From Iceland — Counting in the New Year Across the Globe

Counting in the New Year Across the Globe

Published January 12, 2007

Counting in the New Year Across the Globe

Jill Waterman, a New York-based photographer, hasn’t exactly been out of ideas for what to do on New Year’s Eve for the past 23 years. Since 1983, she has travelled to various cities all over the world to document different New Year’s celebrations. Focusing on intense activities in the streets, public parties and private family gatherings. A project that started in Paris has led her on a journey around the world of firecrackers, gala dresses and party hats. The result: a truckload of photos capturing ceremonies and social gatherings on this old international holiday. She has witnessed various traditions and chaotic moments. A World War III-like fireworks display in Berlin, a religious festival at Copacabana Beach, a roaring crowd at New York’s Time Square, Pasadena’s famous Rose Parade and vibrant parties in cities including Amsterdam, Paris, Edinburgh, Shanghai and San Francisco.
After reading about Reykjavík being a big party destination, her trip led her to Iceland’s capital where, among other things, she partied at NASA, witnessed the turn of the year at Hallgrímskirkja Church and attended a gala dinner at the Pearl and the Hótel Borg. The Grapevine met with Waterman on January 2 after the whole big shebang was over, when she finally had time to relax after a psychotic night out.
“This project has been an amazing experience. I started it without planning how long I would do it, where I would go or knowing very much about New Year’s celebrations in different countries. At that time I was living in Paris and didn’t have any plans on New Year’s Eve. I was also new to photography and thought it would be a good way to track my progress in photography and sort of keep an annual check on things. After that first year I decided to make it an annual event,” Waterman says.
“New Year’s Eve is the only true international holiday, celebrated everywhere in the world regardless of religion or whether the culture actually believes January 1 to be the beginning of the new year. It’s also a time that people actually want to be photographed and seen,” she adds.
During the first few years the plan was to work on the project for a quarter of a century, but as Waterman’s list is long and only keeps growing, it has become almost a neverending challenge. In the meantime, she has made herself an expert on New Year’s celebrations. She has noticed certain changes over the years: “When I started, New Year’s Eve was much more casual. There wasn’t as wide a range of activities as there has gotten to be in the past ten years due to the coming of the millennium.” Waterman spent the millennium in Israel, an area where the Gregorian calendar would least likely be celebrated. “It was interesting because that year fell on a Saturday, the Jewish holy day. In Jerusalem, a segment of the population wanted to squelch the celebration in honour of Sabbath. But there were also charismatic Christians who were very involved in celebrations. I spent midnight in Bethlehem, where they held a large celebration called “A Night of Peace”. That was really special.”
One of the more interesting New Year’s celebrations she photographed was in Philadelphia. On New Year’s Day, an age-old tradition dating back to the Celts and ancient Romans has been transformed into the Mummers Parade, where people dress up in costumes, march in the streets and play pranks.
“The parade has been going on for over a hundred years. Today, it’s mainly composed of blue-collar workers who plan for the event all year long. It’s very elaborate. In fact, I think it’s Philadelphia’s best kept secret,” Waterman says.
When asked where the best party is, she tells me it’s hard to qualify. “There is something wonderful about every place, and they are so very different. In Rio it’s a religious event where the followers of Iemanja make a pilgrimage to the beach to worship the goddess of the sea. Regarding parties, I would say Reykjavík is high on that list. It’s pretty crazy and reminded me a lot of the year I was in Miami Beach. There are so many clubs and parties there wasn’t enough time to get around to all of them. Here in Reykjavík, we were out until 6:30 in the morning, and there were a couple of places I had wanted to go that we didn’t get to. We started early, with visits to the firework stores to photograph the preparations. We went to the bonfire at Ægisíða and spent midnight at Hallgrímskirkja Church. That was crazy with so much going on. After that we went to the clubs, Hressó, Sirkus, and Café Oliver and then to a Liborious party at a new place called Boston. We ended up at NASA at around 3:30, and it was pretty insane. There was a couple pressed against the stage, and the guy was all over the girl. Then there was a fairly heavy woman who was very interested in having her picture taken. At one point she got up on the stage and was go-go dancing to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” while the bouncer was trying to get her down. It ended up in a little dance between them. There were good picture opportunities all over the place.”
Any surprises?
“Well, I was expecting even more craziness. I didn’t see any horrific sights. Aside from a few people who threw bottles here and there, I would say that people in Reykjavík were crazy in an orderly way.”
Waterman’s New Year’s Eve Project is sort of a cultural phenomenon. With 23 cities done and still counting, she is far from running out of ideas for where to go. Aside from considering trips to Australia next year and Cuba in 2009, all the glittering party people in Russia, Japan, and Spain may also expect to pose for Waterman in years to come.
To view more of Jill Waterman’s pictures and learn about New Year traditions and stories from around the world visit her Web site at: To get a sneak peak at some of her pictures from Reykjavik visit: and search for her name.

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