|"I was struck with a feeling familiar, I suppose, to many people whose long history goes back to a country far away from the place where they grew up. I was a naive North American, in spite of my stored knowledge. Past and present lumped together here made a reality that was commonplace and yet disturbing beyond anything I had imagined."
- From the book The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munroe
Vestur + Íslendingurwas created in Iceland in April of 2008, and reflects my journey through the landscape as a person of Icelandic descent looking upon the 'homeland' for the first time.
The original impetus for going to Iceland was to reconnect with familial roots and to investigate the potential similarity between the landscape of Iceland and the landscape of Manitoba (the place my ancestors came to settle). I thought there might be visual clue that would form a connection between the two environments. However, similar to the opening quote from Alice Munroe, I was instead eclipsed by the sense that I had no frame of reference, nothing to look back onto to conjure up feelings of home.
The pictures I’ve decided to incorporate into this series about Iceland reflect this mixture of feelings. At times I was flabbergasted by the immensity and beauty of the place, at other times I experienced a strange sense of dislocation, alienation and an absence. This body of work represents my process as I negotiated the line between beauty and the mundane, and the past and present.
To the people I met in Iceland I was known as a 'West Icelander'. A 'West Icelander' is "a term given by those in Iceland to the descendants of individuals who immigrated to Canada during the period of 1875 – 1910."1 As my brother told me, this is an inclusive and positive term given to descendents and is intended to draw a commonality between the two groups of people. In other words it means: "you are like us because you have a ancestral lineage in Iceland". It was an odd juxtaposition to be accepted when I felt so out of place, yet this is one of the reasons I would choose to return to Iceland if given the chance.
I feel this work fits well with this year's Exposure theme of "Perception" in two ways. First, on a visceral level, I was figuratively turned on my head in terms of the physical reaction I experienced in relation to the landscape: my perceived notion of the place was completely different than the real life experience and it felt completely unfamiliar.
Second, on a cultural level, my perception of 'Icelandic-ness' was related to my experience growing up in a third-generation community of Icelanders (on my mother's side), that carried with them an historical idea of Icelandic culture rooted in the turn of the century. This conception of 'Icelandic' was very different than the actual culture of present day Iceland.
The title Vestur + Íslendingur (West + Icelander) is intended to draw attention to my experience as a western descendent exploring the landscape. As is immediately apparent, there are no portraits of people in the series and so I hope visitors to the exhibition will draw the conclusion that the 'West Icelander' is actually me, and that the vantage point represented by the camera is my experience of the land. The "+" symbol is also deliberate because I'm imagining that person living outside of Iceland or the Icelandic community might easily mistake the term as referring to someone who lives in the western of Iceland, as opposed to one who lives in North America but who has Icelandic ancestry. I hope people will 'snag' on this symbol and question its placement. As a photographer, my position was more of an addition to the landscape, than it was integration. I believe this distance is evident in the images represented in exhibition.
This work was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.
1. Pascoe, Wray. "Are You a "Western Icelander?" Lögberg Heimskringla, The Icelandic Community Newspaper. April 15th, 2007. Number 8.