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The Pursuit of Happiness: Icelandic Inspirations

The Pursuit of Happiness: Icelandic Inspirations, by Jen L. P. 

Jen’s Introduction

I’ve interacted several times with Barbro (@Barbro) at Instagramers Seattle/We Are Juxt events. She never failed to make me laugh and as you’ll see below, I’d become intrigued. Read on and learn how a large beautiful island helped Barbro in her pursuit of happiness ….

J: Jen   B: Barbro

J: Hi Barbro! Thanks for agreeing to let me interview you. I love your photographic eye, and your sense of humor and wit in our brief exchanges has had me laughing more times than I can count. The fact that you wandered off and got lost at dusk in the dark and stormy weather on our Discovery Park photo-walk means you are also independent and adventurous–and unfortunately have a sense of direction similar to mine. Plus, you’re the mother to  lovely 15 year old Lydia (@silverfishes) who I recall being very impressed by at our very first official IGers Seattle/We Are Juxt photowalk.  And as if all that wasn’t enough, you’ve made casual references to a trip to Iceland related to a film project.  Color me intrigued! But before we jump into that, tell us some basic info: you know, where you work, where you’re from, that sort of thing.

B: First off, witty, adventurous, independent, what very exciting words you use; I like how you think! I’m very flattered you are interested in my Iceland project and honored to answer these questions.

Secondly, a disclaimer: I am actually a writer, and not a photographer, at least not in an artistic sense. I do photo/video work on the jobby-job. But, when I am compelled artistically to make images, it’s from a different place. Usually a pretty wacky place, and is mostly to ground the stories (voices?) in my head.

I grew up in Tacoma. I graduated from UW with a degree in English. I have always been the resident English major wherever I’ve worked. Meaning, people come to me when they need to spell something. Also, I’m usually in charge of pulling communication together, i.e. “brand management” and “demand generation” stuff. Blah. blah. This includes creating, strategizing, and managing content for traditional and emerging media.

I find the process of image making, from pre-production through post, to be very grounding. Sometimes the image says everything. Most times, I have plenty to say with it. I do know a bit about how to work SLR (film and digital), video, and something about composition (I spent years in art school, inhaling paint fumes). But my role is more about storytelling:  writing and directing the pieces into a whole.

J: And what brought you to Instagram?

B: I first heard about Instagram in October 2010. I was working on a media project for rural Alaska at the time, and was sitting in a room in Anchorage when I came across the news about this new mobile photog app. Some ancient longing in me resurged–from about 1983 when I got my first camera–a Kodak Brownie, gifted by a neighbor who had been cleaning out his basement… I recently found out that the Brownie was one of the first democratic cameras, allowing people to take their own snapshots for the first time. It was denounced by real photographers as demeaning to the profession.

J: Hmmm, all things come around again, don’t they? …Can you share a couple of your favorite shots with us?

B: My goal in mobile photography is to continue being happy and inspired, catching cinematic moments which make up real life. Story is happening everywhere you look…

Reflection Seattle waterfront

A shot of a photo shoot atop Kite Hill at Gasworks Park

J: I am struck by the similarities between those two images even though they are so different. Beautiful work–and clearly there is a lot of “story” evident in each.  …So, what brought you to Iceland in the first place?

B: Iceland has fascinated me since I was a kid. I realized this consciously, for the first time, just a few years ago, when I noticed that I’d been collecting things from Iceland since I was about ten years old. “Huh.” I thought. Not exactly typical.

This came about in summer of 2009. Life broke open that year. My mother passed away and my marriage ended, both in the month of July. I’d been my mother’s caregiver for weeks during her illness. I was exhausted, numb, spinning…. and kept coming across this Icelandic stuff while packing up my belongings.

Iceland became a wholesome, mysterious distraction that was all just my own during the chaos. Kind of like the friend who stares at you with a smile when you’re trying to make a really serious point. It makes the hair on your neck stand up while you get really annoyed. And then you crack up and can’t remember what you were being serious about.

I started to get the idea that maybe I needed to pay a visit to my quirky Iceland who had saved me from some really dark, swirly whirlpools. In April of 2011, I finally made it. I took myself there as a kind of divorce / birthday trip. I arrived on Friday, April 15 at about 7 am.

I headed to the Blue Lagoon. An obvious stop for a baptism into a new life, in geothermally-heated sea water. With a swim up bar, and scores of handsome Icelandic lifeguards.

I landed, and went here. The sun came out briefly. Happy birthday, to me!

After that, I rode the bus to the city of Reykjavik. Thinking I’d have a quiet day getting over jetlag, I instead met a very polite Icelandic colleague I’d been working with on another project. He treated me to a lamb dinner. Just as I was feeling really ready for bed, my polite colleague then informed me that we would be hitting all the nightclubs. Iceland has a wild reputation, so, of course, I took one for the team. I visited all the most famous bars, got extremely drunk, and ended my first day at about 3 am with a trip to the most famous restaurant in the country, which is a hot dog stand, by the harbor. This was probably the best day of my life, so far.

I spent my time hiking around on steam vents, picking up hitchhikers (very safe), wandering around black sand beaches, waterfalls, all in kind of wintry weather… all the while snapping pictures with my iPhone 3G.

I saw waterfalls and black sand. I was lying on my tummy for this shot.

So here I am, after hiking for hours. I was having a blast.

