A spiritual experience at the Trinità dei Monti, a church by Rome's Spanish Steps, came to define Nils Thune's photography career
“I was driving in my car, searching for something to photograph, when I saw his home at the end of a gravel pat,” says Norwegian photographer Nils Thune.
“It looks similar to my farm, which my parents lived in before me and was built in 1845. I thought no one lived there, it looked deserted. The key was in the door. I knocked and Ola was sitting in the kitchen.”
Thune is speaking about how Ola Haugen began, a book that documents the life of an eponymous 73-year-old man who exists in rural isolation in the heart of protected Nordic mountains in the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park.
Thune began photographing seriously at the age of 47 – in September 2010 – when he decided to take his first three-day workshop with the director of Nordic Light festival, Morten Krogvold. This was the first step to becoming the director’s choice photographer at this year’s festival in April.
The 44 photographs that comprise the book are accompanied by captions, in Norwegian and English, with snippets of information about the subject’s life: “Ola eats dinner around four” and “The privy in the barn is still in use”. These unironic facts, printed in the centre of their own white page, drive home the sheer simplicity of Ola’s daily routine.
Brought up in Norway, Thune became interested in photography while in secondary school. He had a dark room in his parents’ house, but he only considers this dabbling. He then did a PhD in computer science at the Norwegian Institute of Technology from 1987 to 1991, and now works as a computer engineer near Oslo.
“I work 40 hours a week behind a computer screen,” he says. “I’m not able to photograph after work or on weekends. To focus on photography I have to plan, travel by myself, and turn off my iPhone.”
When his two sons had left home, he was able to re-engage with photography. While reading the newspaper on the train to work, he saw an advertisement for one of Morten Krogvold’s workshops taking place in Vang village, in the Valdres region where he spends half his time.
Krogvold asked the attendees to bring five pictures each. Thune brought “tourist photos” – sunsets, woods, reflections. “The photographs were totally slaughtered. Morten said: ‘These are crap, I don’t understand why you have even shown them to me because they are a waste of time.’ I immediately understood that the art of photography was about something completely different.”
The workshop taught him two core things. “You need a project you can really dig into – something that really touches you. You also need to photograph people, which I had not done before. Communication makes you get into the photographic process in a completely different way.”
His next major turning point was at his second ‘slaughtering’, during his second workshop six months later in Rome. Thune showed some experimental images with an unnatural colour range. Krogvold asked if he had a problem with his printer.
But while climbing the Spanish Steps at 6am on the same trip, Thune had an experience that would come to define his photography.
“I was trying to photograph the architecture of Rome by night. Above the steps there is a church [Trinità dei Monti] and I thought: ‘Why not photograph the architecture from inside? I entered the church. It was completely silent. I saw several monks and nuns in prayer. I sat there, watching these people lead a completely different life to mine, when they suddenly stood up and started singing. That blew me away.”
Since then, Thune has documented five monasteries in locations including Normandy, Tuscany and Montreal. These collectively contribute to his Rule of Life series. He is, in part, attracted to the religious devotees by their abstract distance from his own technology-dependant reality.
“They live a very quiet life, but still with the city surrounding them. It inspired me to compose simple, understandable photos,” he says.
Thune gained Ola’s trust by spending time with him – arriving at 6am when he wakes up, drinking coffee and having breakfast with him, before going about his day with him. He has spent three weeks every year with Ola since meeting him in 2011, and is considering staying with him this summer.
To simplify his photographing, with his Leica M9 and 28mm lens (usually), Thune has rules. Always use colour, shoot in landscape, never use flash, and use a tripod with the smallest possible aperture so as to draw the viewer into the photograph with detail. He sees limiting his options as actually giving him more freedom to shoot, by the resultant increase in focus honing his control.
Around half of Norway’s population of five million live outside large towns, but Ola is more rural than most. Nevertheless, Ola represents a not-unlikely existence for the Nordic, especially elderly people without family.
The series was shown at Nordic Light Festvial and is also a photobook; like his relationship with Ola, the project is ongoing. In the book’s introduction, Krogvold emphasises the importance of Thune’s bond-building.
“Nils Thune knows that meeting Ola Haugen is enriching for them both of them,” he writes. “The combination engineer/artist [sic] enables visual freedom. A strange thing happens – Nils Thune’s camera becomes invisible. Thus he is free to use his human compassion. And we are invited into another man’s life.”
“I hope viewers will see these photographs as a historic document,” he says. “A lot of people, young and old, are fascinated by this very different way of living. A lot of people think about how their grandparents look, remembering good times. It’s a very different, quiet lifestyle.”