The black and white photograph portrays a stern, unfamiliar face. Just below the photo, a handwritten post-it note reads, ‘Erlendur Jónsson?’ It’s the question mark that gets to you—the man in the photo is almost identified, yet the possibility remains that this man could be someone else entirely.
The photo is part of the exhibit ‘Hver er á myndinni?’ (‘Who’s in the picture?’), on display at The National Museum of Iceland. Thousands of other unknown faces currently adorn the museum’s walls, all taken by the Icelandic photographer Alfreð D. Jónsson during the period 1931-1952. A participatory exhibit, the exhibition invites visitors to help identify the people in the photos.
“Alfreð has passed away, and the photos are all unidentified,” says Kristín Halla Baldvinsdóttir, the curator of the exhibition. “We ask visitors who might have known the people in the photographs to help clarify who they are. I feel like a spy who’s discovering the hidden stories of people. I am trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle.”
Revealing family secrets
When visitors recognise a portrait in the exhibition, they can write the name of the person on a sticky note and put it underneath the identified photograph. Sometimes, this information reveals that the photos speak of secrets unknown to the naked eye.
“We have photos of couples who appear to be married. We just assume that they were together,” Kristín says. “But then we have guests come in, going ‘Grandma, who’s that man in the photo with you? It’s not Grandpa, is it?’ Turns out many couples were just ‘flings.’ It brings up a lot of untold, interesting narratives of people’s lives.”
These hidden stories of people add to the mystery surrounding the photos. “Even though things appear one way in the photo, the further we dig, the more we learn about the truth of the picture,” Kristín says. “We have a photo of what appears to be a mother and her daughter. But I researched their names based on the information I received from a visitor, and it turns out that this girl is the niece of the woman, who raised the girl like she was her daughter.”
A wealth of possibilities
Based on Kristín’s interaction with visitors, she conducts greater research to confirm whether the photographs have been identified correctly. She then puts the information into a database at sarpur.is.
“It’s like a grand interactive research project,” Kristín says. “And it allows visitors to connect with photos that either they haven’t seen in a long time or that they never knew existed. That’s why the exhibit is free—we want it open so that people are at complete liberty to see the photos and potentially identify them.”
“We’re uncovering truths, really,” Kristín concludes. “We’re putting question marks behind every photo in the exhibit. We ask ourselves, who is the man in this photo? Could it be Erlendur Jónsson? And if it is, is he who he appears to be? The search opens up a wealth of possibilities.”
“Hver er á myndinni” is on until November 18th at The National Museum of Iceland.