Art / Culture / Editor's Own / Environment / Travel

Tonje Bøe Birkeland: Imagining What Could Have Been


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

Alexander Brett

As the #metoo revolution spread across the world like wildfire, most assumed Scandinavia would emerge relatively untouched. These are the liberal heartlands of gender equality, after all, where equal pay is a legal right and 74 per cent of women have full-time jobs. The recent scandal at the Swedish Academy, however, destroyed these assumptions irreparably. In its wake lie uncomfortable truths. Although a legal right, it now transpires that there’s an average pay gap of 15.4 per cent in the Nordic countries, and only 36 per cent of women are in managerial positions, despite more women than men graduating from higher education each year. Although Scandinavia was a pioneer in feminism (abortion was legalised in Sweden as far back as 1938) women, as in other nations, are almost entirely lacking in the history books.

Tonje Bøe Birkeland, though, a Bergen-based photographer, is not convinced that there’s simply a lack of women to include in the textbooks. More, she thinks, there’s a lack of information about the women who should be inserted, and of the general role of women in history. Birkeland points particularly 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. Just one example, she says, of “holes where the female presence is absent.”

“Birkeland is not convinced that there’s simply a lack of women to include in the textbooks. More, she thinks, there’s a lack of information about the women who should be inserted.”

The history books of 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’s 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 historical explorers that, she says, “integrate women into traditional narratives of travel.” To create each character Birkeland first uses her imagination, then researches a particular place for many months before embarking on expeditions to pose for the pictures.  Together with her mother Birkeland spent a month in the Gobi Desert and three weeks on board the sailing boat Aurora Arktika sailing from Iceland to Nansenfjord on the eastern coast of Greenland.

Photographs on display at Somerset House for the Photo London event last month, where Birkeland represented the Huxley-Parlour gallery, showed her in locations from Mongolia to the Arctic. Her latest character, Bertha Bolette Boyd (Character #V), saw her travel to Bhutan where she hiked the longest version of The Jhomolhari Trek, taking her up to 4,970 meters above sea level. Thanks to an accompanying monograph published in 2016 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 as Bertha Bolette Boyd in Bhutan

Bertha’s predecessor, Anna Aurora Astrup (Character #IV) travelled to Greenland in 1900, aged 29. Greenland, unlike Bhutan, is a land where colonialism persists to this day, 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. “We lose all the different names for snow, or weather changes, or waves, or tide,” Birkeland explains, before stating that in Greenland she definitely feels as though she’s laying claim to a landscape, as if merely using it aesthetically is enough to exploit it. She feels particularly guilty about a thought she had to rename a mountain after Anna Aurora. Her friends loved the idea, but she decided not to persue it as she believes it should have a name given by a Greenlander who’s probably been there before her. Even so, she can’t stop pondering it and wrote the dilemma into Anna’s journal, hoping that sharing it with the character would make it her problem as well.

Although 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. Though they may not be colonial subjects, the Sami are a separate race and, as nomads, the Norwegian state viewed 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 remains. Consequently, Birkeland’s Sami background forms an important strand of her identity, though she admits the heritage is unclear. Her prize possession, she says, is a Sami pesk or coat, handed down by her great-grandmother, and she frequently describes the characters of her work as “wanderers”, like the Sami.

In the decade it’s been running The Characters has unquestionably been a huge 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, and the National Public Art Council of Sweden, Hasselblad Foundation and the Preus Museum of Horten all include Birkeland’s work among their collections.

“The Characters has unquestionably been a huge success for Birkeland. Her work been exhibited from the island of Papa Westray in Orkney to Scandinavia House in New York City.”

Following the success of her exhibition Inner and Outer Landscapes at Copenhagen’s Fotografisk Center 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, despite her commitment to press on, she’s certainly still open 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.”

When shooting, Birkeland usually travels with her mother, Annine. “She,” 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 musicians and artists, a gallery and an exhibition/concert hall so at home I am quite often her assistant.” Birkeland’s partner, Angus, is a native English speaker and 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 the Norwegian conscience, lesser-known female adventurers are starting to break the mould. There is undoubtedly, she says, “more literature and stories about female explorers. But they’re 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’. With women there’s some story in its place that’s very romantic and soft and fluent.”

Though she may be reluctant to base the project entirely on a feminist standpoint, Birkeland agrees that “until these female travellers are acknowledged as individuals who existed for themselves – not only as ‘female explorers’ but as ‘explorers’ – there’s still a feminist necessity to the project.” Birkeland cannot rewrite history and alter the facts of the past – that few women became explorers and even fewer made it into public knowledge – but by imagining what could have been, she can at least try.

TONJE BØE BIRKELAND is a Norwegian photographer. Her series The Characters is frequently on display around the world and tge accompanying monograph is available to view online at


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