Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.
In Iceland, children are instructed never to throw stones because an errant rock might hit an elf. Indeed, many Icelandic people believe in a host of magical beings: elves, trolls, fairies, hiddenfolk, monsters and ghosts. In gardens around the country, you will find tiny wooden elf houses and, occasionally, tiny churches that were built in order to convert elves to Christianity.
Bego Anton, who originally hails from Bilbao in the north of Spain, decided to try and discover this reality with her own eyes and her large-format camera. What she found during her two-month stay in Iceland was truly magical. While some of the magic has dissipated now that she is back in Spain, she believes that if there is a place to believe in magic, Iceland must be that place.
LensCulture assistant editor Alexander Strecker interviewed the photographer in Spain. Here is an edited transcript of their discussion:
LC: Can you tell me about the project?
BA: The project is about the Icelandic people’s belief in elves and “hidden people”. During a two-month artist’s residency, I traveled across the country and interviewed people who had the power to see elves. I took pictures of the people and the places where they (and the elves) live.
Since I can’t see elves myself (which is a pity, I really wish I could), I asked my subjects to describe what they were seeing. After hearing their descriptions, I took my pictures. By listening before shooting, I did my best to blend my subject’s perceptions with the reality that the camera could capture. I made sure to incorporate texts and objects, which help explain and justify my subject’s beliefs.
As I said, I can’t see the elves, but when I was in Iceland, I could feel them. When I came back to Spain, I could feel my belief starting to fade. Now, I don’t know what to say—I’m not sure if the elves exist or not. But it’s clear that they exist for the people I photographed. And I haven’t quite lost my faith yet. Since coming home, I received a letter from Iceland. The letter said an elf had come to find me in Spain. Sometimes, I feel he is around.
In general, I approach photography in a magic way. When I start a project, I don’t think about the location but about the story. These stories have no boundaries and take me all over the world.
LC: Is there a magic in photography?
BA: Yes, the magic is how I feel when I take pictures. When I carry my large-format camera, the way I look at the world is different. When I carry a digital camera, I don’t have the same feeling.
Also, the relationship that is created between me and my subject is different when I carry my larger camera. I usually take the picture and then send them the picture in the mail afterwards. This allows me to continue my relationship with my subjects.
LC: What was your relationship with your subjects like in this project? You must have felt very close.
BA: When you are in Iceland, you really understand how the people feel about the invisible, magical world. The people make you feel their feeling—they believe so strongly and passionately that it rubs off on you. When I was with them, their world really felt real.
I always treat my subjects with a lot of respect. I don’t want the viewer to laugh at my subjects. I understand that it’s normal to think these people are crazy when you first approach the project. But if you take a minute to look at the pictures, maybe they’re not. These are normal people, when you get to know them. The presence of a magical world is very clear in Iceland, whether you can see elves or not. I think the people’s beliefs arise from their strong link to nature. Our bond with nature is simply not as strong in the city. We have lost this feeling and its magic. We don’t believe so the magic is not there.
LC: What was it like being an outsider and making this project?
BA: In the end, I don’t think it mattered that I wasn’t Icelandic. I felt like I really understood what my subjects were trying to tell me. I was really interested in their stories and their beliefs. That’s why it’s very important to read the texts (the captions, the letter, the diploma) in this project.
The reason I like taking pictures is because it is an adventure. I have the chance to enter worlds that I can only go into because I’m a photographer. In the end, it became very personal. Although I was listening to them, we were always talking about me—my aura, my energy, my future.
So I’m telling a story about the outside world but also about myself. I think it’s very important to get close to what you’re taking pictures of.
LC: Do you think about going back and continuing the project?
BA: I want to go back and continue but I also think that part of the magic is how close I felt. I’m not sure if I can get back to that—it might be impossible.
But if I did go back, I would be interested in focusing on people’s interactions with the invisible. How could I photograph the invisible? Sounds like another adventure!
— Interview with Bego Anton by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: We discovered Bego Anton’s work at the exhibition ”P2P: Contemporary Practices in Spanish Photography”, which ran along with many other fantastic exhibitions as part of PHotoEspana 2014.