I felt it was time to write you a letter. Sometimes, when I have a thousand things to do and they were all due yesterday, I will stop everything and pretend for just a minute or two that I have an eternity of time. I'll sit with a coffee, look out in the empty space and make that minute count as long as I need to so I can return to reality with fresh eyes. It works.

If you have raised small children, you know how valuable a minute alone is, and it actually works in traffic also. You're stuck in your car and you're already 40 minutes late, and the GPS just keeps adding on more minutes to your arrival time. You can get desperate, but you can also turn it around, recalculate your life, rearrange your appointment and make time. Now you have all the time in the world. You can enjoy the slow traffic.

What we do to ourselves, what we do with our time, and what we do to the world are the subjects of my letter today. In short, let's talk about life.


Why are we here?

Before you are done with this letter, you will have adopted an elephant and gotten some (almost) free books. You can relax, this is not a sales letter, so if you are curious to know how this will happen ... keep on reading.

Let's start in Cuba. One of my life-changing experiences this year started when Joy and I were in Cuba for six days to teach a packed workshop. With the experiences from my last trip to Cuba well in memory, I had decided this time not even to try to get onto wifi. You can get slow wifi in hotels and in public parks, but in private residences such as the one we stayed in, internet is not allowed.

Normally when people get up in the morning they check their device, and we were not any different. In Cuba, we got up in the mornings and we were looking at things, the sun, the birds, each other. We didn't comment on Facebook streams or double-click on Instagram photos that we liked. We were free of all that. Joy wrote on her upcoming book and made songs, and I worked on my pictures, articles and books.

In the evenings we would have dinner, play chess and go to bed early. Totally oblivious of what was happening in politics, the world, on Facebook, or anywhere else. All we knew was the moment we lived in.


Cuba life without internet
Cuba life without internet. Leica M9.


We decided that this was so awesome that when we got back to the civilized world, we would spend less time on social media. As a plan, Monday and Thursday would be the days we addressed the online universe. Instead of being ushered around by push-messages, we would do what we are supposed to do. Create our own art.

We already had moments before Cuba where we would be in a coffee queue in New York or somewhere, and instead of automatically taking out the device and "checking stuff", we would look at people and things and know that we were "the only ones in the room" so to speak.

In the future we would use the machines to post automatically while we did other things, and we would indulge in the luxury of having assistants that can do all the stuff we don't need to be around in order to get done. We would be cause over our own lives, nothing less.


 Cuba life without internet
Playing chess in Cuba. Leica CL.

What is important and what is not important? How to get the important things done and skip the crap? Before we returned to the civilized world, we turned off all push messages on our devices. The only activities that would be able to interfere with our lives would be text messages and phone calls.

As another example, I changed my ways of working with emails. I've kept all my emails since 2011 handy in my Inbox, and from time to time I will sit down and answer emails. When someone asked a question, I should answer. Some of you will have experienced an email ticking in with a response to something you asked about three years earlier.

I wanted to get to the bottom of my inbox, but since the current strategy of working through it hadn't worked for the last 7 years, I took all messages from before January 1, 2018 and moved them to a mailbox called "Backlog Archive", and then I had an inbox with just about 500 emails that I focused on handling. During the next ten days, I would answer all new emails, as well as work my way through the earlier emails.

One day, I had done all of them and there were 0 emails in my inbox! The next morning, I woke up and there were 40-50 emails that had come in overnight. I didn't just read them, I took the first one, and if it required to go into the picture archive and spend 20 minutes finding pictures to send, that's what I did. Done! Then the next email might be spam or something I could simply delete. Next one: Answered and archived. And then I was back down to 0 emails.

During this, I would set up automatic sorting of emails so that some senders went straight to archive (by using Rules in the mail program), others I would unsubscribe from.

The art was to do things and not leave anything for later. It's how to get work done. It's logical and simple; it's how things should be done. Somehow, with devices that can hold thousands of emails, you get into the habit of reading your mails in the coffee queue and leaving them unanswered. Double work.

This is an ongoing project, and we keep learning and adjusting. But as long as we keep our goal fresh, which is to be governing our time, and that "busy" is not the same as getting stuff done, we're making progress. We don't work for the machines, the machines work for us by sorting messages, sending and posting stuff automatically, processing files and so on.


Stop looking at your device screen

One of the fundamental lessons of photography is to see, and to know that you see. Ironically, devices take away your attention so you don't see. In my upcoming book on Composition, I'll be dealing a great deal with the ability to see first, then make decisions about what to photograph, and then to photograph it. It takes a lot of awareness and seeing to be able to make something out of life. You cannot live life by liking pictures in an app, or by holding a camera in front of your face. It takes living and seeing to make something out of it, and as we just went over, living is not as easy as said. It takes a determined effort.

And yes, my Composition book is moving on. Thanks for asking. The book was scheduled for launching months ago, but I kept expanding on the subject so that it is ultimately a 600+ page book and not the 250-page book which I had planned. You can read one of the new chapters I added here, "Composition in Photography - Which lens are you?".


The Story Behind That Picture: "Composition in Photography - Which lens are you?"


Adopting an elephant

What's with the elephants, you wonder? It's coming. If there's a red line through what I do, it's photography and doing things my way. In that optic, creating my own series of bags for photography and travel that fulfills my every need, is a logical one. People have been asking me for years to design bags, but always with the idea that my name on it would sell more.

It's not that the world needs more camera bags. I saw no point in doing any bags until I found a way to realize a specific kind of bag for my needs, in a quality that would last for a lifetime, deploying the finest artisan skills - and it had to look and feel aesthetic.

