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Ways We Work

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Marte Marie Forsberg

Food & Lifestyle Photographer

Marte Marie Forsberg is a Norwegian photographer living in Dorset, England. She works as a food and lifestyle photographer for magazines around the world, teaches workshops and is working on her very own cookbook. I'd been following Marie on Instagram for close to a year and had so much admiration for both the work she was doing and the lifestyle she was able to lead. It's so clear after talking with Marie that her passion to lead that lifestyle is what pushes her incredible work forward. We talked about her not-so-simple path to photography and the reality of answering client emails in a cold courtyard, after midnight on a trip to Venice. It was a real pleasure to learn more about Marie, I know you'll think so as well.
Header photo credit: Peter Lacey

Tell us about what you do?

I'm a visual storyteller, I work around food and my main tool is the camera. I work with a variety of clients to create visual stories around their food related products. I also work on my own food projects; which includes a cookbook that's coming out soon. I run workshops around the world for food styling and food photography as well. In fact I just got home from one in Venice and I'm going to Copenhagen in a few days for another!

What was your path to photography like? How did you get started?

It was quite random actually. I wish I could say I had that one moment, but there really wasn't. My father gave me an old press camera when I was 15 and I thought it was kind of fun. I signed up for a black and white photography class which was about a week long but after that I just put it away. I didn't really look at photography again for another 10 or 15 years.

Having said that, when I look back on my childhood there are so many visual memories. I can still remember when my mom would shake out the hallway carpets in Spring there would be sun coming in, and you could see the dust twirling around in the light. I remember my mother preparing breakfast before school on a sunny day. She'd roll up her skirt to expose her legs to the sun rays, and as she would move back and forth the sun would cast shadows on us. Those memories are just so vivid when I look back. I feel I must have been a photographer all my life I just didn't have the camera to capture those moments.

“I guess I realized in that moment that there wasn't a job title out there that I wanted, and I had to create my own.”

Fast forward: I took a degree in Fashion Design in Italy but after I still wanted to continue exploring. I did a complete 180 and did a degree in Middle Eastern Studies in the United States. The last semester before I graduated, I found I really missed being creative, so I signed up for an Introduction to Photography course. It was for half a semester, once a week and even then it didn't click for me yet. I was just photographing everything and exploring. Then I moved to San Francisco because when I graduated I still had no idea what to do with my life. I felt a bit lost.

After what felt like months of feeling lost I realized that I didn’t want to work with either of my degrees. I wrote down on a piece of paper: Food, Travel & Design. Then I started crying because I thought "well what does that mean?! What kind of a job is that? Food, travel, design - well done Marie - that's what you came up with after two degrees?" I guess I realized in that moment that there wasn't a job title out there that I wanted, and I had to create my own.

At that point I still didn't know it was going to be photography but those three things were kind of my guide. I packed up my stuff, I realized I had to go home to Norway and I needed to start from scratch.

After moving back to Norway I started to think through what food, travel and design could mean as a career. I kind of ended up starting three separate companies. One was a travel concierge company, and one where I designed a little clothing collection and three I kept cooking and photographing because I loved food. Very quickly starting those three things, I realized that I didn't want to do design and travel for other people. I also learned that I liked the design process but I was more excited about photographing the collection than making it.

“Nothing much happened after that for awhile, but that made me realize that I could use Instagram to get both feedback on my images but also to reach potential clients. I connected the dots in my head. It helped me to hone in on what people were responding to.”

What was left then was my cooking and styling and photography. I realized that the travel aspect could go into that because I loved exploring new countries and their food culture. So I just went for it, I had nothing to lose, I wasn't 21, I was 30 and I didn't feel like I was going to spend the next ten years assisting anyone. So every day I would cook, I would style and I would photograph. I'd hop on the train and go to Oslo and I'd photograph restaurants and their food every single day. Sometimes the waitress would be blurred in a photo and I'd try and figure out why she was blurred - I'd have to go home and analyze and then I'd go back and try and do it differently. I literally taught myself how to use the camera by making mistakes. I would go, I would mess up, I'd go home - figure out why, do it again, fail better, fail better, fail better. That's kind of how it started. As I did that, I realized "god, I love this!"

Was there a turning point where you realized it could be a full-time career and not just a hobby?

Yeah I guess there was a real moment. So six months after moving home and starting this practice, I started using Instagram. I used Instagram quite a lot, this was in the early Instagram days, nobody knew what it could be. It was just a tool to take pictures with and no one cared and it wasn’t about influencers and food porn - it just didn't exist in that form yet. So I was really lucky that I did it very early on and then I got this super crazy idea of doing a 60 Days of Lunch series. I set a goal to create a lunch dish every single day for 60 days and document it on Instagram.

