The road must eventually lead to the whole world.
(Jack Kerouac, On the Road)
“On a sunny day in September 2012 I left my hometown of Oslo, Norway and walked down to the motorway. I put my thumb in the air, and 112 vehicles, 10,000 km and 3 months later I arrived at my destination: Beirut, Lebanon”.
To a lot of travellers, the idea of getting lost without a map in the unknown might seem a bit over the edge of their comfort zone. To Sébastian Dahl, the heart core of travelling is keeping the eyes wide opened while getting lost in the wander and wonder of the experience itself, blending cultures, recording filmstrips of life, retelling stories, saying yes to everything he encounters along the way and enjoying the ride.
Born a lion-hearted adventurer, Sébastian’s roots are deeply grounded in the purest idea of freedom. He was only 8 years old when his parents moved from Norway to Southern France and has always been fascinated to meet new people and places.
“In France I got a lift with an ex-drug addict who just came down from some mountains where she had done meditation. We talked a lot about her life and life in general. She was very inspiring to listen to and she told me she was very glad she met me because I had somehow inspired her too. Then in Rome I met a 66-year-old communist with a big mustache by randomly asking people in the streets to host me. His answer was a very brief, 'Sure, come on. It’s this way'. Normally people act surprised and ask questions, but I ended up staying at his place 5 nights and we became good friends”.
His horizons expanded even more with his impulsive decision to travel 10.000 kilometers, hitchhiking his way from Oslo to Beirut in a fascinating journey of nearly three months. He thoroughly documented the whole trip, pigeonholing his steps and capturing the unseen mood of the places, the hidden expressions on the people’s faces, explicitly leaving his hallmark on the cultural perception and bringing forward the idea of carte blanche. Sebastian’s means of transportation is the boundless hitchhiking, which implies trusting people who at their turn trusted him with their stories and not making any plans, letting himself be part of the journey. His photos are intimate and they capture the ways he develops relationships with the people he meets along his itinerary. The ease with which he contours these bonds is sometimes focused by blurring the background places and bringing forth the way people are experiencing it.
Freedom may be considered the leit-motif of his remarkable journeys from the very beginning. Rediscovering cities’ lost identities is a powerful dualistic act Sébastian Dahl has been committing himself to, as opposed to the stigmatizing mass-media false images imposed onto the society. The cultural awareness he pinpoints in the “Beirut Hippodrome” series dims any trace of limitations, as the reality presented to the viewer is soothing: we see nothing more than refuge within the pale of conflict of religion. Located on the green line that once separated Christian and Muslim neighbourhoods during the Lebanese civil war, the place is now a crossing point for several hundred men of all ages (Muslims, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese).
The “Downtown Beirut” documentary project is deracinating us from the kernel and it is focusing on the frames of the story: the exploration of the cultural heritage and urban development. The area has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times and yet none of the new buildings seem to be willing to tell the whole story. The people are only lay figures in the background and the photos are blackjacking us to face a grey, empty and sterile city through straight lines and dull contrast effects. The city is the main character now, but one may get the feeling that we’re inside Scheherazade’s puns, not able to permeate the shell of commercial thinness in order to get to its cultural echoes acting like mere mirages.
The travel diary concept is in a nutshell Sébastian’s creative creed building upon the idea that good photography is photography that tells a story.
What were your first photographic experiments or experiences?
I have a bad memory so I started photographing at age 15 to remember the things I was doing with my friends and family. From there my interest in photography grew into a technical one; I was very curious about the functions and mechanism of each cameras, their particularities and differences. I kept photography as a hobby for many years and in 2008 I moved to Tromsø, a city in the far north of Norway. I moved back to the country in which I grew up (from age 1 to 8) and started studying social anthropology. At the same time I shifted from taking only pictures of my friends and family to taking more landscapes and to experimenting with strobes in a studio at the local photography club. I quickly realized studying in Norwegian (a language I had never had a school because I went to a french school as a kid) was too demanding. A friend of mine who was the editor in chief in a magazine gave me the opportunity to take some pictures for his publication and that's when I understood it was photography I should be studying. I moved to Oslo in 2009 and took a photography degree at Bilder Nordic School og photography for 2 years and learned that the photography I'm interested in, is about storytelling. I was hooked. I graduated in 2011 and immediately started freelancing, keeping my expenses as low as possible in order to focus on working only with photography. Since then I have been doing everything from documentaries to product, portrait, event and wedding photography. Even video work. As long as it involves a camera, I'm happy to work with it but my personal projects are always documentaries.
What are the greatest challenges you encounter from being a travel photographer and adventurer at the same time?
