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Winter in the Westfjords

Like many Nordic wanderers, Haukur Sigurðsson, was constantly seeking far away places such as South America, Asia or Africa. Being an anthropologist and photographer from Iceland, he was usually seeking mountains, beautiful landscapes and interesting people with stories to tell. After a while, Haukur realised that what he was looking for was simply in his backyard in the Westfjords. Winter is his season, when there is so much pink glow and endless blue hours.

Haukur, you were born and raised in Bolungarvík, an isolated fishing village in the Westfjords of Iceland. Later you travelled the world for a few years. What sort of a community are the Westfjords and why did you choose to come back home and live there?

Despite its tiny population, the Westfjords are surprisingly large and diverse. So much that some parts of the Westfjords were mostly unknown to me when I was growing up. It wasn´t until after high school, when I began working in tourism that I discovered all the different aspects of the region. Guiding travellers around opened my eyes to many things.

At a similar time I began spending the winters abroad, which I did most winters for the following 10 years, but I always returned home to work in the summers. In the beginning I was constantly seeking far away places such as South America, Asia or Africa. But I was also seeking mountains, beautiful landscapes and interesting people with stories to tell. After a while I realised that what I was usually seeking was simply to be found in the Westfjords, where I had spent most of my life. In the Westfjords there is no shortage of fantastic landscapes and great people that inhabit the fjords.

Now I live in Ísafjörður with my wife Vaida and our two boys. It´s a very family friendly environment to live in. The boys can play outside without us worrying too much about what they´re up to. Ísafjörður has a good mix of nature and culture, enabling us to live somewhat of a city life with bakeries, restaurants, cinema and bars, yet be super close to mountains and fjords.

You studied visual anthropology in Norway. Does it affect how you take pictures and document things?

Absolutely. I don´t consider myself a landscape photographer. I rarely make pictures without a human element in them. In my work I usually try to include some sort of a context or a story. What I learned during my studies is that visuals are important, but story is king and everyone has a story to tell.

On your Instagram you introduce local farmers, musicians, craftsmen and fishermen, outdoors people and shop workers from the region. Which one is your favourite portret and why?

Taking environmental portraits of people around me is something I really enjoy. Showing someone in their natural surroundings tells so much about the person. It´s impossible to pick a favourite portrait, but if I have to mention one I´d go for the one of my next door neighbours Steina and Óli. Óli recently passed away, but we shared a common interest in old Suzuki Vitara cars. He had two, I had one. So whenever something was wrong with my Suzuki then I´d just stand in my driveway and scratch my head for a couple of minutes. Then Óli would stumble out from his house and fix it for me. Steina is equally nice. My 3 & 5 year old boys invite themselves over for a visit all the time, enter through her front door as if it´s their own home.

This portrait of them together shovelling snow, their house, their overalls, Óli´s two-thumbed mittens. All of this tells so much about them.

Suddenly one day, you and your wife Vaida Braziunaite, decided to live in a Mongolic yurt. The adventure lasted for one year. Please tell us a bit about that experience.

After we finished our studies in Norway we came to Iceland to spend the summer. My cousin is one of the owners of Galtarviti lighthouse and had organised a midsummer party over there, which we attended. At Galtarviti he had put up a Mongolian yurt he had acquired from the Secret Life of Walter Mitty film set and we spent the night in it. Vaida and I were fascinated and asked my cousin millions of questions about this strange tent. Ideas started boiling in my head and a few weeks later I asked Vaida if we shouldn´t just move to Iceland and live in a yurt. She thought it was a fun idea so we packed all our belongings in Norway and moved to Iceland, without being quite sure if we could even pull it off. My cousin was kind to lend us a yurt, we got a building permit from a landowner, a friend of ours, we looked up platform drawings on the internet and got scrap timber from a nearby barn that was being torn down. So with zero building skills and help from good friends we built a circular insulated platform and put the yurt on top. We borrowed a wood stove to keep us warm, brought bed, table and chairs, put carpet on the floor and built a kitchen out of pallets.

It was wonderful, a real dream for a young couple. We could hear all the sounds of nature so clearly, wind, rain, snow and birds singing and we could feel the seasons change. But living there was work in itself, we did not have electricity, running water nor a cooker of any sort, so we had to fetch water from the nearby river and cook on the wood stove. Simple things like making coffee would take an hour. Living in that yurt was definitely the right thing to do at the time, when we had no kids and no responsibilities whatsoever. I´m happy we did it then, because today it would be impossible.

