeling or mood that will work as a sort of glue between the photographs. All that determination I saw was really fascinating, especially when you constantly could see the hints of doubt and fatigue in their faces. I didn’t see anyone who just gave up on the spot, even though I expected it to happen on several occasions.
I shot 6 portraits of 6 different recruits what were meant to be used in a grid in the magazine. At the point of shooting, I hardly gave them any directions, I just showed them how to stand and told them to just look at me and be themselves. It turned out to be very effective, and I found it’s really interesting to look at their faces and see all kinds of different emotions, exhaustion and determination. One of those shots is the one that ended up on the cover.
In reading the article in “Monocle” magazine it was emphasized that commanding officers were looking more for intelligence and endurance, rather than brawn, in their would be recruits. How were you inspired by the men and women who faced these challenges?
I haven’t been in the army myself; so, it was a pretty new environment for me to be in. I suppose I had some pre-conceived notions of what kind of environment I’d be shooting in, but everyone turned out to be very helpful and welcoming. I wouldn’t say I got any ideas of joining the army myself, but I certainly would have enjoyed spending some more time there. I’ve actually been thinking about doing some personal work within the army in my own time; so, I was really happy when I got this opportunity. I think there’s something very interesting about these young men and women, who are on the verge of being adults, but still being required to act and behave very responsibly.
I got notified that a scene was being arranged; so, I was prepared for it to happen. The recruits, however, had only received an order to set up tents in this clearing in the forest. Suddenly, you heard shots being fired and about half a dozen people or more came running out of the forest, bleeding and in shock. I got very surprised at how in character the actors were. It was extremely believable. They were crying, screaming and fighting for real, which really set the mood for everyone involved. Limbs had apparently been broken in these mock war zones at previous occasions. Even though I was notified beforehand, I noticed my pulse increased quite heavily, and it almost felt wrong to walk around like ‘normal’ and photograph what was unfolding when everybody else was screaming, wrestling people to the ground and trying to calm them down to tend their wounds. I remember thinking, “So this is how it feels to be a war photographer,” even though I knew it wasn’t the same, and I was perfectly safe. But the mood and the sound of gunfire really affected my behavior.
I do a pretty rough first selection that I then send over to the photo editors at Monocle. They then send me their final edit so that I can do post-production on them before sending in the final images. It can be pretty hard to get your own views and ideas to match that of the photo editors, but luckily Monocle and I seem to have a good understanding of each other. I’m usually very happy with how they select and
set up my images. I bought VSCO Film a couple of months prior to this shoot and had been testing it out quite extensively. I played around with a couple of different presets, and then made a custom one that I applied and fine tuned to all the photos. VSCO Film fits my style perfectly since I really enjoy the look and feel of film, but film just isn’t as practical when I have a pretty tight brief and limited time to work with. I constantly have to go back and double-check my shots out in the field so that I know I’ve covered the brief as best as I can. Ever since I bought VSCO FIlm, I’ve used it as a starting point for almost all my recent work. It can be pretty addictive.