For four years photographer Erika Larsen immersed herself in a project about the Sámi, the semi-nomadic reindeer hunters living on ancestral ground between Sweden and Norway.
Her beautifully quiet and poignant collection of images capturing the indigenous daily life of the Sámi is about to be released in book form. I was fortunate enough to interview this talented shutterbug about the Sámi way of life, her book, and the duality of beauty in the wild.
danapop (dp) Where did your interest in these indigenous people and their culture come from?
Erika Larsen (el) I have always had an interest in learning from people connected to the natural world, as I believe their knowledge is extremely valuable. I also have a deep interest in the Arctic landscape and wanted to meet people that could interpret the Arctic language. The Sámi were one group of those people.
dp How does one even prepare for a trip like this?
el Actually, I had no idea what to prepare for when I went. I went on my first trip and learned as I went along what the life was like and what I would need to live there. Looking back, I believe learning the language was the biggest necessity.
dp Were there images you wish you could’ve captured but didn’t or couldn’t?
el Every now and then on a very cold, clear day, the ice particles in the air would reflect the sun and the air would fill with rainbow glitter. I could never capture this on film and it must be one of nature’s most magical moments.
dp What do you feel like the Sámi people brought to you?
el The most unique thing that the Sámi did for me was to help change my perception of time. They also gave me much deeper respect and understanding of the family unit and values, as well as the importance of community. They were also guides and teachers for me into the amazing Arctic landscape. This was invaluable on all levels.
dp You to them?
el I suppose it would be better to ask them this question. However, I heard a few times that it was interesting for the families I was staying with to see themselves through my eyes and experience. They said that through my images they saw themselves in a way they had not before. They would always be surprised by what was just “everyday” was something important for me to photograph.
dp How did you deal with the constant duality of the environment you were in, which you describe as both brutal and beautiful?
el For me one does not exist without the other. It is a matter of my perception of a situation at a given time, however these dualities pervade all my life, not just my time in the Arctic.
dp Tell me a bit about your publisher, Emphas.is. Why were they a good fit for this project?
el Emphas.is was created a few years ago by Tina Ahrens and Kari Ben Khelifa, two people who I have a lot of respect for in my industry and trust. They started Emphas.is as a platform to help photographers/storytellers find funding and new platforms for their projects because they believed traditional media and outlets were no longer able to. I think this was a bold venture and will help photographers to continue to create the stories we believe in.
To have my first book in partnership with Emphas.is is also important because it allows me to create this work with the support of a community that believes in my vision and in my story, and that alone. There are no other determining factors.
dp Since you’ve been back in your own everyday life in the States, what does this project mean to you now?
el This project was my life for almost fours years. Many people I met are no different than family to me and when I think of a place that I am most comfortable, the Arctic comes to my heart. So it is hard to put into words what it means to me now, except that this chapter in my life will carry on, in all parts of my being, forever.
dp In today’s technology-driven world, how did you cope in the harsh and seemingly isolating environment?
el I never felt this area was harsh or isolated; however, I have always been a person able to find beauty in the austere. Also, don’t be mistaken, in the main villages there are stores, schools, community centers and all the other common connections to the rest of the world. I have always said the Sámi live in two worlds.
dp Is there a universal everyday way of life you connected with while there?
el Yes, that life is about my connection to nature, animals, humanity, and spirit. This exists in the Arctic and this exists in New Jersey.
dp How can one help with bring your Sámi – Walking with Reindeer to life?
el The basis of crowd funding and working with a group like Emphas.is is that your audience takes part. So in order for this book to come to fruition, I need to have people that are interested in learning more about my story pre-order the book. The level of support can vary from ordering a single book, to collectors’ editions print, to a workshop. One of the incentives comes with a handmade reindeer bone knife made by one of the reindeer herders I was living with, and the other a handmade reindeer skin bag that I learned to make when I was living there. Everything has personal meaning to me and reflects the project.