The Faroe Islands are a jigsaw-shaped archipelago that stands alone in the middle of the North Atlantic, halfway between Norway and Iceland. I traveled to the Faroes twice in 2015, staying with people I met along the way, photographing them, their families and their homes and listening to their stories.
Years ago, I stood at Cape Finisterre in Galicia, the westernmost point of continental Europe. The name comes from the Latin finis terrae, meaning “the end of the earth”. Staring at the vast horizon, it’s easy to imagine how the Romans took it to be the end of the known world.
That which began where the known world ended, on the other side of the ocean, was labeled terra incognita – unknown land – by medieval cartographers, who assumed it was populated by dragons and other monstrous creatures.
Nowadays, every coastline and the interior of continents have been thoroughly explored, but the notion of terra incognita is still synonymous with the unknown. Yet while few places remain uncharted, there is still much about the world and our relationship with it that is mysterious and uncertain.
Hattarvik is one of two villages in the island of Fugloy (bird island), the easternmost of the Faroe Islands. Generations of the Gullaksen family have grown up in Fugloy, one of the most remote and inaccessible of the Faroe Islands, though they no longer live there permanently. Only five permanent residents remain on the island. I became close to the Gullaksens and spent a lot of time with them during my time in the Faroes. One thing I love about both photography and travel is that they provide opportunities for moments of profound intimacy with strangers.
“Photography is my way of engaging with the unknown, my excuse to see what lies beyond the horizon, to leave the familiar behind, to get deliberately lost. Since that day at Cape Finisterre, I have been traveling to remote, isolated places – from northern Norway to the Faroe Islands, from Tierra del Fuego to Greenland – with no plan other than to be open to random meetings and happenstance.”
Some of the Faroe Islands are only accessible by ferry or, more recently, helicopter. This means that during the winter months they are often cut off completely for weeks at a time when the weather is too rough for both the ferry and the helicopter to reach them. Recently, Fugloy was isolated for 23 days. This meant no access to provisions or healthcare. I asked one of the permanent residents how they coped, and she shrugged it off: “We always keep plenty of potatoes and Skerpikjøt (fermented sheep) just in case”.
“I see my work as an intimate cartography of the end of the world: an imaginary map pieced together out of fragments, impressions, stories and chance encounters. And like ancient maps, it is part documentary and part fiction – documentary in that it portrays real people and places; fiction in that it is as much a projection of my inner world as a record of those people and places.”
Family and lineage are central values in Faroese culture. Every home I visited had a wall dedicated to family portraits, some with images dating back many generations. I was amazed that the negatives, or in many cases original copies, had been preserved for so many years. Because of this, most families were keen for me to take their portrait, especially since I work with a medium-format film camera, which is similar to how the old family portraits on their walls must have been taken.
“My favourite – and I think the most vital – part of the photographic process is editing. Shooting is an intuitive process, I don’t know why I’m drawn to certain images, I just know that something happens, a flash of recognition. Often I end up with a collection of seemingly disparate images. It’s in the process of editing a series that meaning and narrative emerge, joining the dots that eventually become my imaginary map. My mentor, the great Argentine photographer Adriana Lestido, likens the editing process to a sculptor working on piece of wood. The final shape is already contained in the wood, and the artist’s job is to chisel away anything that isn’t essential.”
What usually grabs my attention is a certain atmosphere – something haunting, something out of place. A stillness loaded with tension. The ordinary turned unfamiliar by the light, say, like in this photo of the kitchen in the house of Hans Petur Kjærbo, the lighthouse keeper at Akraberg, on the southern tip of Suðuroy, the southernmost of the Faroe Islands.
Ronja is the only girl who lives permanently on the remote and enigmatic island of Mykines. In winter, the entire population is less than 15. I met her on the day before her confirmation. It was a big deal, the first confirmation on the island since 1962. Friends and family came from all over the Faroes. Her family invited me to stay and photograph the ceremony and preparations. Ronja was so shy she could barely look at me at first, but she also really wanted me to photograph her. She was 16 at the time, but seemed much younger and so innocent – a delicate, beautiful creature from a fairy tale.
I met Poulina on the ferry the first time I went to the Faroes. She was the first Faroese person I met, and opened many doors for me. She invited me to stay with her and introduced me to her family. I am interested in the relationship between people and the environment in which they live. In these latitudes, the landscape is mythical, colossal, like a gateway into mysterious, unknowable worlds. How does this landscape configure the character, identity and fate of the people who inhabit it?
Jessel is from the Philippines. Many young Faroese women leave the islands to study abroad and never return. Out of a total population of around 50,000, men outnumber women by over 2,000. Faroese men have begun to look for partners elsewhere: there is a growing community – around 200 – of Filipino and Thai women in the Faroe Islands.