by Sarah Barr
Photographer Christer Berg slid three photographs on to a conference table at Carolina Ballet’s studio on Atlantic Avenue and waited to see if he had passed his own test.
Robert Weiss, the ballet’s founding artistic director, studied Berg’s work, three shots of him posed with the company’s top ballerinas.
In one, an homage to a photograph of famous choreographer George Balanchine, Weiss stood surrounded by four ballerinas in colorful costume. In another, Berg had framed Weiss sharply from the chest up, a soft-focus ballerina in white over his shoulder.
Weiss gazed at the second photo, Berg’s distillation of a decades-long career.
“There I am, and in my mind is her,” he says. “Visions of ballerinas.”
He paused, looked again at the photo, and then turned to Berg: “In a way, this captures who I am and what I’m about,” Weiss said.
Berg smiled. That’s his litmus test. He doesn’t want to play gotcha, or over-glamorize a life. He just wants to know that his subjects look at his work and see an honest version of themselves.
For nearly two years, the Raleigh photographer has been working on a series of photographs he calls “People with Purpose,” portraits of men and women whose stories Berg feels moved to tell. His one qualification is that they be people who are dedicated to the community in one way or another.
Among those in the series of what Berg calls his one-frame documentaries are artists, writers, cooks, attorneys, and farmers. He believes sharing their stories is his own purpose.
“Hopefully I’m contributing by shining a light on these individuals, particularly those who are less known, to make them more visible,” he says.
Berg, 51, typically shoots “environmental” portraits in a place where he can see his subjects at work. He uses dramatic lighting, sometimes leaving only a hint of a location, but enough to set a mood or suggest a profession.
He asked Thomas Sayre, the sculptor and co-founder of Raleigh design firm Clearscapes, to cover himself in clay and pose next to one of the concrete sculptures he casts in the ground. He had master baker Benjamin Messaoui clap a cloud of flour into the air above a wooden counter until the light filtered through it just right.
Berg says the key to his photographs is collaboration, a sense that he and his subject are on a journey together. Long before he shows up with a camera, Berg meets with his subjects – people he hopes to leave as friends – and invites them to be a part of his project. He looks for ways to work with them, rather than directing them.
When he photographed Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, and three of the men she has helped exonerate and free from prison, he wanted to set the scene in a jail, with Mumma leading the men out from behind bars.
Rather than dragging the men back to a jail, Mumma suggested they go to a horse stable. There, in a dusty barn streaming with daylight, Berg took a photo of Mumma, Willie Grimes, Dwayne Dail, and Greg Taylor. In the final print they appear together in almost complete darkness, only a thin line of bars visible behind them.
Before he started the shoot, Berg asked each of the four to close their eyes and imagine their journey. Those quiet moments of contemplation are what he and Mumma think brought the photo to life.
“That technique was dead on,” she says. “He really captured our feelings.”
Finding a way back
The series began when Berg found himself in need of a project in the fall of 2013.
For more than a year, the computer engineer-turned-business development consultant had been taking photographs, finding his way back to a craft that he’d largely left behind in high school.
He photographed the spring blossoms at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, rock concerts in downtown Raleigh venues, and the architecture of cities he visited. To learn how light plays across a human face, he hired models, gave them a “backstory” and tried to capture the emotions they portrayed.
It was a good hobby for an engineer: plenty of gear to exclaim over, numbers to memorize, and experiments to run, Berg says.
The more technically proficient he became, though, the more he aimed for artistry. Along the way, he discovered that portraits most stirred his imagination. He loved the interaction with subjects, getting to hear the stories of people he admired, and working with them to present a truthful portrait.
When Larry Wheeler, the executive director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, reviewed his portfolio and suggested he find a common thread he could use to develop his portraiture, Berg agreed.
A few weeks before his first show at the Litmus Gallery in Raleigh last summer, he came up with the name: People with Purpose. He’s since shown his work at Through This Lens in Durham and at The Point, the chancellor’s residence at N.C. State University. Last year he took home two prizes including Best in Show for arts and photography at the N.C. State Fair.
Roylee Duvall, director of Through This Lens, said Berg’s work is technically striking. His use of light draws comments from even casual visitors to the gallery. But he thinks the most important attribute of the People with Purpose series is its insistence on telling a story.
“I see it in the long run as potentially an important historical document,” he says. “Even though we think that documentation is common, it’s not as common as it might be.”
Fascination with image
Berg’s first forays into photography came as a young teenager growing up in Stockholm, Sweden. Inspired by a friend’s father, Berg got a camera and set up his own darkroom. When his father was transferred to the United States, Berg spent two years in a Connecticut high school where he took photography classes and continued to develop his craft.
At the time, the appeal was – in large part – the darkroom. He was fascinated by the way an image developed.
“It was magical,” he says. “You create something from nothing.”
Then, photography got pushed to the side for school, career, and family.
Berg moved back to Sweden for college, then went to work for a software company. He landed in the Triangle in 1995 to help his company develop a U.S. subsidiary. A few years later, he launched his own business, VentureBridge, helping European software companies establish themselves in the U.S.
Later, he returned to his information technology roots. Around the same time, he picked up photography again, ramping up his time spent with a camera when his wife, Brenda Berg, and their two children, Kelly, now 13, and Anton, now 10, left for a cross-country trip. The immersion was critical, he said.
“If you have an intense period, you can improve quicker than if you dabble along,” he says.
Since launching People with Purpose, Berg also has spun off a commercial portrait business, one he calls “Portraits with Purpose.” He hopes to continue stepping away from the IT word while building his photography business. He thinks his business background will serve him well.
“It’s not unlike any other small business development role,” he says. “You have to build relationships, you have to network, you have to figure out what customers like and how to price it.”
He has no intention of giving up People with Purpose, though. The series has become more than a project. He likes the way jazz musician Elmer Gibson told him his portrait had changed the way he thought about his career. He’s glad that Mumma got to spend time with her former clients. He cares deeply about the relationships he builds.
“It’s gone beyond just what ends up in the frame for me and hopefully for some of the participants,” he says.
Berg keeps a list of people he would like to recruit for the project. Some are names almost anyone in North Carolina would know. Others are obscure. Berg thinks there is value, and a challenge, in all of their stories.
“It doesn’t really matter if they’re a CEO or a janitor or an artist. You’re still trying to capture a picture of them,” he says. “And if they say, ‘That’s truthful, that depicts me,’ then I think I’ve been successful.”