Every artist tries to push their boundaries, but photographer Thomas Kettner takes it all the way to the edge, and sometimes even over.
There is no perch too dangerous to plant his camera, whether it’s on a teetering iceberg or in front of the gaping jaws of a cheetah. It’s all about the final shot, he has a vision, and he’ll do what it takes to capture it.
We talked to Thomas to ask him about his work, and what we found when we scratched the surface was a treasure trove of exciting stories and insightful wisdom. Wait until you find out the terrifying reason he was detained in the sand dunes of Namibia by the military.
How did you get started as a photographer?
I originally wanted to become a pilot… which was really not easy. I failed the qualification exam. Then I started to study machine-tool engineering – that ended up being very exciting, but the “grey“ people around me suffocated me. The vision of sitting in front of a drawing table the rest of my life gave me shivers. Then I decided, it´s time to do what I want to do. I changed to photography, my hobby at the time.
Your photography doesn’t shy away from extremes, incorporating cheetahs, climbing icebergs, and boarding helicopters. Why do extreme circumstances appeal to you?
Extremes are always a challenge. It takes you and your model out of your comfort zone and that in turn allows fate to play it´s role in creativity. As soon as you deal with the “unknown“ what happens is magical. Also you will definitely NOT copy any other photographers pictures.
Could you tell us about your first experience with daring to try a risky idea?
My very first big risk was when I was send to Namibia by KODAK to take a picture of a desert. In Namibia you will find the highest sand dunes in the world. It was a very difficult task, as the picture had to be taken with a 8×10“ camera, as a panoramic shoot, with 10 exposures. The result was to be the biggest paper-printed picture in the world, shown on DRUPA , a printing event. It turned out that I was searching for quite a while to find the right spot, leading to my car getting stuck in the sand, and many more little difficulties.
When I found my spot, I was setting up my camera for a test-run. In an instant a land rover raced over a dune, soldiers disembarked and I was taken into custody. The whole morning while setting up, I was surprised to hear thunder. But I could not see a cloud in the sky. After being taken to an army camp, where I was interrogated, I was told, that I had set up my camera in the middle of a shooting range for the navy. They were basically firing from the ocean, which is very close to the sand dunes, over my head, beyond the dunes, which I wanted to photograph.
Well, I suppose I was quite lucky at that time that these guys were accurate…
Another signature in your work is a certain emotional dynamism that seems to explore a vast emotional range in your subjects. How do you direct your subjects to get so much out of them?
It is something, that many people ask me — it has a lot to do with respect!I respect the people I work with. My team, my assistants, my models or the people that I take pictures of during the course of a reportage. I have to bond with these “subjects“. I have to be one with them. I respect the beauty of life, the beauty of nature and I respect a lot the cruelty of fate, that divides everything in our lives into white or black, hot or cold… life or death. I never ask my models to do things that I would not do. I always give them the chance to say “no“. This relationship is the foundation for a very high and beautiful building, as you name it: emotional dynamism.
What kind direction to you give your models?
I speak with my models, I talk to them, I show them reference pictures, moods, films to explain, what is the direction. Then I let them do what they want to do. Certainly, for catalog jobs, the range is limited, due to your clients brief.
What is the most difficult photography challenge you ever faced?
Believe it or not, the most difficult shoot that I ever had, was when I had to work with a client, that did not understand what we are doing in photography…
Difficult in terms of challenge – I think it was the shoot on the icebergs in Alaska. It was like playing Russian roulette – these floating icebergs, so huge, but still so fragile. Once we had to be evacuated, because the iceberg started to tip over. The model, a contortionist, was almost naked, had to be saved at all costs – because she was the most fragile in the whole team.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned since you started?
Things will happen, no matter what you want. “Smile, and be happy – it could be much worse.“ you need to play the game of life, open your eyes and enjoy the moment.
All images in this article under © 2015 Thomas Kettner. All rights reserved.