That was absolute crap photography, when I look back now [laughs]. I needed something to push me forward though. So I did that, and after ten days, I realized "you're an idiot! 60 days what were you thinking?! How about 15 days or something?" Nevertheless, I did 60 days and half-way through, Bon Appetit magazine picked up on it. It was the first time anyone had done the "15 Best Food Instagrammers in the World" type of post. I was lucky enough to squeeze myself in there and it was like Jamie Oliver and then there was me. I was like "mom!" and she was like "my daughter is going somewhere!" Nothing much happened after that for awhile, but that made me realize that I could use Instagram to get both feedback on my images but also to reach potential clients. I connected the dots in my head. It helped me to hone in on what people were responding to.

“You have to come up with the campaigns, you have to create them, cook them, style them, photograph them, get the clients, do your accounting, market yourself, and schedule your travel. It's only you.”

That's when I really started focusing on food stories and learned to target the clients that I wanted to work with. Otherwise you're just another food photographer in Norway. I had lived abroad for 15 years so it was important to me to create a platform where I could live anywhere and work anywhere. I would find brands that I loved and start following them to learn more about their brand. One founder contacted me because she liked my photography and we had lunch and all of the sudden I was a photographer for one of their campaigns.

After having done that it became more and more about the storytelling and not just a photo of a dish. I started telling the story of my life through my photography. I began narrowing down what I would share and would exclude photos of my nieces and nephews and cats with glasses from my feed. I do take those shots (not the cats with glasses) [laughs] but I don't share all of that because I think there's power in telling a simmered down story that's really about something.

What are some of the most challenging aspects of the work you're doing now?

Oh, the biggest challenge is that it's only you. You have to come up with the campaigns, you have to create them, cook them, style them, photograph them, get the clients, do your accounting, market yourself, and schedule your travel. It's only you. Of course you can get an assistant but not for everything. I had a meeting with an Italian newspaper, that wanted me to write - funnily enough - a column on English food for them and I was like "I'm Norwegian" but I said "sure I could do that!" The client said "go home and come up with an idea of how to do that." I can't ask my assistant about coming up with that idea or anything so it's all about being creative. I think that's the hardest thing is constantly coming up with new ideas, and while you're working on that you also have to be thinking about things like if Instagram will be the most powerful social media tool a year from now and make sure you have a footing in different worlds. There's just constantly so many things going on. You wish you could just turn it off sometimes but if you turn it off you don't have a living.

What are the top five tools you’re using on a regular basis?

iPhone - That's my right hand. It's my most powerful tool in the sense that it's my mobile office. I travel a lot and I wouldn't be able to do anything without my iPhone.

Camera - Obviously this is how I create most of my content. I have one main camera, it's a Canon 5D Mark II. Up until this past summer I only had one lens which was the 50mm, I like to travel light. Now my favourite lens is a 24/70mm. I don't believe that a lot of gear makes you a better photographer. So I travel light.

Instagram - Definitely my main marketing tool. That's where clients find me, that's where editors find me to write features - I'm thinking maybe that's how you found me too? It's such a great visual platform to reach anyone these days.

Alone Time - I need to be alone. I need to go for walks. If I don't do that I can't hear that inner voice that tells you where to go and what you'd like to work on and who you are. There might be a project I'm working on and I can't hear how to do it if I don't remove myself and just sit in a cafe for a few hours or go for a walk. All of the sudden there's an "oh, yes that's how I'm going to do it!"

Guiding Principles - Who do I want to be and what kind of life do I want to have? I guess that's a tool in a way, that's my guiding tool - those two questions. They guide every single project I allow myself to work on. Will it make me a better person? Are these people interesting to work with? Will you learn something? Will you grow? Are you honest? Is this a brand you can collaborate with because their product is something you actually use or would use or are you just using it to make money? Which we all have to do but I try the best I can to do better each year in terms of who I choose to work with. I think of if it will it lead me to that house in the countryside that I want to have with chickens and a huge kitchen and does it lead me towards that?

Do you find it difficult to stay on top of email and communications? How do you manage that?

I wish I was on top of that. I wish I could ask you that question! I really don't know, I have no idea how to stay on top of it. I really try, but it's heartbreaking the amount of emails that I just don't get to. And they are heartfelt and sweet. They may be people that have been at a photography class or someone you've just inspired, or someone who just wants to say hello. I'm like "okay, I would love to answer you but I have to put you in a folder that I'll get to when I've gotten to the accounting and everything else." By the time I've gotten to all of that, there's very little time. I did have my assistant answering some of those emails every now and then but I just felt wrong about that, so I don't do that. That's just rude. I don't know if it's better not answering but there's just so many hours of the day isn't there? Okay that doesn't answer your question, that's just sad. That's the honest truth though.

“You're so tired and just want to pass out but you know that for you to live in that beautiful house in England, to have a dog, to buy the clothes you want and cook dinners with your friends, you have to stand in that courtyard and answer those emails.”

What’s the structure of a typical day for you?

