Life lessons from nature – “Nature is good for the soul”
I grew up in nature. Until I was 14 or 15, when I got into breakdancing, I was always in the countryside, fishing most of the time. Nature was deeply embedded in me.
In the following decades, I spent all of my time in big cities and travelled a lot, photographing musicians and actors and artists, which I love. But suddenly, I longed to be in nature again.
I was drawn back to a very old fascination of mine: starlings. I saw this phenomenon the first time 40 years ago, when I was about 10, with my parents. I grew up Blans in the south of Denmark and my parents took me to the west coast to see this phenomenon that takes place twice a year. It gave me some mental images I’ve never forgotten.
Four years ago, I felt drawn to photograph it. The phenomenon happens when the starlings are attacked by birds of prey, mostly Peregrine falcons. People might think it looks very peaceful but what you’re seeing, with the birds swarming around the sky, is basically the birds fighting for their lives because they’re being attacked. That’s when they make these beautiful poetic shapes.
It’s about life and death. It’s also a beautiful metaphor about collaboration. It’s a few hundred thousand starlings working as one organism to fight off the bird of prey. You often see the bird of prey being chased away by the starlings because they’re like a black wall.
You need to be in a meditative state to be ready. I don’t think about anything when it’s happening. But afterwards, my pulse is really high. My body is filled with adrenaline.
It’s very dramatic, fast and surreal. It’s wilder than being on stage with a big rock band at Glastonbury. It’s wilder than sitting behind the drum kit of Arcade Fire when they’re playing to 100,000 people. It’s crazy, which you wouldn’t really think it could be when you’re just standing in a field. That’s pretty incredible.
The shapes are very important. It doesn’t happen in a very dramatic and visual way very often. You need to spend a lot of time. Out of four years, I’ve had just five or six incredible nights out of 120 nights.
It’s also a very fleeting phenomenon that happens in a very short time span. You need to be 100 per cent focused for a year to capture those times when it actually happens. You have to be ready. You have to be in the right position. You have to have the right camera settings. You have to have the right lens compared to the distance and size of the flock.
Often, it happens so quickly that you don’t even recognise what it is you’re taking. You have a feeling you just witnessed something amazing, but you don’t know what picture they drew in the sky.
A lot of the images have some form of shape that’s recognisable to the human eye or human imagination. Often it looks like things from nature, like a whale or an eagle, which is crazy. I have a huge collection of photos that look like something. Even after four years, every time I’m out, I see something totally different. You’ll never ever see the same thing twice.
Nature is good for the soul. I found great pleasure in coming back and spending more time in the countryside. I still live in the centre of Copenhagen and it wasn’t a problem me being in a city. But I felt disconnected.
We all spend so much time with technology, on computers, on phones or tablets, looking at screens. These trips to spend time with the starlings often lasted a week or 10 days, out in the countryside and I could get very connected again. I feel very calm and get a lot of peace inside from being in nature.
I’m also interested in meditation, which is also about being more connected. Nature makes me go more inwards than outwards. It’s a lot more introverted than life in the city, where I work with a lot of people. I enjoy the isolation of working with nature.
Nature is so powerful. When I went to school in Prague the photo academy in the 1990s, I remember seeing some landscape photos by the British war photographer Don McCullin. I knew him for his black and white war images, and suddenly he was doing landscapes. I remember not being able to understand that shift at all. Really? Landscapes? But now I find myself making a shift to nature. It’s much wilder than I thought it would be. Your energy shifts as you mature to a different wavelength and it resonates with nature.
With this Black Sun project, it’s about standing still and watching. A lot of modern life moves very fast, but this is about slowing down and taking time.
For me, one of the biggest things with the starlings, compared to what I’ve done before, is that I’m not in control. I’m lending myself to something that may or not happen. I have to be more humble and more patient.
Photographing this natural phenomenon, I don’t have all the tools that I can usually control, which I do on my usual photo shoots. I’m used to being able to create my own world, with locations and lights and ideas. But here I have to wait for it to happen and I can work with the raw material.
I’m also trying to make the point that it’s good to get deeply involved with a subject. Most of my projects have taken many years, including with the starlings. If you go into depth with any subject matter, a lot of things reveal themselves to you. I really like devoting lots of time to one subject. The deeper you dig, the more things come to you.
Black Sun by Soren Solkaer is out now, published by Edition Circle, DKK499 (approx. £59). For more on Black Sun and Soren’s other work, see sorensolkaer.com and Instagram @sorensolkaer. Black Sun is on exhibition at HEART Museum in Denmark from April 6, 2021 and will travel to other countries later.