I visited the same places - the black church at Búðir, the black sands at Vik, the ‘diamond beach’ at Jökulsárlón. I saw the same unnerving, ethereal, alienating landscape. I took the same camera. And yet Iceland in December 2016 was a world apart from Iceland in July 2018. Of course, holidays with friends are markedly different to travelling with family. The daylight hours certainly made an impact, the post-graduation exhaustion did too. But there was something else that made the two trips feel so different...
The photos I took on my first trip to that little rocky island are probably of better quality than anything I’d done before and arguably since. They are carefully composed, adequately exposed and painstakingly edited. I was helped a great deal by our tour-guide, Thor. A gruff, knowledgeable, straight-talking man with a 4x4 and a magnificent beard, he was a true Icelander, and an excellent photographer.
These shots of a cave in Vik and an iceberg nearby the ‘glacial lagoon’ were one of dozens I took at each location, and have drawn a fair few gasps of admiration from kind friends and family.
And yet, they feel oddly empty. Technically fine, emotionally rather dull.
Compare them to the shots from similar locations in this video - made on my second trip to Iceland. Footage is shaky, often underexposed, and thrown together in an order that reflects an erratic, overly drawn-out editing schedule. The voiceover pops occasionally and the sound effects are sometimes cliched. It is the personification of hodgepodge and amateurism and technical naivety...
And yet I love it.
I love that video - out of all the things I've made, it’s probably my favourite. Partly that’s because of Lucie’s stunning poem, which would make blurry shots of a puddle feel weighty and powerful. Partly it’s because of the sheer quantity and variety of footage I had to play with, thanks to the patience of my companions tolerating a camera in their faces at every turn.
But mostly it’s because the video pretty perfectly captures the emotional canvas upon which those memories were painted. Unlike the photos taken a year earlier, the video feels like I am opening up a little part of my heart, and presenting it, raw and unkempt, to the world.
Fundamentally, the photos I took hide more than they show.
This one, taken near a waterfall in Þingvellir national park, denies by its composure and grace the existence of, for example, our tour guide pointing out the spot, holding my tripod and helping me out with my ND filter. It balks at the thought that I was wet and miserable and my hands were frozen, and my near-hyperthermic sister was shouting at me to get back in the car. And it smothers any notion that I had spent 4 hours editing another painfully similar photo, before giving up in despair and selecting this one instead. No, it is a nice, pretty photo with a nice, pretty river in it.
Of course, I am not condemning my friends and family for liking these photos - for a photographer to claim total ownership of the emotions a photo inspires in an audience is to deny any notion of the personalisation of art. The author, as they say, must die - and I'm happy to metaphorically do so.
Similarly, I am not saying the video does not hide things: the natural emotional tension that come with being locked in a vehicle and/or tents with three other people for two weeks, the terrible cough I had towards the end of the trip that made my voice go all croaky and my mood take a nosedive, and that embarrassing dent in the door of the rental car that we had to pay extortionately for.
But what the video does do, and why ultimately I love it more than anything else I’ve created, is that it shows all the messes, raw and unkempt, and it shows the importance those messes were to four weirdos with funny hats.
Because while the caves and the rivers and the icebergs will always be there for a budding young photographer to agonise over - those messes were fleeting, special, and above all, ours.