Jassen Todorov: The World Below Me
Jassen Todorov talks to Conchita Fernandes about his love for music and flying , and how it has helped him create stunning aerial photographs.
Amelia Earhart had once said, “Everyone has oceans to fl y, if they have the heart to do it. Is it reckless? Maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries?” Dreams that are driven by endearments of an unfathomable zeal, those that transcend barriers which often keep us safely locked up in cocoons.
But even in recklessness, how many of us have the courage to realise and conquer all our dreams? We’re often told that it’s tough and impossible to have it all, that it is best to settle and be great at one thing. Jassen Todorov begs to differ.
Not your Average photographer
“I was born in a family of musicians, and grew up being surrounded by artists who frequently visited home. It was natural for me to be drawn to music, and it is what I do full-time.” A violinist who has successfully recorded the complete sonatas of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven and Ysaye, Jassen is also a certifi ed pilot, who then took to the camera, to document the incredible sights he would witness. “Like most young boys, I had dreams of flying too. But more than that, it was this visual I had conjured up in my head, of the grand vistas that I would witness from the clouds.”
Building Up His Confidence
Fuelled with an intensity to explore unchartered territories, Jassen has now spent several years, traversing across lands and oceans. But he only began shooting around two years ago. Prior to this, he did not dare touch the camera, let alone take his hands off the airplane’s yoke. “I was terrified of crashing the aircraft, but with time, I became confident. The visuals that were in my head were now in front of me, and over time, I realised that I just had to photograph them.”
“One of the first things I learned about aerial photography is that there is no time to ponder over your shot. You’ve got to be quick because with every tilt of the plane, the light and angle changes, thus affecting the quality of your photograph. This also means that you have to know your gear inside out.” Jassen continues to talk about how the process takes time. “It shows in the photographs. To be honest, I don’t even look at the first several aerial shots that I made. But they exist as reminders of how far along I have come.” Though he may love to spend several hours in flight, the expense is what keeps his trips brief, he says.
Finding His Way Through Music
When asked which photographer inspires him the most, he avoids mentioning any, naming the legendary musician Johann Sebastian Bach, instead. “You don’t have to be a musician to understand Bach. His compositions are universal and have the power to reverberate in every individual’s mind and soul.” And what better place to listen to Bach than when you are thousands of feet in the air. “It sort of sets the mood for my photographs… don’t worry, I’m still able to maintain contact and adhere to all the required air safety regulations!” For someone who has been a musician all his life, Bach probably plays in his head, one feels, as we see his photos. He adds, “with every crescendo and diminuendo, the plane rises and descends, and I am able to better realise my shot.”
The relationship between music and the visual has always been something that has to be felt, and not just seen, interpreted and not merely informed. His influence on Jassen’s work is evident, in the way that the photos portray the patterns and rhythms of nature. Like every musical note has its own pitch and intensity, so do his aerial landscapes, with some of them eerily quiet and the others, vibrant and noisy. It just goes to show how important it is to have an intimate connection with your subject. And for Jassen, his picturemaking has always been an extension of his music.
Looking at Other Art Forms
But it’s not just music that stimulates his work. Jassen also looks for inspiration in paintings and dance. His photograph of the Intrepid Potash evaporation pond Utah for instance, reminded me of Henry George Keller’s brush strokes. He is also enamoured by movement. “I love how the wind twists with the sand to form a synchronised a dance movement over the arid desert landscape. It’s quite a sight.
On Flying Solo
He prefers to be a one man show. “It’s very hard to find an efficient pilot, one who also understands your vision. So I’d rather alternate between the plane’s yoke and my camera, than fly with a person who may not understand why I need the aircraft tilted a certain way.”
The Environmental Impact
Over the years, Jassen has feasted his eyes over several incredible locations. His photo of the Grand Prismatic Spring won him the second place in the Open Category of the Sony World Photography Awards. However, not everything he comes across exemplifies the wonder of nature. “I am saddened looking at the current state of the environment. What we’re doing is criminal.” He elaborates, “I remember flying over the Sierra Nevada for the first time and looking at snowcapped mountains. A few years later, when I visited again, there was very little snow at 3000 meters. I thought I would find some at 4000 meters, but there was barely any. I was shocked.”
What We Can Do
We need to ask ourselves what we are taking away from his work. To simply enjoy these photos is not enough. It has taken more than a century for man to devise ways of capturing this view from above. Now, it’s important that we also understand our position in the entire system that constitutes our planet. Maybe in this way, we will become aware of the harm we are causing, gradually taking the earth to a point of no return. This isn’t a new thought. Socrates had already shed light on this millennia ago. “Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”
Tips on Being a Better Photographer:
- Planning is key, especially when you are balancing more than one creative field. When I am well organised, I can play music, fly and photograph, all in a single day.
- Give yourself time to get better at what you do. The reason why I am able to do what I do is because I spent an incredible amount of time just flying. This in turn allowed me to better understand the plane and how to control it to get my shot.
About Jassen Todorov
He is an award-winning violinist, and is also a Professor of Violin at San Francisco State University. Aside from holding a commercial pilot’s license, he is also a certified flight instructor. He hopes to one day fly over the moon and shoot aerial photographs of its surface.