Berlin-based photographers Constantin Gerlach and Laura Droße document a shared passion for slow travel with their online cultural magazine onthenorway. Capturing the beauty of natural landscapes, the visual stories that result offer a fascinating insight into the culture and traditions of the regions the pair explore.
Here Constantin discusses the inspiration behind onthenorway, how exploration allows the couple to truly connect with life and why an appreciation of any locality is easier to achieve with a free spirit and open senses.
Your website lists a number of different professional roles. Have you always worked in the creative industries?
Originally I’m from Frankfurt; right in the centre of Germany. I studied a design apprenticeship at a specialist art college that focused on print before working mainly on layout and packaging projects at an agency for a few years. Around this time I’d started taking more photographs; discovering that this was more satisfying than sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours a day and eventually leading me to quit my job and a move to Berlin to study photography.
You describe onthenorway as a cultural magazine focusing on northern destinations. How do you define north? Is it a physical locality or a state of mind?
In one sense it’s the roughness of the landscape. And not necessarily to the north of Berlin because there are plenty of places in the south that share the same characteristics. But, purely from a personal perspective, I’ve been travelling to the north for as long as I can remember and I’m still drawn back to these places.
And your decision to call this project onthenorway?
I understand that it might be a little confusing as the name references Norway [laughs]. But in the ancient times this term also meant the way north and this is how we chose to use it.
You work on this project with your partner Laura. How did you both originally arrive at the format?
The way we earn a living is very client-focused and necessitates following a brief. Onthenorway is all about doing what we want to do and how we want to do it. Without any compromises and a need to explain why.
On your website it mentions visible beauty but you also refer to the north’s roughness. Why is this so significant?
It’s honest. It helps you feel closer to your environment but also to each other. If you’re sitting in a tiny hut and a storm is raging then this bonds you together somehow. And I always get the impression, from the people I’ve met on our trips, that it results in a warmness and a willingness to help because they understand the unique challenges of where they choose to live.
So this connection with the natural world is very important?
In terms of onthenorway there’s definitely something liberating about leaving your comfort zone. Deciding whether to camp out in a tent when it’s -5°C in the middle of nowhere because you want to get a nice shot as the sun comes up in the morning. And, in terms of cycling, if it hurts and you really need to push yourself then these are the days you always remember. Which is why we go north and get wet and dirty. I feel the images we make are more true when you have to endure in order to take them.
And this leads to more lasting memories?
A friend of mine from the UK tells me it’s character building [laughs]. Like when I was bike-packing a few years ago in France on a fixed-gear bike; riding more than 1,000 km along the north coast and on occasion feeling absolutely destroyed. Looking back I wonder what made me even consider this to be a good idea in the first place but it’s something I will never, ever forget.
Do you see a relationship between how modern society functions and a need for individuals to seek out adventure?
I get the impression that too often we watch from a distance rather than actually experiencing things at first hand. I recognise in myself that I spend far too much time scrolling through Instagram. Time that I could use in a more productive fashion. So it’s good to occasionally slow down and really focus 100% on things; totally immersing yourself in the moment.
Any aspects of modern living that you feel are particularly challenging?
For us it’s the expectation that you need to engage with social media almost on a daily basis. It takes us ages to select even a couple of images for Instagram so this pressure to post and maintain your digital presence is something we could easily do without. So much so that we made a conscious decision to only engage on our own terms; prioritising our photographs for the website or editorial features rather than putting all our energy into such impermanent platforms.
When you say you love to travel slowly, is this in a literal sense or a metaphor for how you choose to engage with your environment?
In a way it’s a bit of both. On one level we physically take our time on a trip but it’s also the curiosity that drives you to go where you’ve never been before. To do what you’ve never done. Taking you to the edge of the world or sometimes as simple as taking a different route home from work on your bike. And as soon as you start talking to the people you meet, the sooner you get an insight into their lives which allows you to truly connect with that locality.
Are there examples of northern culture, behaviour and habits that particularly resonate?
It’s the people that we’ve met; how they have this instinctual habit of keeping to themselves. They’re never loud in that look at me sense. And I suppose I recognise the same trait in how I feel and behave which is probably why I’m so bad at social media. And I’m addicted to cinnamon buns. Very Scandinavian [laughs].
How do you define your relationship with the weather? Especially northern weather?
Bad weather can be super interesting in terms of photography. There’s this quote I can never quite remember that talks about a lack of epicness under a bluebird sky [smiles]. When we were in Ireland the weather was changing every 10 minutes, so it would rain and then the light that immediately followed would be just amazing.
You state that you don’t seek picture perfection, so what criteria do you apply when selecting images for onthenorway?
The most important thing is whether an image transports a mood. We have two sections on our website – the visuals and the journal – and in these galleries we try to share with our audience what we ourselves felt.
Any plans for exhibitions?
We’re showing some of our work this autumn in a Berlin bookstore. Which we feel fits nicely because the partner country for this year’s Frankfurt book fair is Norway [smiles]. We both love paper and feel that photographs are meant to be printed and hung on the wall. The bigger the better. And it’s always interesting to see a group of images that tell a story – whether that’s in a book or magazine – as opposed to scrolling through individual pictures on a screen.
You live in Berlin; working in a variety of creative fields. Is that by design or chance? And is it important to have these multifaceted roles?
For me, it’s important. I quickly become bored if I’m doing the same things and I think you get better at what you’re doing if you practise related disciplines. And working with other people is also very interesting.
Speaking of collaboration, you have a number of partnerships that are linked to your trips.
We started onthenorway two years ago and we’re still fairly small. So we’re not influencers – that was never our goal – but we understand that it’s this aspect that attracts brands. We approached all the partners we have right now by making a portfolio that we could present alongside a concept of what we wanted to achieve.
And why these particular partners?
We like to work with people that think like we do. Topo designs, for example, are based in Colorado and manufacture outdoor gear but are very environmentally focused. You can send your stuff back so it can be repaired. And with Mini we did a road trip in one of their hybrid cars which we found really interesting.
What do you ride when you’re not travelling with Mini?
My current favourite bike is kind of a cross and gravel mixture that I had built last year by Cicli Bonnano; an Italian guy who lives and works in Berlin building steel frames. My road bike is also steel. I like steel [smiles].
And your camera?
Usually a Canon 5D Mark IV but for Norway we had the chance to use a Phase One camera. Medium format and insanely expensive but what was really interesting was how it perfectly suited the way we travel. The camera itself slows you down because unlike the Canon with its super quick autofocus and frames per second, the Phase One requires you to really think about what you’re doing. It doesn’t work for street photography but for portraits and landscapes it’s amazing.
So onthenorway has changed how you approach your photography?
In terms of focus, yes. With onthenorway it’s about less rather than more. Slow rather than fast. Working commercially on cycling related shoots you’re doing all these things at once: thinking, talking, directing, checking your shot list. And I love this because a certain amount of pressure makes you feel alive. But I also enjoy spending time on just that one image.
This is a recurring theme I’ve noticed in creative individuals. Navigating the balance between earning a living – with the compromises this can entail – and personal projects that express exactly what you want them to do.
The biggest challenge we face is the trips themselves because they are expensive. We were considering getting a campervan so we’d be pretty self-sufficient which means we could slow down even more. And we’d love to grow onthenorway; have our content in print. Maybe a limited edition collector’s magazine for each trip that we take?
Your website states that you’re aiming for perfection with your cinnamon buns. Just how good are they?
We get pretty good feedback but they’re still a work in progress. Like with my photography, I’m always trying hard to improve and maybe they could be a little more fluffy [laughs].
All images with kind permission of Constantin Gerlach and Laura Droße