320 Icelanders

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320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

I’ve talked on this blog before about both projects and portraits – coming up with an interesting portrait based project is a great way to both get motivated and improve your portrait taking skills.

Fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko has undertaken an ambitious portrait project – 320 Icelanders. Still in progress, the aim of the project is to take portraits of 320 Icelandic people, representing different aspects of life in the country. The country has a population of 320,000, so each portrait represents a thousandth of the island’s population. It’s a beautiful idea and an inspiring story. I wanted to find out more, and invited her for an interview.

Varvara Lozenko interview

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live and where are you from?

I was born in Moscow and that’s where I live. I started photography as a career in 1999 after graduating from Moscow State Linguistics university. So photography is a self-taught thing, I never studied it.

I guess that the thing that motivated me to get started was the idea that I see things in a slightly different way from that of most of the people. Also, having grown up in a relatively ugly environment of identical-looking shabby apartment blocks I was very sensible to beauty. I had a thirst for beauty, a hunger, an acute need of it. So I started looking for beauty with my first reflex film camera.

Photography is not just a career, it is a mission I am doing. I am convinced that there is a purpose to what I am doing, not just beautiful pictures, this is my way of changing the world for the better. I am not there to make a lot of money or get really famous, but to do something really meaningful. I guess what I am doing might be called popular diplomacy – I am trying to tell people from one place about people in other places, thus establishing a connection, building a bridge, making the world more whole on my own microcosmic level.

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

Who inspires you? Who are your favourite photographers?

Yann Arthus-Bertrand has been a great inspiration for a long time. Not just his photography, but his personality also. He is probably one of the few photographers of modern age who have shown the importance to transcend the visual part, to do something good for the planet.

I was impressed by the fact that everywhere he goes, he plants a tree. So I decided to do the same: wherever I move in Moscow (in a few years, I’ve moved a few times), I plant a small garden. And of course his photography is unique: he is showing us the world not from the human perspective, but the way God probably sees it.

He is showing the world as a planet, where the humans appear minute and humble, he returns them to their right place – the only solution to deal with the man’s arrogance and selfishness in respect of nature and the earth as a system throughout the 20th century.

Ryan McGinley is another photographer whose work and personality I admire. His philosophy seems to be very simple, original and honest. To me, he is the poet of happiness taken literally.

And all his characters are child-like – and what they do in the pictures cannot be described as actions (although everyone is moving), but rather – states of joy, of happiness, of bliss, of thrill, of freedom – all those states in which children pass most of their time and that are lost for most adults.

Ryan is showing us what the essence of life is – the essence of life that we have forgotten about. Also, he reestablished the connection between humans and nature, where humans appear as natural parts of the natural landscape, not as supreme beings, but as elements of the same order as grass, leaves, splashes of water, trees and animals.

Another inspiration is the cartoon by Frederick Back ‘L’Homme qui Plantait des Arbres’ (The Man Who Was Planting Trees). There is more humanism in it than in most works of art of modern age. It tells the story of a man who had lost his whole family in a war and was only living to replant a forest as a gift to the people. There is so much selflessness and generosity in it, it can be an example of what one might call a real mission in life.

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

What is the appeal of natural light for you?

It is true that I prefer natural light. With the exception of commercial and editorial work that requires studio light with strobes I always do my photography with natural, that is, daylight.

I have very few images made after sunset, so you might call me a daylight photographer, or the light person. It does not just concern photography: I very rarely wear dark clothes, most of them are light: white, light-blue, light-green, pink, lilac, narcissus yellow – those are my colours.

I am a very light and colour-sensitive person. The walls in rooms I’ve lived in have been very light also. And I never use curtains. I like transparency. I very rarely go outside after nightfall – I find darkness very mysterious, but it’s simply not my thing.

