When I think of Kristine Nyborg the image that comes to mind is from the one time we met, her smiling face across the water from me as we bobbed up and down in the Miami ocean at Storytellers Photo Conference. Kristine was the conference photographer and I know there must have been other times we interacted during those few days, but mostly I just see her in the ocean talking and laughing about something I can’t remember. Two years later after reading her regular photo newsletters, watching her free teaching videos and seeing her presence in the documentary family photography community, the person I’ve gotten to know online feels consistent with my brief encounter with her in person. A genuine smile, a sincere curiosity, a thoughtful way of interacting with the world. I wanted to interview Kristine because I wanted to learn from her, to learn what she had to say about photography and about life in general. The following is filled with insights from Kristines rich experiences as a photojournalist, teacher and family photographer.
Kristine won 6th place in the DFA’s “Me and my Phone” category as well as two honorable mentions.
Molly Menschel: Can you introduce yourself for those who don’t know you?
Kristine Nyborg: I’m Kristine Nyborg, born and raised in Norway, but I lived many years in the States and now I live in Canada. I got started in photography when my dad let me borrow his SLR to bring to California when I was 19. That was in 1997. I took a darkroom class in college, then went on to study photojournalism and when I moved to New York in 2002 I started working as a freelancer for the foreign press there, mostly Norwegian and Scandinavian.
You’ve been a working photographer for a long time. What do you know about yourself now, as a photographer, that you didn’t know when you first began shooting?
I know I can be brave. I know I can do hard things. I know I can change. I know this work is very unstable but also very rewarding. I know I can be 43 with a career behind me and one in front. I know photography can do good things for people without needing an audience.
What would you say is the driving force behind your photography?
Wanting to be better at it. There is no end point and the process of learning never stops. I also love the idea that my images can move people into thinking or feeling something, maybe even change their perspectives on an issue, but I can’t control how people think and feel so that is more a hypothetical than a tangible goal.
On your site you say, “What I have come to understand after nearly 20 years of holding a camera is that the work of a photographer isn’t necessarily measured in accolades or public recognition, but rather how the work changes the photographer along the way.” What part has photography played in who you are?
It has taught me to listen to people who know more about something than I do. Internally I think I found confidence in being who I am, I felt out of place until I picked up a camera. Externally it is how I have found most of the people closest to me, including my husband.
You told me that you’ve always loved stories. Why?
I think it’s a mix of many things. Once in 2nd grade I wrote a story for class and my teacher read it out loud. I remember being so embarrassed that when the other kids asked who wrote it I promptly yelled out: “Don’t tell them!” I was 8 with no prefrontal cortex to help me filter. It’s one of the times in my life I’ve been the most embarrassed. But it also gave me a bit of a kick, hearing him read something I wrote out loud and having the other kids enjoy it. So maybe it was that. I didn’t get to watch much TV as a kid so I read and lived in my own head a lot. All I know for sure is that stories sustain me, I love hearing them, I love telling them and if you’ve known me a while I have a tendency to repeat some…
What kinds of stories are you most interested in telling? Did it take you a while to figure out what kind of storyteller you were?
I’m very interested in people who live their lives in a sustainable way. It used to be people who were living their lives in sync with nature, but lately it has extended to also include sustainable in terms of mental health. It took me many years to find my true interests. In the beginning I was very interested in getting “the story” that would land me “the magazine” that would get me “the name,” but over time that has faded because then it became more about the chase of the story rather than letting my curiosity lead me to it. Once I rid myself of this pre-conceived notion of what I thought being a photojournalist meant I started making better stories and ironically got more work. I think I had to make those other pictures first, though, it’s like I had to get them out of my system so I could focus on doing what came more naturally to me.
What do you think makes a good story?
A lot of curiosity, research, a willing subject and an understanding of what the story is.
When it comes to finding a story that interests you and then having the confidence and self discipline to pursue it, you have to both believe in the value of the story you’re telling and believe in yourself as a photographer. I’m guessing it’s easier said than done. What’s this experience been like for you?
