Þorsteinn J. is one of Iceland’s premier media people. For two years, this former host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire has been running an independent web-based TV-magazine called This Life, This Life. Governed by his desire to break the barriers and explore new ground, his short docs and portraits of people have caught the eye of the public for its originality and innovative narrative.
/// How long have you been working in the media really?
– Well, My mom was working for the state-owned broadcasting company (RUV) when I was young, and I remember taking the elevator up to her office on the fifth floor when I was 14 years old. I just felt as soon as I came in that this was something that I wanted to work with. There was just something that caught me. All those sounds coming from the studios, the smell… This miracle really, to be able to be in one place and talk, and it can be heard everywhere. Soon after that, I started to read from children’s book on the radio before Christmas, and I have been doing this ever since, and I find it just as exciting now as I did then.
/// What stands out during this time?
– I think what really stands apart is the digital revolution of the media a few years ago. When we first started to work with computers to edit material. The media is very traditional and conservative; everything has always been done before. That is just the way it is, you do an interview, or take a photo, but when you are able to move around more freely… That is really the concept behind the web-based TV magazine, this mobilization. I don’t need to plug in anywhere. I don’t need any sort of institution, I just have my own permission to do what I want, and more literally as well. I don’t need to even plug into the electrical socket in the wall. All I need is the video camera, I take the material, record it, load it onto my laptop, edit it, and upload it to my website, without even having to plug into 220 volts. This is the big revolution in my opinion.
The industry is just the same as it ever was. News should still be about the facts, what happened, where and when. Then you have the other more news related material and that gives you a lot more space to work with. It is possible to put a lot more into it, and to play around with the narrative.
/// Is there some aspect of this that you like more than others?
– Yes… What I most like… How should I say this without it sounding too bad? Is this intimacy with people, and the curiosity you are allowed to have as a journalist. You have a reason to call people, or come by, and ask about things. You have reason to look into different worlds and see different situations. I’ve always said that is a privilege. You are always entitled to ask questions and follow upon that.
/// You were the host of the Icelandic Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and you go from there to doing this type of stand-alone journalism. These are pretty different mediums.
– I guess. For me, Who Wants to be a Millionaire was just like doing a radio show I used to do on RUV called Songs for the Young, where the whole concept was that I received letters from young people who requested songs they wanted to hear. This was just a regular format show. When the offer came to do the show, I was a bit tired of taking myself so seriously all the time, to always be doing my own thing. I was ready to try to do something different. It was a good experience, those two years I did it, a nice change. But I have always been doing my own things on the side, to varying degrees.
I have always thought affectingly of when I was younger and was writing poetry, I hand-wrote one hundred copies of my poetry book in three months, which was sort of a ridiculous idea, but it was a form I felt was fitting at the time, and no matter if I am doing radio or writing or now with the internet, I like to do it based on my ideas, because a lot of people just tell me that this is never going to work, this is doomed, and that is when I get excited to do it. You just assume from the beginning that not everyone is going to get the idea, not everyone are going to think it is an exciting idea, but if you know yourself what is that idea that makes it exciting for you, then you are having fun.
/// How do you choose your subjects?
– It is so strange, I sometimes hear people complain that there is nothing happening. But, oh my god, there is so much happening. I only have to walk down Vesturgata to see at least three or four stories that are just ripe for the picking. It is all relative to criterion you use for the material. If you are always looking for the big fire or the big political scandal, then there is probably not much happening. I’m more interested in my own surroundings, the people around me and what people are doing. I used to have a two-hour radio show on Bylgjan from noon until two in the afternoon. I did the show by going out each morning and finding the material and the subject in that same day. I would never have any sort of plan beforehand; I would just go out and find the material. Of course, it was often a lot of pressure to find the material, but it always surprised me how much material there is around us. The standard for the material in This Life, This Life is really just nothing in particular. I don’t start by shaping the box, and then find the material to fit the box. I do it the other way around, I start by finding the material, and then I shape the box.
/// How do you experience the material yourself?
– How would you classify it? There often seems to a poetic undertone to what you are doing.
I am always very much aware that what I am presenting is just one perspective. This is never going to be a defining description of one man or one situation. This is always my perspective. When I am working on a story with someone, I try to do it very spontaneously and unorganized. I try not to direct the situation too much, but rather to work with the situation as it is. I don’t ask people to repeat, or to do a walk again in order to capture it better. I have been very influenced by my friend, the photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson, and other photographers. I just work with the material that I am able to capture from spontaneous situations. I think that is just as plausible depiction as anything else. This is just my modus operandi. The material really decides the production.
/// How do see the future of media?
– I am always waiting for people to discover the Internet as a medium in its own conditions. The Internet is not a printing medium and it is not just an archive to look for information. It is a picturesque medium that follows its own set of laws. I am waiting for people to stop trying to use it to always try to write text, and realize how it can be used with moving pictures. If I need to find information about China, I can do that, but it is not like I need info on China everyday. People have to realize the enormous potential the Internet has as a medium in its own right.
/// So, the revolution is just waiting to be discovered?
– Yes, exactly.
You can access his This Life, This Life through www.thorsteinnj.is