So yes, I use all kinds of daylight, with the exception of the very harsh intense close to midday summertime light. I like it when it’s cloudy and the light is soft and smooth. I love evening and early morning light with their soft yellows and pinks. I really like low winter sun with its low rays illuminating everything in a particular 3D way.

And of course am forever in love with the very special Icelandic midnight sun light – I am really crazy about it. Whenever I see a warm-coloured patch of midnight sunlight on a white wall I feel a thrill go through me, that is an almost transcendental experience.

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders

I love this idea for a project. Where did the idea come from?

The idea for the project ’320 Icelanders’ came from the fact that the population of that country is so tiny – around 320,000. It is smaller than the population of almost any provincial town in Russia. Just one town! Take Tver: it has the population of 400,000: it’s just one small town, but it’s bigger in terms of inhabitants number than a whole country.

For me, who comes from Moscow and has always lived in a crowd, this was an amazing fact. So I decided to do a series of portraits of 320 people from Iceland. 320 – by the number of thousands of the population.

The idea of a portrait series came to me during the first trip to Iceland – that was in summer 2007. At that time, though, I didn’t have a clear idea of the number. I was thinking that maybe 100 would be a good number because it is the average expected number of years in a human life.

But in winter 2013 when I revisited Iceland, I came to the concept of 320, and have stuck to it. So far I have been to Iceland five times, once in 2007, twice in 2013 and twice in 2014. I have been working on the series during the four latter trips, the project thus spans two years. I am hoping to complete it in 2015. So far I have photographed around 200 people.

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

How do you find and select the people for the portraits?

The selection principle is very simple: it has to be a ‘random chance’ meeting. I run into people I photograph: in the street, on transport, in shops, at parties, at village festivals. I try to avoid introductions to keep the random meeting principle.

The reasons I might feel like coming up to someone and ask to take their picture can be any: it might be something special about a person’s appearance (e.g. pure good looks), something interesting about the way he or she is dressed (most common principle for choosing people in Reykjavik, it’s such an elegant city), it might be really old or really young age, or simply, it can be the fact that the person is the only human I have come across in a few hours or in a whole day (such situations are common in rural Iceland, sometimes you actually have to LOOK FOR people).

Anyway, from the start I have been trying to photograph people of different age groups, social status, doing all kinds of jobs, living all around the country. So the final result will be something like a photographic census, or a group portrait of the nation. Ideally, I want it to become a book, published both in Iceland and other countries.

I like the way you have photographed the sitters in their natural environment. Why did you decide to do this rather than, say, take their portraits in a studio against a backdrop?

I always photograph a person the moment and the place where I meet him. We never make arrangements to meet the next day, at a better place, with nicer clothes/hairdo/makeup on. It has to be spontaneous and real. As real as the reality itself: in that respect, this project is closer to documentary photography than to art photography.

And yes, I prefer taking pictures of people in their natural environment, especially in Iceland where the environment plays such an important role in the life of the people. Icelanders are nature-made, and of course I want to stress this point. Environment is something that makes us what we are.

Perhaps you could tell the story behind some of your photos?

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

Rakel Sigurðardottir, 22, from Akureyri. We met when as was sitting by the side of the road in Reykjahlið on June 26 2014. She had a big black bag with her. She was not standing up with a hand thrust forward the way hitchhikers usually do but seemed absorbed in a kind of quiet meditation.

Rakel is the only person from Akureyri I have managed to make an acquaintance with so far. I had stayed in that city a few times, sometimes spending a few days there, but I have never met anyone there. The people of Akureyri seem to be much more reserved than elsewhere in Iceland. No one agreed to be photographed.

On that day we were driving by the side of lake Myvatn, returning from Reykjahlið, so we stopped and offered her a lift. I have run into so many hitchhikers in Iceland – all of them were foreigners, including myself. I have very often done it here, but I’ve never met a local hitchhiker.

Rakel said that she’s finished school and got a job at a hotel reception for the summer. In the autumn she would like to go to a music school in Boston. She sings really well and would like to become a jazz singer.

