In the media-saturated world we live in today the “caps-lock headlines with bright colour are only creating fear and skepticism,” according to Oslo-based French photographer Sébastian Dahl. This in part was inspiration for an epic hitchhiking journey that took him from Oslo to Beirut, Lebanon back in 2012. Over 3 months, Sébastian documented his time on the road with not much other than a camera and some travel essentials, hitching in a total of 112 vehicles and “improcouching” in kind strangers’ homes along the way. He hopes that by sharing his experience that he can cast a positive light on this sometimes-skeptical mode of travel.
So in timing with his exhibition at Cyan gallery this month, Tom Lenartowicz spoke to the 27-year-old about his journey…
Why particularly Oslo to Beirut?
This is a question I often get and the answer I usually give is: falafel. I didn’t have a particular reason to chose Beirut as the first place I wanted to hitchhike to. It sounded like an interesting place to travel to and I thought Arabic could be an interesting new language to learn. Prior to leaving I asked a journalist friend of mine who knows the region well if she thought it would be cool to live there for a year and she was quite positive; that was enough for me.
Had you been on similar trips before?
I’ve been traveling a lot with my parents as a kid, mostly road trips in Europe and back and forth between my family in Norway and my family in France. As I grew older I started going on smaller trips on my own, hitchhiking around my home town and then gradually longer trips. In 2006 I turned 18 and did my first “long” trip: I booked an airplane ticket to Dublin, Ireland and a return ticket from London, England. During the 3 weeks I was on the road I realised how easy and fun it is to hitchhike even for long periods of time. It was a big eye-opener and I often think of that trip as the trip that changed my life. At the time I stayed in youth hostels and in my tent but on my next trips (mostly in Europe) I started couchsurfing and one day when I was hitchhiking south from Norway I just started asking random people in the streets if they could host me; I was surprised to see how easy it was to find a host and this is what I now call improcouching (improvised couchsurfing).
How much planning went into the trip?
Because I’ve been improcouching on my last trips I haven’t needed to plan a lot of things. Before traveling to Beirut I did some research about which places are safe and which are not. The idea of a “safe” place is very subjective so I take every advice I can get but rely mostly on my instincts.
What was your main mission? What did you want to portray?
It was important for me to have a project before leaving – I didn’t want to be a tourist with a camera. Photojournalism and conceptual photography are a big source of inspiration for my work, so before leaving I needed to have some projects to work on. With some help from my friends and mentors I landed on 4 different projects; passengers, right-side window, portraits from the road and improcouching. These are 4 of the 6 projects I’m showing at Cyan gallery this month.
With time I have found that my main mission is to show that we live in a world filled with warm and welcoming people. I want to inspire people into being more generous and I want to show them that the world we live in is misrepresented in mainstream/mass-media. Caps-lock headlines with bright colour are only creating fear and skepticism. My main mission is to counter-balance this to create hope and enthusiasm.
At this point I need to stress something: Having a Norwegian passport and being male are two real advantages: I can basically travel where I want without any hassle. I’m using these advantages to achieve my mission and my hope is that I can inspire people into being less fearful, more welcoming.
Were people happy to help you out, and have their picture taken?
During the 3 months I was on the road, I only slept in a hotel once. The rest of the time I always found someone to host me and it was never too difficult. Of the 112 cars I hitchhiked with, only one person did not want to have his portrait taken in the car (outside of the car was OK). I find this quite amazing and I think it’s a good proof that we live in a world filled with warm and welcoming people.
Can you describe a typical day of your trip?
Wake up somewhere, remember where I am, think about what’s next. Walk a lot, explore, take pictures, write my diary, find a place to hitchhike from (hitchwiki.org is great), hitchhike for a few hours, talk to people, talk to more people, find a place to spend the night, ask people to host me, stay with them for a night or more, write down experiences and thoughts, explore a city, find a new direction to hitchhike, etc, etc, etc.
Given the sometimes negative stigma that surrounds hitchhiking, what would you say to people who have worries of traveling using this method?
lt may sound extreme to hitchhike 10,000km from Oslo to Beirut, but keep in mind that this is something I’ve done progressively; small trips first, gradually longer ones, staying in youth hostels and couchsurfing first, then improcouching. I wouldn’t’ recommend inexperienced people to do this. If you want to travel, just do it but if it seems extreme, think about it and don’t put yourself in too much danger. With time you’ll find which ways of traveling suit you best and what limits you have.
What’s your next plan?
In August this year I’m continuing where I left off; I’m hitchhiking east from Turkey to Japan. I can’t start in Lebanon because Syria is in the north and east and the south borders with Israel are closed. I will continue working with the same projects as last time, but will try to write a bit more around the idea of borders, the unfairness of passports (why are we closing our borders to some, and not to others?) and gender inequality because it’s very unfair that I can travel as I please just because I’m male.
Sébastian has an exhibition of his Oslo-Beirut photos at Cyan gallery from 19-31 May. Find out more here.