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“We See Less Even Though We See More”: Erik Östensson On Our Societal Consumption Of Images

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Erik Östensson grew up in northern Sweden, in the countryside outside the city of Umeå. Having spent much of his early years outside in nature; it was during this period that he started taking photos.

“There, nature is always close,” he tells us, speaking from his home in Oslo, Norway. “I was often lonely during high school and the family dog was my closest friend. ​​So we walked in the woods together. Over the years the reasons why I photograph has changed many times, but at that time, it was the beauty of nature that interested me.” Östensson has released his third photo book, Untitled, which is composed of staged images of objects in nature, still lifes, and body parts, revealing a curious emotional synergy between people, places, and possessions. His imagery encourages the viewer to dispose of their preconceived notions of how to view the world, and instead look at it afresh with the eyes of a child, where the meaning of known objects and landscapes can be challenged. We spoke to the photographer briefly about Untitled, his creative process, and the pitfalls of over-consuming images.

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How would you characterize the imagery in your new photo book, Untitled?

When people ask me what kind of pictures I do, I usually tell them I do still lifes. Then they understand that I do not capture images in the moment, but rather, create images that I photograph. My motives often consist of capturing everyday objects and parts of the body that we all look at all the time—the closer, the better. Hands are a great example of this, so that is why they are one of the most frequent motifs in the new book.

The publication deals with themes of perception and meaning with regard to our relationship with objects and nature. What intrigues you about this intersection?

We consume and have access to more pictures than ever before, but I wonder if this hinders us from actually looking at the pictures. In a way we see less even though we see more. In my latest work I want to encourage the viewer to do the opposite. I believe looking at something carefully and for a long time creates the opportunity to see something anew. The object will then connect stronger to the viewer and the contact with our surroundings will change.

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What part of the creative process do you enjoy most, and what do you find most challenging?

I use a lot of time to create pictures—first, an inner picture comes to me. It’s usually very unclear at this stage, but often I have seen, heard, or read something that created the inner image. To prevent myself from losing the picture, I describe it with words. The texts often consist of one or a few sentences. The words help me remembering the picture, and the picture can exist as text for a long time. From time to time I read the texts to see if any picture has become any clearer. It can take months or even years before I manage to create conditions for the image to take physical shape. When I finally create the picture though, I rarely know if I’ve succeeded. It has to linger for a while. During this time, I work with the image digitally to see if I can find the right expression.

Sometimes I realize that it did not turn out as I wanted. Then the process starts all over again. Some pictures in the book needed many attempts before I succeeded—in some cases I have worked with a single image for years. The pictures eventually become acquaintances that I spent a lot of time with and know well. So truthfully I enjoy all stages of making photography, but they can certainly be challenging at the same time.

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Untitled is published by Kehrer Verlag. For more information, click here.

All images © Erik Östensson