"It´s impossible to pick a favourite portrait, but if I have to mention one I´d go for the one of my next door neighbours Steina and Óli. Óli recently passed away, but we shared a common interest in old Suzuki Vitara cars. He had two, I had one."

The Blue bank project in Þingeyri is quite fascinating. It is an open coworking space which is used by locals as well as digital nomads from around the world. Explain for us the ideology behind the project and why it is important.

Since Vaida and I had had our own unofficial coworking space in Ísafjörður for a few years, we were super excited when we had the opportunity to change our surroundings and spend 6 months running the Blue Bank in Þingeyri. During our yurt year we got quite familiar with the Dýrafjörður community and we celebrated the chance to get to know it even better.

The Blue Bank is more than a coworking space, it´s also somewhat of a community and service centre for the people of Þingeyri. We offered old-school banking service for Landsbankinn twice a week, we were some sort of an information point for the Ísafjarðarbær municipality and we helped people with simple tech issues. We hosted coffee and waffle events and boardgame nights. We organised and hosted anything from little craft courses for local kids to full on 5-day workshops in documentary filmmaking or creative writing, with international teachers and participants from all over.

In our opinion the Blue Bank is super important for Þingeyri. If managed correctly it can be the centre of the community and give it a voice to the outside world. It gives outsiders a point of entry into a small Westfjords town and an opportunity to experience the beauty of it. When outsiders and locals get the chance to meet and interact, both get ideas and inspiration from one another. It´s so important to have a unit like the Blue Bank to build these bridges.

If you want to experience a real darkness and true winter, the Westfjords might be the right place for you. People can be trapped in the region for days and about half of all flights are cancelled due to weather. Please give us a glimpse of how a genuine winter feels like.

Winter is the best time of year. It´s when life slows down and we spend more time with family and friends. For the photographer part of me it´s also when light is best. In Ísafjörður we actually don´t have any direct sunlight for 2 months, but the few light-ish hours are perfect for photography. So much pink glow and blue hours. Winter storms are also great, it´s when I love going out for a walk and battle through the piles of snow. When I was a kid my favourite thing to do was to build snow tunnels or climb to roof tops and jump down into the fluffy snow. Skiing is also world class and there is never any need to travel long distances to reach the slopes.

Driving around the Westfjords in winter is actually not as impassable as many people think. Most of the time you can drive the whole Westfjords circle without much trouble. But of course, there are stormy days in between when everything is closed. For those thinking of travelling to the Westfjords in the winter months I´d suggest they have plenty of flexibility and an adventurous spirit.

Hidden gems in the Westfjords. Where to eat, drink and sleep?

The hidden gems are the natural hot springs. They´re the best, especially in the winter. I´m not going to mention any specific locations as half the fun is the actual discovery process. They´re usually located on scenic spots next to the fjord, which makes it perfect to jump between freezing water and a comfortable 41° degree.

In Ísafjörður I frequently have lunch at the wonderful Heimabyggð café or dinner & drinks at Húsið. I also recommend anything they serve at Simbahöllin in Þingeyri and Heydalur. If you ever have the chance to attend a concert or bar night at Vagninn in Flateyri then you should definitely not skip out. That place has the kind of energy none other can recreate.

My favourite place to sleep is in my tent somewhere in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. Hornvík bay is the most beautiful place in the world, with giant bird cliffs on both sides, abundance of birds of all kinds, and arctic foxes running around. It´s hard to get to and the weather can be truly shitty for days and days, but when the sun finally comes out it´s a place unlike any other.

Are you working on any specific projects at the moment?

At the moment Vaida and I are about to finish our house project that we´ve been working on for 4 years now, rebuilding an old house that has been in my family since 1890. After being homeless for a while now we’re looking forward to finally moving in before summer starts.

I have numerous projects on my schedule. Since 2015 I´ve helped Visit Westfjords with their imagery and social media, something I´m very proud of and hope will continue. I also document experiences and make visual stories for companies and institutions, and I help film production teams with research and logistics in the Westfjords.

I´m also excited to develop our own coworking space further. It now has a name, the Fjord People, and we hope to fill it with keen remote workers when the world opens again.

View more of Haukur´s work on his Instagram.

words ingunn eyþórsdóttir
photos haukur Sigurðsson