Confidence is hard and depends largely on personality and extrinsic factors. I think many photographers who want to make stories in photographs go after the big-ticket items. They pick that large issue they have been interested in for years, or pick something because it is a cause they want to help, but then it becomes a bit like eating the whole elephant at once and the overwhelm of that makes them stop. The hard part in storytelling is finding the single story that represents the big thing, not the big thing that affects the single story. Finding the single story takes a lot of research and patience.
I think a lot of people want to be storytellers, are maybe drawn to photography because of its storytelling abilities, but don’t know where to begin. Any advice you can give after your years of experience as a storyteller?
Start with your curiosity. If you are naturally curious about something then go down that rabbit hole and find out more. And more. And more. And more. Eventually you’ll find something that sparks inspiration and off you go. Be flexible, often the story you thought you were going to see isn’t the story you actually find. Maybe it’s better, maybe it doesn’t pan out, that’s ok too. Not all stories work out, but you can learn from all of them.
How have the stories you’ve photographed shaped you as a person and as a photographer?
They made me braver. They have also taught me to not take anything for granted and appreciate what I already have.
There’s one story on your website about a man named Jesse Holmes who when you met was squatting at a cabin in Alaska and pursuing a subsistence way of life. So you meet someone like Jesse, for example, and you’re intrigued by his story. How do you approach a person you’re curious about and end up getting to follow them around with your camera?
I met Jesse because I was living in Fairbanks and we traveled in the same social circles so in his case I just asked because I already knew him. He then connected me with another person for the same story. It is infinitely easier to do stories when you are already a part of a community or know the subject matter first-hand and have people who can help you. Jesse’s story is interesting because he is unusual, but so is the retired antiques dealer across the street who has four rusty cars and spends all day in his yard before sitting down with his Heineken next to the garden gnome missing an arm. Everyone has a story, and if you want to learn about someone all you can do is ask.
One of the stories on your site, The Underdog, is about Sigrid Ekran, a Norwegian dog musher. From just a handful of photos I feel like I have a sense of exactly who she is. It seems like that is a gift you have, and I noticed it in the other stories on your site as well, your ability to see someone for who they are and be able to capture that in photos. It feels pure, like it’s not about you as the photographer but you provide a transparent glass for your subjects to shine through. At the same time, I feel like I see you in your stories as a compassionate observer of the world around you. How are you able to do both of these things? What are your thoughts and beliefs about how much a photographer should show up in their own stories?
This is such an incredibly kind thing to say, I’m really flattered you think so. Thank you. I’m not sure if there is a “how to” for this. With Sigrid it was easy from the start because it was like we had been friends for years after only an hour. It is important to me to have a connection with the people I photograph. In photojournalism school we were taught to be objective observers and I really struggled with that. I don’t think we can be truly objective because to make photographs that carry emotions you have to have them, and you can’t be objective and emotional at the same time. I think it’s a big responsibility to be the proxy for the viewers into the lives of the people I photograph, so I observe and document while being mindful of my duty towards my subjects.
On your site you said that Sigrid was at first a reluctant subject. But I can feel a closeness with her through your photographs. How did you break through that reluctance with her? And what is it like to be a photographer in a subjects home, to be a part of their life, to share their intimate and vulnerable moments? I’m curious in general about your experience with the photographer/subject relationship, how you’ve navigated it, what you’ve learned from it.
We got along great right away, but she didn’t think she was interesting enough for me. She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just follow her mentor instead. He was a champion dog musher. It took me a while to show her that I wasn’t there for the sport, I was there for her. I’m very aware that I’m a guest in their space, they have invited me into their most intimate place and allowed me to photograph. Being a good guest means also being a good guest mentally, so I have to be comfortable being there but not so comfortable that I put my feet on the table, if you know what I mean. When I stay with people I help out as if I were a regular guest and try to share enough of myself so we can find trust together.
How has your graduate degree training as an ethnographer influenced you as a photographer?
It made me a better observer, taught me more patience and also made me realise I was probably never meant to be an academic. Too much red tape.
