Mothers, Lovers, and CEOs: Modern Icelandic Women

Reykjavík photographer Berglind Björnsdóttir captures the hopes and dreams of Icelandic womanhood
11.9.2012
Words by Mark O'Brien
Halla Linker Aguirre and Erla Dögg Ingjaldsdóttir may have little in common, other than a shared origin and a similar destination in their journey—both Icelanders who would eventually move to America. The latter is an interior designer with her own innovative studio in California; the former has lived in the U.S. since she first met her husband sixty-four years ago, before coming to be engaged to him three days later, going on to achieve recognition as a writer, filmmaker, and television host.

Yet these two women are among the forty-one whose portraits adorn the walls and whose eyes meet those of visitors as they step through the door at the Reykjavík Museum of Photography, which has been playing host to Berglind Björnsdóttir’s enchanting exhibition, ‘Modern Icelandic Women’—just now extended to run until September 22.

Berglind’s exhibition was two years in the making. The result is a humble, honest, unpretentious portrayal of individuals, each with a rich life story. “I found women who interested me. Some of them I already knew, some I read about and just found in the phone book,” Berglind tells me. “When I said I wanted to photograph them, only one of the people I tried didn’t want to take part.” And in each captivating face, in every wrinkle or crease, in every fixed stare or wistful gaze, in every warm-hearted smile she captures something at the heart of all her subjects.

“OUR VIKING HERITAGE”

Why did you want to focus on "the modern Icelandic woman" in this exhibition?


I got the idea for the book when I was finishing my MA at the University of Iceland two years ago. Icelandic women are a fascinating subject. They are not only beautiful but strong and very independent as well. I believe those traits come from our Viking heritage. Women in Iceland today have so many roles. They are mothers, CEOs, caregivers, cooks, role models and lovers.

My grandmother, mother and sister were very important role models for me when I was growing up and then when I finally had a daughter of my own I knew that I wanted to honour Icelandic women with a project.

What made you choose these subjects?

I selected my subjects totally by instinct. I only knew a few of the women before I started the project, others are known women in Iceland and some I stumbled on perhaps while reading the newspaper or browsing online. I tried to pick a variety of women, with different backgrounds and some have their roots in other countries. I photographed forty-one women of all ages, and tried to pick women that had already achieved great things in their lives but also those that are just starting out and haven’t shaped their lives yet.

MIND THE GAP

Did you find any generational gap? Are the women in their teens and twenties different in their views and ideas to the women in their fifties and sixties?


I can’t really say that I experienced much of a generation gap. The oldest woman in the book, Hulda Guðrun Filippusdóttir, is eighty-eight and is still skiing, playing golf and tending to her award winning garden. She even spent her honeymoon in a tent on the Vatnajökull glacier some fifty-five years ago. All the women have similar dreams about creating a wonderful family, having a career and travelling the world. Halla Linker Aguirre, who is now eighty-two years old, has probably travelled more than any other Icelandic woman. Her story is quite fascinating. Not to mention former President of Iceland, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who was the first woman to be elected President of a democratic nation.

The younger women were of course just starting out in life but their enthusiasm and zest for life was inspiring. They all seem to have in common the desire to see the world, to travel and to explore new places. Maybe that has something to do with the isolation of the country or maybe Icelandic women are just very adventurous.

ALL IN THE GENES

Early Icelandic women are characterised in literature as being strong and commanding, looking after affairs on land whilst the men went out to sea. How similar do you think the modern Icelandic woman is to this?


The modern Icelandic woman is not only strong and commanding looking after affairs on land but she also goes out to sea. Icelandic women are very driven and do not hesitate to take on responsibility. I think these traits do come from the early Icelandic woman and are now deeply embedded in our genes.

You say your life will be different from the experience of meeting these women. How so? How have they inspired or influenced you?   

Meeting these women was such an inspiring experience. I was welcomed into many of their homes and lives and even though it was only for a moment the memory lives on. Each one of them was special and had their own story to tell. Many of them had already achieved their goals and many others were on their way to do so. Meeting them also made me realise that we should never give up on our dreams. Even though they may seem far-fetched, dreams really can come true.

FREEDOM TO BE POLITICAL

Do you think Iceland is a good country to be a woman?

Yes, I think Iceland is a great country to be a woman. Women in Iceland have more freedom than anywhere else in the world to be themselves and to be accepted for who they are. Women have strong roles in the family unit for example and also they have the choice to pursue a career and to combine it with family life. I also feel that there is no stigma against single mothers in Iceland. Nowhere else in the world would a single mother be elected President.

I believe that Icelandic women are strong, healthy and happy women. Some of the women that I photographed live abroad but it was clear that Iceland is an important source of their creativity and has strongly shaped their sense of self.
More info:
Berglind Björnsdóttir

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