Tall, stunning, and always stylishly dressed, Tonje Thoresen is a Paris-based Norwegian photographer, former model and designer who has worked internationally on photographic projects in fashion, politics, lifestyle and sports. She also published a book of Vintage Couture fashion patterns. Her life took a major turn a few years ago when a brain tumor caused her to suddenly lose her eyesight. After a life-saving operation and spending one-and-a-half years in rehabilitation, she has been learning to adapt to a new way of living while raising a teenage daughter on her own.
Now, she wants to share her story to challenge people’s perceptions of blindness and show that it is possible for people with a disability to not just survive, but to thrive with the right support and mindset.
Tonje, tell us what inspired you to move to Paris, and what you were doing then?
I had just finished studying fashion design in Berlin in 1990 when I came to see some of the fashion shows and I fell in love with Paris. Everything was beautiful and inspiring — the buildings, the way women have their own style and dare to look different. Although I didn’t speak the language, I was dying to come here. One year later, I moved here to find an internship or a job in fashion. But first, I had to learn the language, so I took French classes for three months. After knocking on doors for about a year, I finally landed an internship with the couture house Louis Féraud, where I learned a lot — from sewing, to drawing, and painting scarves that were actually produced in Switzerland. I also started modeling in their fashion shows.
What are some of the highlights of your career?
From a very young age, I’ve always had a strong desire to do many different things. I have worked throughout my whole life and I’ve had three distinct careers, each of which was equally rewarding and moving me forward.
After moving from Berlin to Paris to pursue a job in fashion, I worked for a few years as a model for brands including Dior, Chanel, Carven and L’Oréal just to pay the bills. But, I soon realized that it was impossible to get a job I wanted in the industry, partially because I did not have the network that would have come with studying in Paris. So, in 1997, I launched my own women’s ready-to-wear clothing line with my former partner, and we opened a very nice boutique near the prestigious Place Vendome. I was 28 years old at the time and that was the happiest day of my life! Our boutique did very well at first, but we had to close down suddenly after a couple of years. They were very intense and challenging years, but I learned a lot about the fashion world and established contacts that became useful in my next career as a photographer.
I never had any formal training as a photographer. But, I have always insisted on being autonomous and doing things on my own. So, I started photographing kids at my daughter’s school, and a very good friend of mine who is a photographer said: “just start and I’m sure you will make it.”
My first job was with Norwegian Elle magazine, for which I interviewed and photographed the renowned Norwegian designer Peter Dundas. Over the years I have photographed diverse events, especially political debates, the French Open Roland-Garros tennis tournament and couture fashion shows alongside French photographer Patrice Stable.
I’ve always been particularly intrigued by portraits because of my desire to know the person in front of me and to allow this person to speak through their image. Many people have told me that I manage to make them forget the camera lens, to feel at ease and fully trust me. One of my absolute achievements has been to make viewers of my photos see beyond the immediate beauty and into the soul of the portrait.
Some highlights of my photography career include my portraits of Peter Dundas, Christian Louboutin and Norwegian tennis player Casper Ruud.
When did you become blind and how did it happen?
I had a brain tumor which was unfortunately diagnosed too late. For two years, I had been seeing doctors for various problems, like migraines, heart problems, pain in my legs, and toothaches, but nobody could pinpoint the problem. Then, something exploded in my brain and the doctors couldn’t operate quickly enough before I lost my sight. After the operation in the summer of 2020, I remained unconscious in the hospital for three months. I then spent one-and-a-half years in rehabilitation at the hospital because it took me a long time to relearn certain things.
What has been the most difficult part of adapting to your new situation?
The main challenge for me has been learning to ask for help without feeling guilty and without feeling like I’m a parasite. Today, I am not ashamed to ask for help.
While in the hospital, I learned the importance of explaining how I lost my sight instead of just saying that I’m blind, to help other people better understand my situation and cooperate with me. Since then, I have encountered many people who help me so much, and I often give them a hug in return if they allow me to.
Then there is the issue of touching. If I don’t touch people, I have the impression that I have never met them. In a way, I feel like I haven’t met anyone since all this happened. I only hear people. That’s why I try to focus on other issues and nice things to talk about, or listen to books and turn to other things that I am capable of doing.
I have been so inspired by the positive attitude you portray on your Instagram feed, despite the many challenges you’ve been going through. What messages are you trying to convey to your followers?
With the 2024 Paralympics coming up, I want to share my story internationally and tell other handicapped people and their families that there are possibilities to work and to still have a life despite being handicapped.
I also want to spread the word about the wonderful hospital where I was so well taken care of — the Hôpital Saint-Marie in Paris. Many blind people in France do not know about this place, which offers neurological and orthopedic rehabilitation to help patients regain autonomy after major illnesses or traumas.
Additionally, I try to let people know that it is not a good idea to touch blind people without first asking permission verbally. It’s important to first identify yourself, and say hello, then offer to help.
Finally, I want to tell other blind people that it’s important to be confident in using a cane. For some people, especially men, it is an issue of shame. This shame is very sad in many ways because it’s a waste of time and it is destructive. My daughter is not always keen on going out with me, because I am not afraid to poke my cane around a little bit!
What are your plans moving forward?
A 19-year-old student recently made a documentary about me, so I would like to see him try to enter it in a short film competition in Norway, here or in the United States.
I want to share my story and tell people that we are quite capable of doing things even if we have lost our sight.
I have a lot of ideas for projects, but I also need to remind myself to be patient and that it’s important to relax and focus on how things function at home under my new circumstances. Speaking at conferences interests me, and I have almost written a whole book in English. I am also making new patterns for knitting. Perhaps I can give photography lessons, teach pattern making or teach German, which is my favorite language.
What advice do you have for people who want to help you or someone else who is blind?
If you encounter a blind person asking for directions and you have five minutes, offer to let them hold your elbow and guide them. Or, if you see a blind person searching for something in a shop, ask them what they are looking for and offer to help them find it. Very seldom do people offer to help voluntarily, but now and then people do and that is a beautiful thing. It also doesn’t hurt to give them compliments now and then to brighten up their day!
Think about life as a boomerang: whenever I give something, I get something back, so what goes around comes around.
Credits for all Maria Biel photos of Tonje Thoresen:
Photographer: Maria Biel
Styling & Clothing: WoW Vintage Galerie
Makeup: Christina Lutz
I thought this would be a heartbreaking story but Tonje is not a victim of her circumstances which is incredibly inspiring and her attitude to what has happened to her makes me rethink how I deal with challenges ! What a cool woman hope her documentary is widely shared
Thank you for your comment Sarah! We’ve relayed your message to Tonje, and it made her day! 🙂