You’re so good at capturing a sense of place in your photos. It feels as if you’re as aware of the importance of the space as you are of your subjects. Can you talk about this?
Thank you. I think because I worked so long as a newspaper photographer we often only got one image to tell a story so I’m probably subconsciously looking to include context. The sense of place photo is one of the most important ones in a story, so it is on my list of images I always need to make.
What was your experience like working for so many years as a photojournalist?
Working as a photojournalist is rough. The pay is poor, the hours are random and you have to hustle all the time. It’s a really bumpy job and sometimes I barely scraped by, but it’s also the most intoxicating work I’ve ever done. I got a lot of access to things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
How much freedom did you have as a photojournalist to be who you wanted to be as a photographer? There’s one photo on your site called Ice Princess, a photo of an ice skater with an ethereal, dreamlike quality. How were you able to make fine-art photos like this in the world of magazine clients and photo editors? Did you have to work up to being able to express yourself so freely as an editorial photographer?
I once worked for an editor who would say: “Make the pictures we need for the paper, and then make a picture for you.” So every assignment I would make a picture for me and often that would be the image they chose. The ice princess photo was a part of an essay, so it worked because there were other images to support it. Some publications prefer a more traditional approach to photography and others are willing to take risks, it depends largely on who sits at the helm of the editorial process. It is also good to learn to advocate for your favourite images.
You were on the scene of the terrorist attack in Oslo minutes after it happened. What was it like to be in the middle of a moment like this? Can you talk about your experience photographing tragedy?
I was working as a photo editor for the weekend magazine of the business paper that week. Suddenly our building shook, and when we found out what happened I ran from our offices to the parliament building where the bomb had exploded and started making pictures. I’m not a conflict photographer, and while I’ve documented tragedy in other forms before this was a new experience. It was my home town and it was in an area I frequented for work. I remember not feeling scared, but more like I had a purpose being there and my adrenaline was pumping. It wasn’t until a few hours later when I got a phone call from one of my close friends saying she couldn’t reach her sons who were at summer camp that things got really emotional and difficult. I had two friends with children who were shot several times that day, by the same man who bombed the parliament. I really wanted to photograph their strength through the recovery process, but this was a story where I felt too personally connected with the subjects and wasn’t strong enough to do the work. The children survived and are doing ok.
You had an unusually intense start to motherhood. For anyone who doesn’t know – you became pregnant with twins when your first child was only 7 months old. You had to put your photojournalism career on hold and spend your time full time as a mother. What was your relationship with photography when your kids were little?
Photography became a crutch. At first I wasn’t too interested in making pictures, but then it became the only thing that was only mine. I had just left Norway, my family, friends and my job, to live in Canada with my partner and our three babies. He was doing his PhD, and my job was childcare since we couldn’t afford daycare. I didn’t fully understand what I got myself into, and it was mentally a very difficult time. I drank a lot of coffee and ate many muffins. It took about four years before I came to terms with it and started looking for other ways to pivot my work.
I am very moved by your project, Learning to speak Bear. Some of the diptychs say so much about what your experience must have felt like, just from their pairing. Were these photos you put together afterwards, or was this something you were consciously creating when you were in the middle of it?
All the images in that project were made individually and as a response to motherhood. I didn’t start pairing them until last year, I think I stayed in the collecting stage for this project until the kids went to school. Only then could I spend my energy on processing that work.
After you had kids you transitioned more into commercial family photography. Does this kind of work nourish you in the same way that photojournalism did?
The two are so different and carry different motivations for doing them. I think when it comes to family work it is deeply satisfying to show someone that even at their most ordinary they shine. I love the everyday, and to get to be a part of anyone’s everyday feels like a great honour, whether they asked me or I asked them.
It seems like there is always a narrative in your photography. Have you ever explored photography where there isn’t a narrative? Is there such thing as a photo that doesn’t have a narrative?
I think you can find narrative in any picture. My mother is an art historian and she can find a story in a brush-stroke, so I think it just depends on how you meet the photograph and what’s on your mind when you look at it. Thank you for saying that my pictures always have narratives, I try very hard to tell stories with my images and am not always sure I succeed, so that made me happy to hear.
