Picture what words cannot say

By Stine Arnulf

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Society teaches us that if we are different, there is something wrong with us. For most, there is a pressure from outside to look a certain way, to be a certain way. There is always an ideal to live up to, whether it comes to appearance, mindset or behaviour. But despite social rules, we have a choice and a right to express ourselves in any way we may want or need to.

Norwegian artist Nora Savosnick has felt this pressure by society since she was at school. In most academic institutions, we are taught to convey thoughts through words on paper… for every ‘mistake’ to be corrected by a red marker.

That might not bother everyone, but for Nora, who had a learning disability, it was difficult to express herself.

Not until she discovered the camera and the power of photography, did she have the means or the instruments to get her thoughts out.

“Imagine if you could have used different techniques of expressing yourself in school. Imagine how much easier it would have been for someone like me who’s dyslexic to use photos instead of words to convey my thoughts,” Nora says.

Photography was a recent discovery for her and it was a revelation to find a new way for expression: “Whenever I write, there is this focus on everything having to be right because you always get corrected. But with photos, which I feel that I manage better, I continue to develop and challenge myself in such a different way.”

Nora respects writing as an art form, but she simply wants other ways to communicate too. Photography is something she understands, and that has made it easier for her to learn and share knowledge. What many often forget is that art is a way of knowledge too. She finds that a picture is much more freeing than a text. It is easier to share and to engage people with because, as she explains, “the minute you use words, you create sentences that the reader has to follow along with. But when you are using a picture, [the audience] has the opportunity to create the experience [themselves]. And I think that is the power of it.”

Nora differentiates herself from other artists by trying to be daring, whilst keeping a clean and classic style. “I don’t feel the need to shock people, I feel the need to express myself,” she says. That is her main goal: to show who she is through photography.

Another way in which Nora has felt pressure from society is when it comes to body image. The focus of her recent picture series has been on the human body. She is, and always has been, very fascinated with bodies. This fascination has not been in a sexual way but rather focusing it as something else, something that has a more important meaning. The body has for a long time been a symbol of something sexual, and for many that is something that you have to hide. Pictures of bodies are too often objectifying women and creating ideals that are unrealistic and hard to live up to. But Nora’s pictures are simple and clean, nothing vulgar or sexualised. And so is the body, Nora has come to realise. “Our bodies are very simple, and we are basically all alike, except for certain differences. The people I take pictures of are never perfect either, but that is not to say they are imperfect. They’re normal.”

For her pictures, Nora does not use professional models. She uses ordinary people who are not accustomed to taking their clothes off in front of a camera. It can be a challenge, as people are uncomfortable with getting naked. “[Our body] is something we’re supposed to protect, something we’re not supposed to expose. That is what we’ve been taught,” Nora says.

Nora always uses herself and her own life as inspiration for her photographs. This has helped her to express her views on the human body and her own experience on being shaped by society. In the phase she has been in right now, as a youth, her body has been in constant change without her being able to control it. “There has been a pressure from outside when it comes to how I want it to be, something it can never live up to, but I don’t want to hide it. No matter if I like it or not. It is a big part of how people see me.” Using photography has helped her take back the control in a way, or to recreate her own expectations.

Her picture series Transition Comprehensible is an example of this. It is about growing up, evolving from a teen to an adult, where the bodies are presented as anonymous shapes and lines. “It symbolises becoming more and more anonymous in a growing crowd, and then I follow these lines, these patterns that everyone has set out for me. To try and break out of these lines and to show yourself, that is kind of the question.” On the exhibit, Nora collaborated with an artist called Isar who wrote poems to the pictures. They were folded on fragile paper hidden under stones. This way, the installation had a cold and hard exterior that was the pictures on aluminium plates, and the softer and more vulnerable side on small pieces of paper. “Those who dared pick up the stones and read not only saw the physical, but opened up for the psychical as well. Few people actually did. It was surprising how nearly no one dared to read the poems, but they did dare to look at those naked, bare bodies.”

Another series of hers called To Form and Deform is also connected to this time of her life. It is about shaping and reshaping identity and the way she is in constant development. During our young years is the time to figure out who we are, but with the constant pressure of society hanging over us, it can be hard to decide. Trying to find yourself in a world that tells you what you should be like is difficult, and so many of us keep shaping and reshaping ourselves for a long period of our life. Nora’s picture series was inspired by a performance art piece called MELP. But instead of using clay as in the original piece, Nora has used kefir in her interpretation. The kefir illustrates a phase she is in where she is trying to be shaped, but doesn’t yet know what she wants,which is true for most of us at that stage of life.

Although Nora has found a better way to express herself to society, being an artist in Norway today is hard. If you go to an exhibition, there are few works by Norwegian artists, especially young ones. If you are not already an established artist, there are few doors open. The gallery will not profit from showing your art if you don’t have a name in the industry yet. But Nora has never taken no for an answer. Instead she has created a path for herself. Whenever people have closed the doors on her, she has gone and done it herself. “There aren’t any challenges except for the ones that you create for yourself. It’s not like everything is served to you on a silver platter, it never has been.” To her, it is important to keep working for it. It is easier to give up than to try again, but it will not get you anywhere.

There still exists an ideal in society that we aspire to be like, but many, such as Nora, are starting to break out of their insecurities by finding their own way to express themselves. Nora is still changing and developing, which is what is important to her when it comes to photography. Although she might still feel pressure from outside, she is trying not to be shaped by society, but break out of the confines of it instead. Nora and her sister grew up with a family that lived by the saying, “Teach girls bravery, not perfection.” This has taught her that instead of trying to live up to a certain ideal, the important thing is to be brave enough to stand for whatever you believe in. And that is an important lesson for us all.


Find out more about Nora Savosnick: