Culture / Interview

Tonje Bøe Birkeland: Imagining What Could Have Been


At the Photo London event at Somerset House last month, pictures from Norwegian photographer TONJE BØE BIRKELAND showed her posing in locations from Mongolia to the Arctic. They’re all part, she tells me, of a decade-long project, The Characters, in which she’s finding a place for women in traditional narratives of travel…

Xander Brett

As #metoo spread like wildfire, most assumed Scandinavia would emerge untouched, these being the liberal heartlands of gender equality. The recent scandal at the Swedish Academy, however, destroyed those assumptions irreparably. In its wake lie uncomfortable truths. Although a legal right, it now transpires there’s an average pay gap of 15.4 per cent across the Nordic countries. Even worse, only 36 per cent of women are in managerial positions, despite more women than men leaving higher education. Though Scandinavia was a pioneer in feminism (abortion was legal in Sweden as far back as 1938) female voices in the history books remain almost entirely absent.

Tonje Bøe Birkeland, a Bergen-based photographer, is, however, not convinced there’s a lack of women to put into the textbooks. More, she thinks, there’s a lack of information about the women who should be included. Birkeland points to the two world wars, eras when women were granted unprecedented employment opportunities, but whose importance was hidden for years. Her own great-grandmother was a newspaper editor who, before she married, published under an assistant’s name, making her articles almost impossible to trace. It’s just one example, she says, of “holes where the female presence is absent.”

“My great-grandmother was a newspaper editor who published under an assistant’s name. It’s just one example of holes where the female presence is absent.”

The history books in her-own country are dominated by explorers: Roald Amundsen, Thor Heyerdahl, Fridtjof Nansen and Otto Sverdrup were all Norwegian. And all male. In The Characters, a photographic series she began in 2008, Birkeland is hoping to change this; not by bringing more obscure female adventurers to light, but by inventing them herself. She’s photographed around the world posing as imaginary female explorers that, she says, “integrate women into traditional narratives of travel.” To create each character Birkeland researches a particular place for many months, then embarks on an expedition to find it. Birkeland’s recent trips include a month in the Gobi Desert and three weeks sailing from Iceland to the east coast of Greenland. Her latest character, Bertha Bolette Boyd (Character #V), saw her travel to Bhutan, where she hiked the Jhomolhari Trek, taking her up to 4,970 meters above sea level. Thanks to an accompanying – and equally imaginary – monograph, we learn that Bertha travelled to Bhutan in 1931 after reading a National Geographic article “solely to see and experience – not to lay any foundation for colonisation.” Which is lucky, as Bertha notes that “Bhutan is a country where colonialism completely failed.”

Image result for tonje bøe birkeland bhutan

 Birkeland in Bhutan as Bertha Bolette Boyd (Character #V)

Bertha’s predecessor, Anna Aurora Astrup (Character #IV) travelled to Greenland in 1900,  aged twenty nine. Greenland, unlike Bhutan, is a land where colonialism persists to this day, with control of its natural resources still conducted from Copenhagen. But Norway, unlike Denmark, is a nation without possessions, so one might expect Birkeland to be rather passé about colonialism. Not so. “Colonialism,” she says, “is about control.” Control, she believes, not of the population, but of the natural world, meaning humans become ever more distant from the nature they rule. In Greenland, she says, she definitely felt as though she was laying claim to a landscape, as if merely using it aesthetically was enough to exploit it. She feels particularly guilty about a thought she had to rename a mountain after her character. Her friends loved the idea, but she decided not to persue it as she thinks it should have a name given by Greenlanders.

Greenland was not Birkeland’s only experience of colonialism. Though Norway may never have had possessions, with a partly Sami great-grandmother, Birkeland is all too aware that her government’s attitude towards that race has not been entirely spotless. While they may not be colonial subjects, the Sami are a separate people and, as nomads, Oslo saw their way of life as unviable for decades, denying them land ownership and cultural representation as a result. The Sami got their own parliament (with limited powers) in 1989, but racism and exclusion persist. Consequently, Birkeland’s Sami background forms an important strand of her identity. Her prize possession, she says, is a Sami pesk or coat, handed down by her great-grandmother, and she frequently describes her characters as “wanderers”, like the Sami.

In the decade it’s been running The Characters has unquestionably been a success for Birkeland, who grew up in the mountains near Bergen and graduated from the city’s Academy of Fine Art in 2012. Her work been exhibited from the island of Papa Westray in Orkney to Scandinavia House in New York City. Following the success of Inner and Outer Landscapes, an exhibition she held in 2015, Birkeland decided to stick with the project for good.

“After Character #II,” she explains, “I was unsure if I wanted to continue. I thought perhaps it’s too much, perhaps it should only be one. But my commitment doesn’t mean I’m opposed to a change of direction. All these people send me stories about female explorers who actually lived, so if I change course the project will still be about female figures, but maybe in a different time period, or maybe, if I have enough material on one real female explorer, I’ll bring her into the project.”

“If I change course the project will still be about female figures, but maybe in a different time period, or maybe, if I have enough material on one real female explorer, I’ll bring her into the project.”

When shooting, Birkeland usually travels with her mother who, Birkeland tells me, “raised me to love the mountains and is a visual artist herself.” She runs an artist space called Bergen Kjøtt, an old meat factory in Bergen, holding studios for more than three hundred artists and musicians, as well as a gallery and an exhibition/concert hall. “At home,” Berkeland explains, “I’m quite often her assistant.” Her partner, Angus, is also an important co-worker; sometimes assisting as photographer and at other times as a writer.

Since Birkeland started the project, though male explorers still dominate, lesser-known female adventurers are starting to break the mould. It’s something Birkeland is obviously delighted about. Nevertheless, she explains, she’s still not completely satisfied.

“They’re still always categorised by their gender. They’re compiled as ‘female polar explorers’, ‘female adventures’ or ‘women travellers’. Moreover, when there’s uncertainty in their biographies, it’s normally replaced with something made up. When there’s a gap in male biographies they’re put forward as the hero so it’s always ‘well, the journey was so tough he couldn’t write anything at this moment’.”

“Until these female travellers are acknowledged as individuals,” Birekeland says, “and are categorised as people who existed for themselves – not only as ‘female explorers’, but as ‘explorers’ – there’s a necessity to the project.” Birkeland cannot rewrite history and alter facts from the past – that few women were explorers and even fewer made it to public knowledge – but by imagining what could have been, she can at least try.

TONJE BØE BIRKELAND’s photographic series The Characters is on display around the world. The accompanying monograph is available to view online.

This article has also been published in Nordic Style Magazine.

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