Are there any constants with who you are as a storyteller and photographer that have remained the same throughout the course of your career?
I think it took having kids for me to realise how much I love the everyday and how much the everyday has played a part in my work prior to them being born. Most of my stories have been about people’s ordinary lives, only their lives were not ordinary to me.
On your website you say that every year you used to take a month off from your photojournalism work to work on a personal project. I’m guessing this was before you had children? You said, “It was about finding my way back to who I wanted to be as a photographer, where I wanted to be.” How do you do that now? How do you stay connected to the essence of who you are as a photographer when you’re unable to separate yourself for long stretches from your daily life as a mother, teacher and working photographer?
This was before children, yes. I can’t take that kind of time away now. Instead I do little stories. Sometimes in my home, sometimes in my community, there are stories everywhere so I’m finding little ways to connect with my craft. I think the hardest part of motherhood for me is the constant interruptions. It’s hard to hold a thought, let alone a project when there are three brains to help develop. But having twins taught me a lot about time management and compartmentalising, and as long as I keep moving forward in increments I’ll get where I need to eventually.
Your love of teaching is apparent. Where did the desire to teach come from?
I’ve been teaching people photography since I learned it myself, and it took a more formal form when I went to grad school and taught my classmates for three days after the photography teacher broke their arm. I think there is something deeply satisfying in having acquired a skillset that is seen as desirable. The process of teaching someone about photography is very intimate. I think that is the best part for me, it is a relationship. I give them tools, they give me reactions to those tools in the form of pictures, and from that we both grow.
Those I’ve spoken to who have worked with you have had wonderful things to say about the thoughtful way you connect with your students and guide people deeper into their own work and understanding of themselves as photographers. What are some of the important things a person can do, or steps they can take, to work towards personal understanding and growth as an artist?
I’m happy to hear that, I really enjoy working with photographers, thank you for sharing that information with me. I would recommend to stay the course you make for yourself. It’s all too easy to get distracted by all the work and accolades of other photographers, and it’s not helpful to create work that has your language and carries your stamp on it. Your way of seeing things is unique to you, and in order for that to happen you have to trust your instincts and curiosity. Finding that confidence can take a little time. Working with someone who can give you feedback on your work can speed up that process and help you get confident faster.
What has been your own experience with this process?
It’s been a gradual thing. For the longest time I felt I had to figure everything out by trial and error on my own. That can be a painful process because without other eyes on your work it is easy to stagnate. It took me a good while to become confident enough to ask for help and when I did things changed.
What period of your life was the time of greatest growth as a photographer?
I’m growing right now. I think photography is a craft where if you’re not growing then it’s time to stop. If I were to pick one particular time I’d say photographing through motherhood has been a good stretch because it lends itself to growth on so many levels.
If you could photograph anything, what would it be?
This month I want to be in Norway and photograph Sigrid having her second baby. I haven’t been home in 3 years, haven’t met her son and now she’s having another child. I would love to photograph her as a mother, not just via zoom, and it’s not accessible to me at the moment.
You seem like a person who has found something they are passionate about and found a way to make a life out of it. Not everyone is able to do this. Any advice?
I’ve been lucky and I’m terribly stubborn. It’s not always an asset, but when it comes to this way of life it has been. I go through a reckoning once in a while, it seems to surface every 3-5 years, but by now I have a whole system built around hitting a slump because it’s happened so many times. Photography has given me so much, it has enriched my life in ways I will forever be grateful. The only thing it hasn’t given me is stability, and to be honest I sometimes long for that. Especially now with three kids to feed. I don’t recommend this way of life to people, but if they are determined to try I’m happy to help them navigate the murky waters.
To find out what workshops Kristine is currently offering, visit her educational page HERE.
To see more of Kristine’s work, visit her website HERE.
One of my favorite things on Kristine’s website is her resume, in pictures. Click HERE to read about some of the photos that influenced who she is as a photographer.