After a very typical Icelandic Friday night out in the city, I sobered up and drove myself out of Reykjavík, on a tour of the south coast. Photographing while driving by yourself in the middle of nowhere is still not against the law, but it’s a bad idea. The Icelandic cops love pulling over tourists. The moral is, don’t try this:

When it was time to leave, I remember riding the bus to the airport, kind of gasping here and there out of sadness to be leaving (and still a little, OK a lot, hungover). As the road wound through ancient moss-covered lava fields, I wondered how long it would be before I would come back.

J: Yes, I wonder, too! Now about that project you’re working on… What is it?!

B: I ended up being back there four months later, in August, to hang out with the midnight sun. I’d been accepted into a filmmaking workshop. We were traveling in Iceland’s remote Westfjörds where there are supposed to be real sea monsters. The scariest thing to me was being in close quarters with “real” photographers and cinematographers, not to mention tearing around tiny roads hugging steep fjords, with a Spanish driver… Just a writer, on a filmmaking workshop… but, we all got to be friends. The teacher of the workshop, Enrique Pacheco, has invited me to work with him on several projects since. That has resulted in several trips back to Iceland in the last couple of years.

Through Enrique, I met Petur.

The real point of this is to introduce you to Petur. It’s with Petur I’m working, currently.

Petur Kristjan Gudmundsson is an Icelandic cinematographer, who has asked me to be a part of his project, HEILD.  A funny job for a writer, as HEILD is a non-narrative film of Iceland. That is, a story told with images, sounds, and music – no plot, no words. And, it is being created on a microbudget. Petur built or modified most of his own filmmaking equipment to meet the extreme conditions for filming in Iceland. There is no Game of Thronesbudget, but Petur has gone to the tops of glaciers, descended into the mouth of an active volcano, to bring us Iceland’s secrets, as well as its familiar faces.

The most fascinating and inspiring part of this work is actually in how Petur gets the job done, as he is rehabilitating from a serious spinal cord injury. Currently, he is mostly paralyzed from the waist down. In the last year, he graduated from a wheelchair to working with leg braces.

True to form, he chose to modify the standard-issue braces to suit his needs… working with the engineers at the company who designed them (Össur, of Reykjavík, one of the world’s leading medical equipment manufacturers). If the braces work for his rehabilitation goals, Petur hopes the company will make them widely available.

When I first saw the trailer for HEILD  (see below for trailer), I loved it. I couldn’t believe it when I had the chance to meet Petur, and then work with him. I actually threw myself at the project. He was gracious enough to listen to my ideas and then invite me in, and hasn’t wanted to fire me, yet. I’ll be the first to admit that this project, along with Iceland itself, has kind of helped me get my groove back. Up until Iceland, I was pretty much running on empty.

HEILD l Entirety Trailer from Petur K. Gudmundsson on Vimeo.

J: That’s very exciting! What’s the latest projection for the release of the film? I can’t wait to see it. The trailer is out-of-this-world gorgeous. 

B: The film is still in post-production. That’s fancy talk which means Petur is busy editing it all together on his MacBook in his apartment in Reykjavík. (It boggles my mind to think how he’s pulling all this beautiful footage together on a little machine on a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic.) We are currently working to get music licensing. I can’t say anything yet, but we have some amazing bands who have lined up to have their music on this! :D

So, as for projection for release, we will know more once we have music releases and editing is finished. He is doing this film on a micro-budget, so we can’t make solid projections. All we know is that we want the world to see this, and we are just kind of looking for opportunities right now to showcase it. My job is to think about ways to publicize this.

J: So there’s a bit more to Petur’s story you can share, right?

B: In the summer of 2012 Pétur was planning a trip to Zürich, Switzerland for experimental spinal surgery. So, it occurred to me that a good way to introduce his story would be by having someone local cover his medical trip to Switzerland.

I approached Bridgette S. (@bridgettesxo) at the Neptune Cafe exhibit in summer 2012. I started to bounce ideas off her about my project with TrailerPark Studios, and Pétur. She was excited and game to help me think about how to connect this story with the mobile community. Bridgette introduced me to Phil Gonzalez (@philgonzalez), the founder of the @IGers Network and

Phil introduced me to local IG organizer Cris @crisss in Zurich. Cris introduced me to Kevin @kevincathers, a graphic designer and photographer living in Zurich who was eager to cover Petur during his time there. Petur was game, and we were set to go.

In the end, the surgeons decided Petur was not a good candidate for this surgery. To tell you how bummed out we all were would take another article. Still, I was amazed at how the global mobile photography network lit up at the mention of this story, and how easily it caught people’s imaginations.

At the very least, Petur has some new fans in Switzerland. I doubt the last page in this story has been written, or snapped… Stay tuned!

J: Oh, I definitely will. I keep coming back to the video links you’ve provided (below). Petur is inspiring both personally and professionally.  It sounds like you’re both lucky to have found each other!

Thanks so much, Barbro for sharing your story!
Jen / @eelnej


Related links:
Interview Barbro directed with Petur, shot in March 2012 in Iceland
Petur’s studio website. If you click on the “Tests & Tools” section, you can see how he modifies his equipment. Pretty amazing.

One Comment

  1. What a great story, and the images too! I’m looking forward to seeing the movie Heild as soon as it is out! Thanks for it all . . .


  1. The Pursuit of Happiness: Icelandic Inspiration... - [...] The Pursuit of Happiness: Icelandic Inspirations, by Jen L. P. Jen’s Introduction I’ve interacted several times with Barbro (@Barbro) ...