When I left Norway in December 2012 I wasn't only leaving my friends and family I was also leaving the network of clients I had built up in the last two years. I was going to be away for one and a half year and I knew that my clients (my source of income) were going to find other photographers to work with. Upon my return I would have to start from scratch. In the next years I will continue this long journey of mine, in fact I'm leaving Norway again at the end of August. I'm hitchhiking direction East from Turkey, to Japan. Again I'm leaving my loved ones and my income. But there are reasons why I'm doing this, it's not only for fun. In the work I do on the road I try to show and document that we live in a world where we don't have to be afraid of our neighbors or the unknown. I want to show the world that this planet of ours is filled mostly with warm, caring and helpful people. One of my challenges is to spread this message. Not many people can relate to the way I travel, but I hope some get the message. I find it very important to do this because I feel there's a big need to counter-balance the sensational and often stigmatizing image of the world mainstream media is giving. I want to create hope and I want to show love. I want people to say hi to the people in their neighborhood and I want to inspire people into being more optimistic.
How do you pick the spots you travel to? What did it attract you to Lebanon and why do you have this great sensitivity to the place and the people?
I didn't really have a reason to move to Lebanon and it's the same for Japan. In fact I knew very little about Lebanon before leaving; I naively just asked a journalist friend of mine who had been there if it was safe enough, and off I went. I just had a feeling I would find it interested to live there. I am the lucky owner of a Norwegian passport which allows me to more or less go everywhere, so it would be stupid of me not to take advantage of this. When I arrived in Lebanon I was hosted by two very kind Lebanese girls who had read my blog and invited me to crash in their little apartment. They introduced me to their friends and took me out for drinks. On day 3 I met Boudi, an incredible young Lebanese guy. During the whole year he took me around in Beirut and Lebanon, giving me his perspective on living in Lebanon. We quickly became best-friends. On day 5 I found a more permanent place to stay, a flat that had been a kindergarten. I moved in because it was the only place I found where foreigners didn't already live. Later this place became something called the Kindergarten Collective. An arts and entertainments venue that I started with some new friends. We hosted everything from poetry readings to exhibitions, concert and workshops. After about six months I had created a network of clients which provided me with enough money, just by word to word and a few emails.
Tell me more about your project series "Beirut Hippodrome", about the journey and how you feel about the overall experience.
While exploring Beirut I heard about the Beirut hippodrome, a place where many men (and very few women!) go on Sundays to bet on horses. I'm not much of a gambler but I decided to go anyway, after all I had never been to a hippodrome. The atmosphere fascinated me immediately. Men where shouting, jumping and swearing. The more I learned about the place, the more I knew I had to do a documentary. I started going there every Sunday and quickly became a regular. I got to know the director of the hippodrome, which secured me a limitless access to the different locations of the hippodrome. I got to know some of the other regulars and when I took a portrait, I would bring it the following Sunday. Beirut hippodrome is the proof that time can heal many scars. From being the front line of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) it is now a meeting point for men of different religions and nationalities.
What advice would you give me if I went back to the same place and try again?
Go slow and be open. Hang out with the locals and do things you've never done before. Get out of your comfort zone :) Bring a camera! A camera is a fantastic passport to get in other people's homes, it's an excuse to be curious and to start a conversation. At this point I need to clarify something: hitchhiking from Oslo to Beirut and sleeping in random people's houses didn't seem as an extreme thing for me to do. I started hitchhiking several years ago, first small trips and gradually longer ones. On my first travels I stayed in youth hostels, then I Couchsurfed for some years and then I started asking random people in the streets if they would host me for a night (this is what I now call improcouching). Because I did these things gradually, the steps felt natural and I didn't feel I was doing something very dangerous. I've never had a bad experience while hitchhiking or improcouching. On the advantage of traveling by land: when you travel by land you travel slowly. You pass by different countries that are connected by culture, language and also borders (and everything a borders implies). You get to understand a country better if you've been in its neighboring countries first. These soft transitions are what's important to me.
Can you tell me about any particularly exciting travel or photography projects you have planned in the near future?
I'm having a gallery show (my first solo exhibition!) this summer and I will finish two photography books before leaving. Then, at the end of summer I will hitchhike East from Turkey towards Japan. The trip will take about 6 months and I will continue working on the projects I did on the road between Oslo and Beirut: "Passengers", "right side window", "portraits from the road", and "I slept here". Then I will stay in Japan for a year (if it works out Visa-wise?), do documentaries and hopefully learn to weld bicycle frames in the famous (for bicyclists) Japanese Keirin tradition. Bicycling is my second passion and I want to start making and selling frames when I get back to Norway in 2017.
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