PER BERNAL GOES FULL-ON SELFIE MODE
By Danni Levy
Photography by Peter Svenson
Per Bernal is the archetype of the classic Hollywood success story. Originally from Sweden, the 57-year-old first had his work published in 1984 and went on to become one of the most celebrated fitness photographers in the world.
Having turned the camera on himself, Per embarked on a mental and physical transformation that took years off his appearance and injected joy and enlightenment into his life. In our exclusive interview, the man who makes the movie stars shine gives a deep and meaningful insight into how the body and mind can be rejuvenated to give us the very best life has to offer.
“My transformation journey has been both mental and physical and it’s a process that started four years ago and continues to take place,” says Per. “From the outside looking in, I had a great relationship, great career, and everything a man could want. But deep down I couldn’t identify with myself and I never took a moment to enjoy the here and the now. I was always worrying about the future and looking to the next thing.
“A friend of mine has a PR agency and asked for my bio. I was sitting and procrastinating for three days; I couldn’t write one syllable. ‘How do I look at myself? How do I describe myself?’ I couldn’t answer those questions. “I didn’t appreciate my own art, and that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? I was like, ‘Yeah, I could do better.’ Instead of enjoying what was in front of me, I’d say, ‘I could’ve done better. The other shoot was better.’ I was focusing on the negative, instead of the positive. I’ve shot the best of the best and people say, ‘Yeah, great job. These images are amazing.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, thank you so much,’ but inside, I never felt it. I didn’t feel that I was good enough.”
Of course, that’s good in a sense, because it breeds perfectionism. You push, you push, you push, but how about happiness?
“I went through a separation from my partner after thirty years together. We shared a wonderful life together, in every aspect, but sometimes it’s just time to move on. When I looked back at my teen years, I reflected, and said, ‘I was really great.’ For most people, their younger years represent a very good version of themselves. I wanted to find my way back to that sense of self worth.”
Per says letting go of control is the key to opening the door to infinite happiness.
“I let go of the need for control, because that’s what’s really taxing on you as a person,” he says. “I was constantly trying to control the future, trying to control the outcome of events. And it just doesn’t work, it’s just so much work. What killed me for so many years, was just worrying about tomorrow, ‘Where am I going to make the next buck? How am I going to survive?’ I think a lot of people could relate to that.
“When you take that out of the equation, you’re living in the now which gives you a chance to see opportunities that come almost every day in one form or another. To be able to take advantage of that, you need to declutter the mind. Let’s say you have an agenda, you have problems, you’re so focused on those aspects of life, that you’re missing what’s going on around you, all the opportunities that are just ahead of you, in front of you. This has been an ongoing thing, for the past four years for me and I’m finally able to live in the moment and appreciate the present.”
“I was constantly trying to control the future, trying to control the outcome of events. And it just doesn’t work, it’s just so much work”
In order to embark on a mental reset, Per recommends we sit back and surrender.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he says. “We’re often so preoccupied trying to compare ourselves to others or meet our own expectations. We’re pushing so hard to control the outcome and to have it a certain way and when we don’t measure up to that, it becomes a negative cycle.
“You have to surrender to win. Surrender the control of the ego. When it comes to life events, just enjoy the journey, just let it happen and unfold by itself. Have faith that ‘God’s rejection is your protection.’”
Per attributes a calm mind to certain daily habitual practices.
“Meditation and prayer have been so instrumental for me to help calm the mind, de-stress, and declutter the brain,” he says.
“When you sit down and meditate, your mind starts racing. They call it the ‘monkey mind’. But just let that happen. When I close my eyes to meditate, I say, ‘I surrender to win.’ And I just repeat it, until the mind quietens down.
“When you start living in the moment, if you don’t need control, you know what happens? You start letting go of fear.
“When you let go of that fear and control, in a relationship for example, you start to realize; ‘You know what? I don’t need possession. I don’t need to have ownership of a person.’ And when that happens, jealousy disappears. And you can apply that to every area of life, you start to accept that things are not always supposed to be a certain way and everything falls into place.
“We simply cannot control the future. Sure, we can prepare, be disciplined, work hard, and turn every stone to try to achieve a certain goal or outcome. But when the time comes, just roll with it and whatever happens, happens.
“I started relaxing and my mind started expanding.”
Per says diet and fitness have been fundamental to his personal program.
“Fitness is a big thing for me,” he says. “I do a lot of cardio and high volume gym training. I meditate, I do my prayers, grab a coffee, and hit the gym. Cardio has been the most instrumental thing. I’m fortunate enough to have a gym at my house. I do one hour hard cardio, and then I do around forty minutes high volume circuit training five days a week. I also started intermittent fasting, which has yielded unbelievable benefits.
“In the past, I ate at the wrong times for the wrong reasons. I was running on survival instinct. I was a foster kid, so I never felt secure, that someone was there, having my back. Food gives you comfort; it’s a coping mechanism for stress. Sitting in front of the computer retouching for days on end also brought on a lot of boredom snacking. But luckily, I hit a wall in my life, and what really brings change into our lives is pain. It’s like pain is the touchstone of change.
“My physical change came through intermittent fasting, so not eating before noon. It completely eradicated inflammation in my hands and body.
“My relationship with food completely changed. I didn’t need to snack. Now, I eat whatever I want, but I do it responsibly. I make sure I’m hungry when I eat, but I do allow for nice dinners out and the odd glass of wine.”
Whether he’s shooting a top A-lister like The Rock, or an up-and-coming fitness model, Per photographs each and every one of his subjects with immense passion and integrity. As an editor, I can always find a version of every single image that’s ‘just right,’ as each and every frame is captured and the essence of the movement and character of the protagonist is reflected so beautifully in the thousands of images Per delivers with each session.