We drove a little along the lake and then I saw the red boat. Rakel agreed to pose for the picture, so now, finally, there’s someone from Akureyri in this project. Thank you, Rakel!

The weather was calm, without any wind, it was not raining. Some kind of a lake bird – quite big – appeared near the boat and started making sad but melodious sounds. It was a little after two in the afternoon.

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

The boy from the ferry. He was waving as the ferry Baldur was coming to shore. I was standing on the pier, the boy was on the second deck, probably 15 meters from me, and he was smiling and waving his hand.

He probably he thought that I was some kind of a newspaper reporter coving his arrival in Flatey island. It was apparent he was thinking it was him I was photographing and no one else. In the midst of other people – adults and children – he came ashore, put his backpack into a garden trolley (there are no cars in Flatey so there are a few trolleys in the harbour for those with a lot of luggage to transport it home) and dissolved in a crowd of the newly arrived happy holiday-makers.

On the next day I met him again, he was with a girl, most probably a sister. As soon as he saw me he yelled: ‘Myndir! Myndir!’ (‘a picture, a picture’). So I pretended I was taking a picture of him again. On the third day I met the children in the harbour: they were either leaving or seeing someone off. That was when I asked him to pose for me for real.

I decided not to ask him anything – not even his name, nor where he was from. For some reason I decided at one that this would just be ‘The Boy from the Ferry’. The weather was very clear, it was quite cold, but not as cold as on the day before. It was Sunday, July 6th 2014, around 4 p.m.

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

Berglind Gunnarsdottir, 33, works in Visir shop in Laugurvegur. It is one of the oldest shops in Reykjavik: next year it will be 100 years old. When it opened in 1915, they mostly sold colonial goods: coffee (extremely expensive at that time), tobacco, chocolate, sugar, alcohol.

Little has changed in the 100 years: they are selling the same stuff plus bananas, coke and ready-made sandwiches. It’s very easy to recognise the shop as you are walking in Laugurvegur: it always has a few banana bunches in the window.

Berglind’s clientele mostly consists of office workers from the neighbourhood: at lunch time they drop by for a banana and a pack of cigarettes. It’s kind of trendy to just buy one banana and one pack of cigarettes. During the one half hour that I spent in the shop probably half a dozen people – slick and stylish-looking – came to buy the same two things.

None of them were too young though. Berglind said that since they banned any tabacco advertising in Iceland something over 10 years ago and started using closed cases for the tabacco merchandise things have changed for the better on the health level: fewer young people feel like trying to smoke these days.

It’s clear though that those who have been smoking for 50 years or so are still doing it in spite of anything. As for bananas, they are now not entirely a colonial goods anymore in Iceland, it is the only European country growing its own ones.

Berglind, however, still sells imported ones – from Equador and Costa-Rica. Has to stick to the tradition. Visir is also good for buying flowers: tulips, roses, potted plants. The weather looked a bit grey that day, and it started raining soon after. It was about 12:30, Wednesday, June 4 2014.

A project like this sounds costly and time consuming. Where does the motivation to continue come from?

Yes, this project has been expensive. I’ve been working for a few months in Moscow and then going to Iceland to spend it all there. Then coming back home and starting work again to earn from scratch. No business plan or anything. Pure enthusiasm and faith in God.

So far I’ve earned something like 450 euros with it for two magazine publications. Which, of course, is nothing as compared to what I’ve spent. The only thing that keeps me going is the faith that I am doing something worthwhile for the humankind, or at least for Iceland, the place that I love.

And you don’t count the money in your pocket when you are in love and are asking your love for a date, do you?


Please take a look at Varvara’s work on her website. You can also find her 320 Icelanders project on Facebook and at Behance.

Photo Gallery

Here are some more of Varvara’s portraits of Icelanders:

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

320 Icelanders by fine art photographer Varvara Lozenko

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