Together with Matteo Perin who makes bespoke luxury products "made in Italy", I designed my ideal bag. We also decided that if I wanted a bag like this, there would probably a few others who would too (it's ridiculously expensive). And we went on to design other bags the way I wanted them.



After many months in the work, I could launch a video and a website for these bags on March 25, and while I did expect some backlash for their luxury and the accompanying prices, I didn't expect the response I got to one specific bag made of elephant skin.

It was bad judgment on my part, let me say that before we go on. I had known about the elephant skin for a year, but completely forgotten my own first response to it (which was surprise or maybe even repulsion). I had never heard of elephant skin for bags or boots or anything before. The skin would be from elephants that had died of natural causes in Zimbabwe, which is one of the countries that has growth in its native population of (Luxodonta Africana) elephants. So a country that does something for the elephants and protects them within their reserves (which is about 13% of their land). The sale of skin from these naturally deceased elephants would further go into funding the reserves, the security and veterinarians. Helping endangered species, in other words. I thought no more about it, other than it would be like fur: Some like it and some dislike it.

Boy, was I wrong in that!

When I posted the video, it had lots of angry comments, and heated discussions started on forums. My initial response was to check what the story actually was. I got copies of the certificates of legality, I checked different stories I had received, as far as whether elephant skin was illegal in certain countries and would get confiscated in the airports, etc. (I made this fact page about it).

In a matter of a few days I became equipped to be the perfect spokesman for using elephant skin. I had all the facts and was on the right side of the law. No doubt about it.

But this Thursday morning I woke and decided to look honestly at it, not being stubborn. What is life really about, and what are we here for?

I decided that elephant had been taken out of the repertoire. I updated the website and had the editor re-cut the video to have no mention of elephant bags nor elephant skin. I decided it’s not something I will promote.

The overall deciding argument in changing my mind on this was the fact I had come upon, that when governments flushed the market with 105 tons of legal ivory in an attempt to remove the market for illegal killing and trade, it had the opposite effect. The illegal killings for ivory went up. The logics of this must be that the more ivory and elephant products are promoted, the more it is wanted. 

That’s why I won’t promote elephant products. History has shown that legal trade will cause an increase in illegal trade too. 

I have renewed my stand on this. I’m first and foremost a photographer who shares my stories and experiences. For most photographers, that means creating aesthetics and preserving the moment. I think what we have in common is an interest for quality photography and a life in harmony. 

A great deal of my work during the 22 years that my website has been freely available to everybody has been dedicated to making things work and sharing how I did it. With the intention of helping people improve their skills. 

So, enough talk about elephants, I decided. Photography is what I do, as in my upcoming article on the 75mm Noctilux. As for elephants, I have no interest in protecting or explaining legal or illegal slaughter of elephants. It’s not my cause, not my subject.


Leica M10 with Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25


But …

As a human being on this planet, and as a person who invests much of my time on preserving things, I wondered how to apply my own actual viewpoint about things, to elephants. The odds are overwhelming: With 33-35,000 illegal elephant killings a year, for a species that now numbers a total of 500-600,000 worldwide, the end is actually near. 

I’ve researched a lot of organizations, their stand on elephants, the laws on elephant trade, and I’ve come across many good projects from propaganda against elephant trade to geotagging elephants with GPS devises and studying their behavior. Isolated, all these things are great projects, but how do you keep elephants from being extinct? How can one grow the number of elephants, from a personal level?


I decided to adopt an elephant

I donated $1,000 to The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust as a gift of life; as a foster parent of an elephant. (They also offer $50 (per year) foster programs).  

I’ve asked if they would name him (or her) Barnack (after the inventor of the Leica camera), as I thought it would be fitting in this context. I spoke with them on the phone and their elephant keepers are with the elephant 24/7, and even sleep with them. Often times these are elephants that are left from the flock and would otherwise die. Or, they are newborns which grow up for their first 9-10 years with them, and are then released in a reserve. One of them is Maisha (means “miracle” in Swahili), and until further notice, my donation is directed to her. They also have aerial surveillance, community outreach, and other activities, which in my view makes this an overall good cause to support when the aim is keeping elephants alive and growing.

That felt good! So, I decided to adopt more elephants so as to make sure that in spite of everything possible, some of my intention actually comes through in the end. Another organization that offers one the chance to adopt an elephant, is WWF, whom I have additionally donated £1,000 ($1,400) to. I chose the UK site because I could do a one-time donation, but one can also do monthly donations from £50/$55 and up on both the UK and the US page.



I would urge anybody to do something on a personal level. Be it informing others about facts involving elephant numbers, or putting your money where your mouth is. I’m not in a position to go to Africa or India myself to protect the elephants, so this is my choice for trying to influence matters as much as possible. I don’t feel tweeting about elephants will change anything other than upset the world, but I feel that providing energy to people who are doing something on the ground might make an actual difference. Hence my choice, which doesn’t have to be everybody’s.

I changed my viewpoint on this. "You have a viewpoint till you take a new one" as a Danish politician once said. And in doing so, I also experienced that one can do something about things, rather than just talking about it. We have many issues we talk about every day, the climate crisis, the homeless, the drug abuse, the slow traffic and other issues. In the future I will talk less and do more. It may take some research to understand problems, and it might also hurt a bit to change viewpoint. But if one really consider it important, it's worth the trouble.


With this, I’ll leave you to enjoy a great weekend.



  · © Thorsten Overgaard · e-mail: thorsten@overgaard.dk

Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in fine art photography, portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography, as well as an educator and international photo competition judge.




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