Introduction: into darkness.
I spent October and November in Longyearbyen, as artist in residence in the Spitsbergen Artist Centre, hosted by its’ wonderful Director – the artist and photographer – Elizabeth Bourne. During this time we created a studio of found things – a sail cloth back drop propped up on light stands, coupled with an over sized soft box and diffuser in to which my speed lights were deployed. Over two months I co-created thirty portraits and captured fifty plus hours of interviews, no portrait was posed or directed, each instead is a moment in the course of an interview, my flash dialled down to 1/125th and balanced with ever declining light from the two windows, and then topped up by the smallest of LED panels as natural light finally disappeared. There’s a lot to be said for the dark season, everyday life is quieter, horizons diminish and there is time to spend talking in a wood lined studio in an old mining warehouse with windows facing both the Fjord and a glacier. Life in the northernmost town is always interesting, and it remains so despite the darkness.
On Wednesday October 26th, 2022, the sun set in Longyearbyen at 1.11pm. It rose again at 11.22 on the 16th February, 2023. Albeit the town didn’t get direct sunlight until March 8th. For a couple of weeks after sunset, there’s an ever shortening amount of ‘civil’ twilight until things get properly dark and the twilight disappears in to its’ nautical and astronomical forms, all measured precisely and based upon the angle the sun is residing below the horizon. In practice, blues and blacks and their gradients bloom and fade with moonlight and snow cover reflection, and proximity from the sodium street lights or LEDs.
‘Night’ no longer has sole purchase on the aurora borealis and a green ribbon sun rise surrogate might herald a shimmering red echo, flickering below the milky way. The full moon will also take an occasional spin around the sky, refusing to set but hiding occasionally behind mountains before rising sideways in fitful triumph to continue circular laps.
On the day the sun left the horizon the sky to the north turned pink, stayed pink during the afternoon and embarrassed the mountains in to a blushed pink hue before the blues came to their rescue. That same weekend the blues came to town in an altogether different shape, for the Dark Season Blues Festival, acts from all over the world celebrating the world’s most ‘northernly’ Blues music event. In between creating portraits and conducting interviews life in the dark became simpler, see friends, drink hot chocolate, follow Reindeer, watch the Fjord, and delight in the blues of all shades.
The interview/portrait technique
Everyone has a story, in some places this is more obvious, and the stories are more unique or fantastical, than others. Previous experience with the community(-ies) in Longyearbyen, in all its complexity, implied the creation of a method that might make photographic moments during the remembrance and telling of stories that were central to the people who lived them.
How then to ‘co-create’, to work with the person in such a way that we could make a portrait together whilst they told their story? In essence the answer suggested itself, invite them to the studio, explain the idea, move from interview to conversation and in the process take photographs and record.
How to do that with speed lights, how to keep a conversation natural whilst a flash pops between us and how to remain on topic whilst checking images, moving light stands and generally not directing anything? Oh and doing some of that ‘being in the moment’ thing too. That always sounds important. Who to invite, who would come, who would refuse and how quickly might this project fall apart?
It seemed precarious and fragile to begin with, and I swung between doubtful enjoyment whilst working on this method with friends, to a dour realisation of how difficult it might be to have people say yes. After all – ‘Please come and tell me the story of your life, your journey here, thoughts and reflections on what keeps you here, and do that whilst I take photographs in a ‘spooky warehouse’ at the top of the valley’ – I reasoned that might be a tough pitch. Having lived in the Artist Centre it’s neither spooky, nor any longer a warehouse, but that it was jokingly referred to as such, on one occasion, meant this description stuck.
Remarkably people came, not everyone, some I didn’t expect but was delighted to see, and others I had hoped to see, who were unable for one reason or another to make it to the studio. Those who came were generous with their time, each interview lasted an hour, many much longer, they were often candid, reflective, always engaging and sometimes challenging in ways that were unexpected.
As always, people have public and private stories, sometimes they correspond, intersect or diverge, the stories become woven within the fabric of a place and in the identity of the place and person, some stories are larger than life, whilst others are told quietly and surpass any expectation.
On the question of representation
The question of representation will always come up in a project of this type, and the people I’ve worked with could have been different. Once you start trying to represent the complex demographics of a community like Longyearbyen there’s a possibility of infinite regress. My thirty portraits would be different at another point in the year, or if a recommendation had or hadn’t been made, or if I hadn’t been an ‘artist’ for those few weeks and met other artists. These ‘sliding doors’ moments create possibilities through contingency and opportunity, and this was never going to be a social science experiment. That said, these portraits amount to a little over 1% of the community at that time, something a former social scientist might be pleased about.
They include an almost, and completely unintentional equity in the number of men and women included, but they are skewed heavily towards the international contingent of the population, albeit with a sizeable, but still under-represented group of Norwegians.
So I make no claim for anything other than these are some of the people in Longyearbyen at that time, some who had just arrived, many of whom had been there for years, and now and again a few of the ‘original’ Svalbardians, whether in circumstance, length of time, or just in the way they look at and know a place. Time and understanding moves fast in some people.
So this is a snapshot, the community will look different according to how you look and where you stand, what time of year it is and who you ask, everyone who visits the exhibition will know someone who should definitely have been part of the project, and some of them I will have asked.
Bringing images and stories together is now the challenge, matching EXIF data with audio time stamps to reconcile images and quotes, searching in a different way for what made the moment and how to add insight to the photographs alone. Words and images will be exhibited together in June and July, an exhibition that will take place where the portraits were created, before they are gifted back to those who created them with me, a circular economy of cultural production made possible by the sponsorship of MPB, whose own focus is the circular economy of used photographic equipment and whose passion for a story means they were always likely to stay involved.
It seems like a fitting and cyclical end to a years long engagement with Longyearbyen, that was two years in the planning due to the pandemic. The theme of change has animated this work, whether light, landscapes, climate or people, and not having a reason to be there is a difficult change to countenance at this point. This is somewhere that can take a liking to you, and it’s not always clear how you can leave, even if you want to. Some people stay and have nowhere else to be, the ‘Svalbardians’, a few of whom are amongst the portraits we created. Others come and go, the ones who are returning, or about to return, or planning their return, and then there are those that plan to leave, but their plans become flexible, those that are leaving in the future and were also leaving in the past. As a good friend said; ‘sometimes Svalbard isn’t quite done with you, and lots of times you’re not quite done with it’.
The portraits included here evoke stories for me, they remind me of moments – humorous, melancholic, reflective and insightful. They remind me of the scent of wood, the rattle of sewing machines from the studio next door, darkness and steep mountains seen through windows, framing the glimmer of the town by the Fjord below. Listening to people is a privilege and I couldn’t think of anywhere better than that small room, high up in an old building, beneath the possibility of the northern lights.
You can read more about this project in AP Magazine.