I must admit I don't think I have any day that is the same as the others. It's so varied, which I always like, but I also miss having a routine where you get up at 7, have breakfast - I really would like my life to be more like that.

I do always have a cup of tea. No matter how crazy things are, either with retouching or planning a new workshop or retreat that I'm doing, or a new campaign I'm working on, or writing my cookbook or recipe testing - I always sit down with a cup of tea and I go for a walk with my dog every day, twice. He's kind of energetic.

If I'm not at home I will still always go for a walk. Even if it's 11pm at night, I just need that time to walk. That would be a typical day I guess. That some part of the day I'm alone to think and I always have a cup of tea. The rest is just kind of all over the place. It's all very varied. A little bit too much for my mind right now. I'm actively working towards a more steady routine. So maybe next year when you talk to me I can say "oh yeah, I get up at 7am and I go for a walk with my dog and then every Saturday and Sunday I do..." Next year! [laughs]

Life happens very fast and you have to really pull yourself in the neck to focus on what's important.

When you're travelling and have all these deadlines that you have to meet, did you find you had to develop self-discipline for working while you're travelling? I know it can be easy when you're travelling to put stuff off.

Yeah, I was literally just thinking about that. I was walking up buying meat at the butcher and I was talking to myself in my head because my friend yesterday had said that through my Instagram it looked like I had the most amazing time in Venice. Which I did, but I must admit, I got up at 6:30 every morning and had a brief meeting before all day long it was teaching and discussions, feedback, critiques, and setting things up. Then you tumble home at midnight and you have to tend to the emails, and the deadlines.

There was a magazine waiting for high-res images and the connection was so bad in my room, because it’s Venice with thick walls. So I had to walk out to the courtyard in the middle of the night to get a better connection, and it was cold. You're so tired and just want to pass out but you know that for you to live in that beautiful house in England, to have a dog, to buy the clothes you want and cook dinners with your friends, you have to stand in that courtyard and answer those emails [laughs]. It puts it in perspective, because you're working your rear-end off but it's for a cause you believe in and that you're passionate about. It's towards something, to continue doing work that's meaningful to you. Sometimes that means that you have to be up from midnight to 1:30am to send those high-res images off or answer those emails. So I guess, the discipline, I hardly even think about it because it's just a necessity. You just have to do it.

“I feel so grateful to have grown up with beautiful values and inspiring people around me. That's the kind of life that I really want to have. Now I have to create it for myself.”

Why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it for you?

I think it goes back to my childhood. I had a very beautiful childhood in Norway, I had parents that loved me and supported me. They encouraged me to never think that there was limitations to what we could do in life. Not in any way that I was better than anyone else but that we all have the same abilities to reach our dreams and make them come true no matter what they were. You just had to work hard for it and be diligent and then doors would be opened.

Then you're in your teenage years and you forget what your parents said. In my twenties it was about having fun and all of the sudden you're thirty and you don't know what you want to do. Slowly the voice and the images of your childhood come back to you. You realize that you really want to start a family and have friends that you choose because they have values that you believe in. I want to be surrounded by inspiring, uplifting people. I care about my food and where it comes from, I don't want to buy plastic products when I can buy something more expensive that's handmade out of wood from some place nearby. I really started thinking about those things and that kind of guided me.

That's the story I try to tell as well through my Instagram and through my work. I'm in no way perfect. I buy plastic, I don't squeeze out everything from my toothpaste but hopefully next year I'll squeeze out more than this year. I feel so grateful to have grown up with beautiful values and inspiring people around me. That's the kind of life that I really want to have. Now I have to create it for myself and I can't just rely on my parents creating it for me. I have to surround myself with inspiring women to push myself and to be filled up with this energy.

That's why I do what I do because to me my work is guiding me in that direction. Hopefully through the brands I work with, through the cookbook and by sharing my food journey from my mother's kitchen to my own cottage in England, I'll have stories that I can share. I hope those stories will touch someone to maybe call their mom and tell her they love her. Or to just be more grateful for what we have and take that extra moment to think about who they are and the direction they're going. I know that's pretty lofty for a friggin' cookbook, but I do believe in the power of images and storytelling. If anyone is inspired to cook from scratch for their kids or for themselves, I don't know what could be greater. If someone is inspired to start that bakery in Spain they've always wanted to do then that'd be amazing. That's really what drives me.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Mimi Thorisson who runs the blog Manger.

She's a woman that inspires the world at the moment. She's gorgeous and kind and talented and leads a very exciting life that she's created with her husband. It's made to be what they choose it to be, which is beautiful. I'd like to know how SHE handles email. She has six children, she runs this world famous food blog, she's got two cookbooks and a TV show and I just think "how the hell do you manage to do all of this?!" She cooks for her children and she answers all her emails heartfelt-ly as well and comments on her blog - I don't know how she does it.