When photographer Anna Domnick first experienced Icelandic nature in 2012 on a working trip, she said she was awestruck by what she saw: magnificent untouched open spaces that have been preserved due to Iceland’s conservation laws. Anna explains over the phone from Berlin how she threw herself into research on the subject when she got back home to Germany, only to find herself dismayed when she discovered how much land had already been irreversibly damaged. Instead of writing angry opinion pieces or joining the ranks of environmental activists like Saving Iceland, Anna returned to Iceland the following year and set out on a mission of her own, to take part in the discussion through her project, ‘rísa’ (“rise”).
Paradise on a fast track to getting lost
Iceland is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy sources, namely hydro- and geothermal energy. Harnessing this energy, however, often grievously damages the local ecosystem that has established itself over the past few centuries. To balance the economic benefits of energy harnessing with the protection of nature, the State established Rammaáætlun, or “The Icelandic Master Plan for conservation of nature and utilization of energy,” which details which areas are and aren’t viable for damming. Since its creation in 1999, the Master Plan has been periodically updated, notably increasing protection for more vulnerable locations in 2013, only to have some of those recent changes reversed by the new centre-right government, much to the ire of environmentalists.
Anna’s project ‘rísa’ focuses on the Þjórsárver wetlands, a 140-square-kilometre area in the centre of Iceland that is on the conservation list but encompasses parts now listed as dammable. According to the Environment Agency of Iceland, it is breeding ground to numerous kinds of birds and home to 167 types of highland plants, and 244 insect and arachnid species. Yet for all of its biodiversity, the area is mostly inaccessible to humans, leaving it a distant idea in the minds of the vast majority of Icelanders. Anna set out to change that.
Fanning the winds of change
Ad campaigns to protect the highlands seem to lean heavily on consumer-friendly photo and video media focusing on green fields getting flooded and vulnerable creatures displaced. But with ‘rísa’, Anna instead presents images of snow-capped peaks and white landscapes, which more accurately portray what the wetlands look like for the majority of the year.
The images are faint, with only a few specks of shrubbery, sand and black rocks visible to differentiate the snowy ground from the grey skies. Anna says this calmness is intentional, that “the photographs emphasize Þjórsárver’s vastness and highlight its fragility. It is both about the virtue of this natural spot for mankind, and the virtue of the pristine nature in itself.”
The conceptual installation is presented on five billboards spread out over the central Reykjavík area, each five by four metres large, mounted on wooden frames. The photographs are purposefully presented without any description or title, thus provoking the viewer into investigating what the images signify, hopefully leading to them finding out exactly how vulnerable Þjórsárver is to human interference.
The pieces were unveiled one after the other over a period of eight days and will remain visible until May 10. Although Anna stresses that ‘rísa’ was not commissioned by any agency or part of an environmental campaign, she did get financial support from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which allowed the installation to be fully realised.
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