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Note to myself: A journey about fear, expectations & arctic waters.

After boarding the third plane on my way from Germany to a small airport in the county of Nordland, Norway, my head started spinning. How could I think that traveling to Norway in the middle of winter to take photos in arctic waters was a good idea? What was I thinking? Thoughts started racing inside my mind: I didn’t do enough research. I am not prepared for this, I haven’t surfed in months. I haven’t even trained. It’s going to be way too cold for me to handle. I am scared.

I looked outside the window of the plane to calm me down, taking a couple of breaths while observing the deep blue Fjords underneath us. I grabbed my notebook and wrote the following lines:

A note to myself:
Don’t ever think your photos are not good enough.
No matter how the photos from this trip turn out, they will be worth showing. Jumping in the ocean to take photos when it’s -10 degrees requires courage. It’s f*cking scary. Maybe it’s not a big deal for some people, but for me, it is. And for this reason only, I should be proud of myself and of my work.

My plane eventually landed in Narvik, a beautiful city nested in the mountains, 239 km away from my final destination, the Lofoten. The lady at the car rental looked at me and said, “well darling, drive safe—the roads are covered in ice”. I was nervous. I stepped outside, it was freezing and dark but I could see the massive amount of snow everywhere. It took me 30 minutes to get my rental car out of the snow. While I was scratching the ice of the windows, standing in knee-deep snow, I kept telling myself I can do this. I can do anything if I just put my mind to it. And the more I did that, the happier I got and eventually couldn’t stop smiling. I was actually here on my way to the Lofoten, 169 km inside the Arctic Circle, with all my gear and I knew: I can do this.

After the struggle, came the time to finally drive into a winter wonderland. Roads narrowed down with walls of snow, behind it countless trees bowing over with the weight of snow. Slow and steady, while admiring this beautiful sight, I drove towards my first destination: a lakeside bed & breakfast not far from Narvik, where I spend my first night and met up with Klaudinya. 

Klaudinya is a diving instructor & water enthusiast from Poland I met months ago in Portugal. We hit it off straight away back then, and she decided to join me for the next two weeks on this trip. I’ve always found it challenging to find a travel buddy when you are a photographer; no one has enough patience. Luckily, Klaudinya was very patient, and she has the same need as me to be close to the water at all times, which made us the perfect fit.

The next day, K and I drove to the Lofoten archipelago, which normally only takes a few hours from Narvik. It took us a whole day because we had to stop at every corner to take in the mind-blowing scenery: Gigantic Mountains that tower up over countless of fjords, which creates impressive reflections in the water, colourful little villages covered in snow, reindeers crossing the streets and majestic sea eagles circling in the blue sky. This Canadian girl we met described this scenery quite well. She said: “Every morning I look out the window, I think I just woke up in a screensaver.” That really sums up the way we felt – constantly overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of this place. The weather is notoriously unpredictable though. Sunshine and blue sky one minute, thick fog and a snow storm the next. It is very challenging as a photographer because you are constantly being reminded that you might only get one chance to capture a certain moment; if you wait too long, it could be gone forever.

A few days into our trip exploring the area, we finally arrived at our main destination, the small surfing village of Unstad, one of the most beautiful cold water surf spots on Earth. The waves were quite big on our first day in Unstad, so we decided to dip our toes into the water in a smaller bay nearby. Putting on a wetsuit when it is minus 10 degrees outside was definitely a challenge, but I was excited. The feeling of snow under my neoprene boots while walking on the beach, the giant mountains around the bay, the crystal-clear water; it all seemed a bit unreal. The reality finally hit when we jumped into the water. Holy shit, I thought, it’s really f*cking freezing. I took a few shots, but I was not completely focused, all I could think about was the cold and my lack of preparation for this. I lasted about 10 minutes in the sea. 

Lofoten05_2020_c_JuliaOchs

While my travel companion Klaudinya jumped around like a happy seal, I simply stood there, being annoyed at myself that I couldn’t live up to my own expectations and be okay in the water. Klaudinya and I decided to walk to the next beach where bigger waves could be found, suits still on and camera gear at hands. Two local surfers walked past us, gave us a weird smile and told us that the waves were a bit too big for us “girls” to go for a swim. They then added that we should not geotag the place.

This moment was crucial for me. I knew the waves were big, and it’s not like we were even planning on swimming out, but who were they to tell us that? The thing that affected me the most is their judgement: they didn’t know us, but assumed we were not good enough to swim and photograph those kinds of waves, and that annoyed me. So, no, it was not my best first experience in arctic waters. We got changed and drove back to our accommodation, Unstad Arctic Surf Lodge, where we got to know Ole, a local surfer who agreed to keep me company during my first proper photo session the day after. 

The sun came over the mountain covered in snow. The turquoise water started shimmering, the gentle offshore breeze held the small waves open, and I was not only blinded by this incredible beauty but also by the spray from the feathering edge of the breaking waves.

The next morning, Klaudinya went for a diving trip, and I met up with Ole at the beach. Nervous and still a little rattled from my prior experience, I started asking Ole questions about rips and currents in Unstad. He just smiled. The waves were friendly that morning, with no one else out. I couldn’t stop thinking that Ole was probably making fun of me, laughing about this German “wanna-be-waterphotographer”. And then I realized something: nobody is here to judge me, and no one really cares anyway, not even those two guys from yesterday. The only person that is judging me is myself.

I am the one putting this huge amount of pressure on myself to not be scared, but for what? It’s okay to be scared. I live in Germany, I haven’t been surfing in a few months and on top of that, I am in unknown territory. And what is the worst thing that can happen anyway? I am not alone—Ole is surfing right next to me, and if I can’t handle the cold anymore, I am confident he will make sure I get to shore safely.

So, just breath and go, I told myself. And there I went, trying to keep up with Ole’s paddling pace, diving under the first few waves coming my way. It wasn’t scary. Suddenly, everything fell into place. The sun came over the mountain covered in snow. The turquoise water started shimmering, the gentle offshore breeze held the small waves open, and I was not only blinded by this incredible beauty but also by the spray from the feathering edge of the breaking waves.

The cold was forgotten and I even lost track of time. Around 1.5 hours later my memory card was almost full and I realized that my body was pretty tired so I slowly swam back to shore. Exhausted at that point, the last few meters seemed to take forever, but I managed to get back to the snowy beach and even walked all the way back to the lodge—without feeling my fingers or toes—but I was happy and proud.

The next few photo sessions, I swam out on my own. I went every single day at sunrise and sunset. I didn’t surf in between as shooting was tiring enough, but I was okay with it as I was here to take photos and not to surf myself.

After one week I was ready to leave Unstad. The Lofoten is a magnificent place, but the challenge it required from me daily was a lot to take in and I was excited to spend my last few days further north without the sea on our doorstep (surprisingly!).

The battle in my mind continues: the performance pressure versus the confidence. Thinking that my work is not good enough versus believing that it is. It’s a constant fight and I am not sure I will be able to overcome it soon, but in the meantime, I grab my notebook and read the note I wrote to myself.

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