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Matt Willen Matt Willen | Wednesday 4. Novemberá2009

Why the Westfjords, Part 1

Over that past few months, Agust and I have tried to imagine the future of this project, what it will lead to. One of the things that we both hope is that we can turn this into a book, something that people in places quite different and distant from the northwest of Iceland might turn to with interest. Consequently, some writing needs to be done. Several people have pointed out that there are indeed many things that can be documented quite adequately using photographs; but there are things need to be written about in order to establish a sense of context—historical, geographical, cultural, and otherwise—to help readers understand the situations in which people live and events occur, to help readers understand not only what people do but why they are doing it. That said, I’d like to use this forum to start fleshing some things out, and to invite comments, questions, and suggestions from readers. (Jeez, I am committing myself to writing I guess.)


What do you want to know? What have we or I got wrong? What else might we look at or consider?


One of the questions that gets asked by people I speak with repeatedly, and indeed needs to be addressed in any kind of book or project, is “Why the Westfjords?” I think there are two questions that stem from this one: one is the question of why I, Matt, chose to go to the Westfjords to do this project (that is a sort of how did this project come about question), and the other is the question of why the reader should be interested in the Westfjords (which is more a question of what does the reader stand to gain from taking the time to look this over and consider the lives of people in the region).


I’ve told the story of the project several times, I think actually in a couple of different places around the website, and I want to keep it brief here. Essentially, I was chosen by the college that I work for to participate in a summer seminar to the North Atlantic to investigate the possibility of doing projects in the region. I was wanting to do a documentary project, particularly (at the time) on the lives of working people, and in my application to the seminar I began to lay out a project on the fishing communities in Iceland, and the kinds of changes that have taken place as a result of changes in the fisheries and fisheries management over the past twenty-five or so years. When I came to Iceland and visited the Westfjords, I began to get a sense of something a little different than what I had initially intended (one has to begin somewhere); a sense that there was something worth looking into by spending time in the Westfjords; a sense that I think was confirmed by the serendipitous crossing of mine and Agust’s paths on the docks in Isafjord—two people who share the same (or at least very similar) interests in photography, documentary, a very unique (special) place and the people who live there.


Since we have been doing the work over the past year, how to answer the question of “Why the Westfjords” has evolved somewhat.  I think a significant part of it has to do with the tradition of documentary projects, so much of which has taken as its subject matter the lives of people who live in places rife with social and political conflict, or people whose lives might be classified as exotic or curious or alternative.  In fact, one of the very interesting things about the Westfjords is that the place and people who live there don’t seem to easily fit into those categories. Indeed there are, like anywhere else, problems social and otherwise, and there are people who might be easily classified as exotic or at least eccentric (and who of us couldn’t be). But mostly, it seems to me a rather quiet place where people go about their day-to-day business of living life. 


Agust and I have talked about this quite a bit, to the point where we have said to each other that people in the region are really just kind of normal, ordinary people, in certain ways not so different from the people I live among in the US and in other ways very different. This idea of people being “ordinary” often tends to imply something rather pejorative—commonplace, not of worthy of interest or concern. On the contrary, however, by trying to document daily life in the region we are very much trying to treat the idea of “ordinary” life as something that is worthy of attention. So little attention tends to paid to rather normal, ordinary (I am so conscious of classifications and the problems that result from using them) people and the ways in which they create their daily lives in response to the situations in which they live. And that is what we want to pay attention to here, to show that there is dignity to this kind of life, if not interest and something to be learned as well.  


At least to me, an outsider, what seems to be so compelling about life in the Westfjords is the way that people have come to create a way of living in response to the particular conditions of the environment (natural and social) in which they live (the particulars of which I will write more about tomorrow). In this sense, they do what humans do, and to pay attention to how they do it seems essential to understanding what it means to be human (not just Icelandic, I think).


Questions? Suggestions? Comments?  

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