“When you start living in the moment, if you don’t need control. You know what happens? You start letting go of fear”
“I think I’m a disciplined perfectionist,” says Per. “There is some fear involved in my work to an extent which stimulates that need for perfection and I’ll always retain that element to my professional personality. From the day I first picked up a camera, I didn’t want to screw up. When I started out, I was even more of a perfectionist. I was like, ‘Let’s do that image again. Let’s do another one. Let’s do another one.’
“It’s also is out of respect for the people that I work for, the person in front of the camera, and myself. I want to represent, I want to bring the best I can. And I think it’s drive, it’s a lot of discipline, and it’s just how I work. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do my best.”
“You have to surrender to win. Surrender the control of the ego”
Per has photographed pretty much every A-lister you can think of, but says there are still stones he hasn’t turned, plus reveals his plans to inject something new into the wellness media sector.
“I would love to shoot some rappers or music stars,” he says. “When it comes to bodybuilding, I’ve shot most of the top athletes. Over the past two years, there’s a lot of new talent coming out. I’ve been very fortunate.
“Im the CEO of my new company, Fittyflix, and I’m going to have a role in the front of the camera. That’s something I’ve never done before. Is it out of my comfort zone? Absolutely, 100%. But facing fear is the only way to overcome it. I feel like a kid. I’ve become my 19-year-old self again.
“Fittyflix is going to be a fitness app that’s like a Netflix for fitness. The message is all about how to change your blueprint, so it’ll address the mind, body, and spirit. That’s what I want to share with people. There’s no reason you should be walking around feeling shit. There is help, self-help. There are so many diet and training apps and we’ll cover that, but how about the mental space?
“My physical change came through intermittent fasting, so not eating before noon. It completely eradicated inflammation in my hands and body”
“I want this app to be like an instrument to light the fire in your chest and help you stay motivated. It’ll be a celebrity-based subscription app with training videos and podcasts, covering everything from bodybuilding fitness, to Ayurveda, meditation, and yoga.
“Fitness is such an amazing thing. Isn’t it amazing how you can shape your body through training? Just imagine you could shape your mental space too. That’s what I want to share with others. For me, it’s been an amazing journey. And to feel young again is just incredible.
“We’re working on the beta version and content production at the moment and we hope to launch in the spring of 2022.”
“Fittyflix is going to be a fitness app that’s like a Netflix for fitness”
Despite glowing from the inside out, Per insists his youthful looks are a by-product of his positive mental attitude.
“I’ve only had one cosmetic procedure,” he says. “I fixed my teeth with celebrity dentist, Dr. Tom Connolly. I’ve never used Botox. I like Clinique products for men, I use their moisturizer and scrub, but that’s it. It’s interesting, I have images of myself, before and after, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I wasn’t very happy then.’ I’m not saying that I’m a beautiful person, but I say beauty comes from the inside, so I think when you start loving yourself, it’s just going to come out.
“We’re the prisoners of our own minds. And when we’re too used to a certain lifestyle, we think that’s where happiness is, and when we don’t have it, we become fearful and start to worry. I freed myself in the mind; I let go of that prison. It’s interesting, as people we are afraid of finding out what we’re made of. I think we all have seeds of excellence in us. I think we’re meant to explore that in ourselves.
“Instead of being exploratory daredevils, a lot of us play it safe as we succumb to the restrictive prison of the comfort zone. The challenge is to break loose. I feel so free in my mind now. It’s amazing.
“I think we all have to find our own voice, that’s what’s important. Fellow photographers ask me, ‘What is the secret?’ And I say, ‘It’s your own voice.’ Because what I’m showing is my view, through my colored glass. It’s your color, it’s your voice.
“Instead of being exploratory daredevils, a lot of us play it safe as we succumb to the restrictive prison of the comfort zone. The challenge is to break loose”
“Stay authentic, stay true to yourself, there’s only one of you. You are perfect, in your own way. And if you stay true to that, people are always going to listen to you.
“As we go through life and experience hardship, it douses down the fire within us and we start to dim. Through these methods that I’m behind, and the tools that I’ve learned, we can get that fire going, forever. Of course our bodies age, but we can retain that fire. We can become ourselves once again and feel like we’re twenty years old. Of course, we’re going to have a few kinks in the armor, so to speak, but the fire can be there, if we learn to live in the now, and let go of the control.
“Control is boring. Why do want to know the outcome of tomorrow? Surprise is the spice of life.
“Have that faith that everything happens for a reason. If you’re going through challenging times, instead of feeling like you’re a victim, say to yourself, ‘You know what? God, the universe, actually wanted me to grow in these areas.’ There are no failures. If you start a company and it fails, you might have lost money, but how about the experience you have? Isn’t that what’s valuable? The experiences you get, what you’ve learned to prepare you for the next stage.”
Determined to make the most of new experiences, Per saw no better way to play than to invest in the very bike that graces the cover of this issue.
“When we decided to shoot Darren Barnet for the cover of Muscle and Health, I started brainstorming ideas and I felt he had a bit of James Dean look,” he says.
“Fitness is such an amazing thing. Isn’t it amazing how you can shape your body through training? Just imagine you could shape your mental space too. That’s what I want to share with others.”
“The Harley has opened up a new phase in my life, because every Thursday the Bartels have a meeting on Lincoln Boulevard, here in Venice. Us bikers get together, we grab a beer, we talk. It’s opened up new friendships and collaborations. That’s what’s so interesting about life, you open a door, you go through it, and it could be completely life-changing. Having the freedom to be on the bike, and take it up Malibu is so much fun.”
Ever iconic, Harleys continue to spark the imagination of generations new and old, THE EVOLUTION OF HARLEY-DAVIDSON provides the low-down on one of the most globally recognized brands in history.