Halldór Ragnarsson’s book, “Search For Life,” is not, in fact, a book. It looks like one, with a cover and a spine and so forth; but it is in fact, says Halldór, something else entirely. “It was made the way I think about making an exhibition,” says Halldór. “There’s a topic, but it’s not served up with a spoon.”
The topic in question is a voyage Halldór took to the Caribbean Sea during the winter of 2017-18, travelling by boat with a friend. The multifaceted account consists of photographic portraits of the people he encountered along the way and excerpts from his diaries; short, unvarnished snatches of his thoughts and experiences. On January 25th, Halldór wrote: “Been dreaming about the past. Weird dreams.” On January 28th: “Okay, okay. At least I’m here.” On February 10th: “I’ve been struggling to keep myself good for the last few days. Thoughts now come out of nowhere. On the right track, but it’s awfully tight. Maybe it’s just a phase.”
Blow some life
It’s clear that Halldór was going through a period of cathartic self examination during his trip. What isn’t clear—although, it’s between the lines—is exactly what caused it. “I’d come out of rehab a few months before, and out of a relationship, and I was between apartments,” he says. “It was written in the sky, in a way. The captain of the ship—a drinking buddy from Kaffibarinn, who’s now a friend—asked me just a few weeks before. He said, “You have nothing else to do.” I needed to blow some life into myself. It was, in a way, written in the stars.”
Searching for something
Halldór understands that, on paper, it reads like the classic plan of someone who’s feeling lost and needs to reboot their life and find themselves. “It’s so obviously an idea had by someone who is searching for something,” he laughs.
Creating work wasn’t part of the idea. It happened almost unconsciously. “I never thought about this a book,” he says. “I went there just to open my mind a little bit, leave Iceland behind for a little while, and change the scenery, and not think about art, or anything. But a week into the trip, I was starting to do things—taking photos, like any tourist does—but by the end I was very focussed on what I was doing.” He smiles. “People who are in the creative fields find it impossible to go on a vacation.”
Self and other
After his time in the Caribbean, Halldór went to New York. He looked over the photos and diaries and saw something forming before his eyes. “I thought, ‘I have something here,’” he says. “It wasn’t an exhibition, and I would never make a straight photography book. But when the images and texts were put side by side, it came into focus quickly.”
As we leaf through a copy of ‘Search For Life,’ I wonder out loud about the decision to juxtapose portraits of people going about their day with the highly personal diaries, asking why he chose to photograph others, rather than himself, or his bunk, or his footprints in the sand. “I would never have made this book if I was alone,” he says. “You can’t figure out who you are sitting in an empty room. I used the camera to get in connection with the people. I had a rule that I would approach someone, talk to them, and maybe ask if I could come back tomorrow and hang out. Through these people I came to understand myself more.”
“I really wanted the writing to be mundane stuff, but really open,” he continues. “You can never pinpoint exactly what I’m talking about, but I think people will feel like they understand what I’m getting at. It’s honest and a pinpoint of an abstract world.”
A little bit brighter
This abstract word certainly had, in the end, the desired effect. Halldór speaks with intense fondness about his fellow travellers and the people he encountered on the way. He also believes that his search for life changed him for the better.
“In a way, it’s a homage to just being a happy, normal guy,” he concludes. “Realising that this moment is life. I’m not a yogi or anything, but I understand a little bit better after this trip that the past doesn’t matter. It gives you depression if you think too much about it. And the future makes you anxious. On this journey, I was in the moment of being on a white sand beach, or just doing normal stuff. The sun was just a little bit brighter.”
‘Leit að Lífi / Search For Life’ is available in bookstores now.