When your destination seems the unlikeliest place to give you a warm welcome or relaxingly pleasant stay, what makes it beautiful and memorable nevertheless? I couldn’t help but think of this when I learned of the travel story of our featured analogue-loving traveler for this week. After living in the Swedish capital of Stockholm for a while, Laurence Donoghue from Brighton, United Kingdom decided to see and experience the rawness of the Scandinavian landscape by visiting Kiruna. Being the northernmost town in the country, it’s characterized by very cold climate that poses daunting challenges even for the bravest of travelers, as Laurence saw and experienced for himself.
“The most striking thing in Kiruna is the sheer lack of anything,” he shared with me. “No houses, no buildings, no real forms of life other than evergreens covered in snow, and no people, for miles and miles.”
The photos he took tell the story of his adventure on their own. But, of course, curiosity always gets the better of me, so I asked Laurence to tell us more about the whole trip. Read about Kiruna’s harsh and frigid welcome, its pristine beauty despite a rather desolate-looking landscape, and the unlikely highlight it treated Laurence with in this interesting interview for Wanderlust!
Can you tell us something about yourself and what you do? How long have you been shooting with film? Anything keeping you busy or inspired aside from film photography?
Currently, I’m working as a water sports instructor. A few years back I was pretty involved in filmmaking, and it’s something I’m planning on getting back on with again in the very near future. I was given a Pentax point and shoot camera when I was about eight or nine years old, sometime in 2000. I’ve been shooting analogue ever since, but I’ve definitely stepped up the amount I shoot and the attention I give it in the last three or four years.
What made you decide to head to the small mining town of Kiruna? Did you have any expectations about the place as a result of your research or planning?
I was living in Stockholm temporarily at the time, which is a very safe, engineered city. I was keen to see and experience some of the rawness of Sweden. Living in Scandinavia is often presented as a struggle, and I thought that Kiruna might be the place to experience what it would be like to live in an environment with such extreme weather.
Do you still remember the first scene that welcomed you upon setting foot in Kiruna? Can you describe it — and the whole town — to us?
More than anything, I remember the intense feeling of cold. I had done a bit of research and knew the temperatures would be much lower than what I had previously experienced. I suppose I imagined the cold would be a bit like the kind of cold you feel when the hot water runs out in the shower. I wasn’t really prepared for just how biting the cold is there.
Coming in on the plane, all I could see when I looked outside was a white expanse of featureless flatness. We got off the plane outside, and the cold seeped right inside our bones instantly. We were standing on what should have been tarmac, all looking at the thermometer reading on the side of the airport (which read -27 C), shivering. It was about 1:30 PM, and the sun was setting. It was a lot to take in straight away.
The most striking thing in Kiruna is the sheer lack of anything; no houses, no buildings, no real forms of life other than evergreens covered in snow, and no people, for miles and miles. It was the first time in my life I’d ever really felt cut off from any real community, and you can’t really help but experience loneliness. Most places in the world, if you’re by yourself, you’re usually actually subconsciously aware of their being other people in relatively close proximity. But in Kiruna, in the wilderness, if you are taking photos, and then look up and everyone has walked away, you are literally by yourself, and even then there are only six or seven of you in the middle of nowhere, with no form of human contact present. Everything is covered in snow so you can’t really differentiate between things and nothing really looks as it usually does, it’s very otherworldly.
How did you prepare yourself for roaming and shooting around Kiruna given its extremely cold temperature? Was/were there any spot/s that made the visit worth it despite the desolation, cold, and otherworldliness you mentioned to us?
The amazing thing about Kiruna, was that even though we were staying a 15-minute drive from the city centre, there was no indication absolutely none, that we were anywhere near any civilization, let alone any sort of metropolis. I rented a snowsuit, which I wore over the entire contents of my wardrobe, as well as snow boots. I received warnings about spending prolonged periods of time outside, not to stand still for too long, not to go anywhere alone. Despite all that, I did spend a large proportion of my time there outside.
It’s an incredibly weird, beautiful place. The amount of snow means nothing looks ‘normal’. Nobody else is outside, and so we (I was in a group of 8) felt like we were the only people inhabiting Kiruna. It was very surreal. I’d just watched ‘Interstellar’, and wearing the snowsuits, and I really felt like we were explorers on an uninhabited planet. We had about four and a half hours of sun a day, from 10:00 AM to about 2:15PM, so the sun never fully rises. Instead, it just emits a sometimes pink, sometimes orange, sometimes mixed, glow that spreads out. The skies were so clear and so unpolluted, the light seems to be diffracted and dispersed differently. Kiruna really felt like a place that was much further from the Sun than anywhere else I’d travelled to.
You said that amidst its extremes and isolation, Kiruna is still incredibly beautiful and pristine. What about the town do you think shows this best?
In some ways, I suppose it’s the isolation that is so beautiful, which is an odd combination. In Swedish, there is a word, ‘vermöd’, which means beautiful but sad, and I think that sums up Kiruna a lot. I’ve never felt loneliness like I felt it in Kiruna. I had very rarely given much thought to the sun setting and rising before, but when the sun sets in Kiruna, you really miss it. It’s like the loss of a friend. Having said that, the layers of snow, and the stillness of the place, it’s like nature has been preserved (which I suppose it has), until the summer. The soft light, the way the cold makes your eyelashes freeze – it’s a cold, sad beauty.
Please tell us about your analogue arsenal for this trip. Do you think you made the right choice shooting with the camera and film you brought, or do you wish you could have used others?
I think in some ways I was quite lucky with the fact my camera worked smoothly for the whole trip. I was shooting on an Olympus OM2 with f1.8 50mm lens, with which I’ve experienced shutter lag on cooler days in the UK. The coldest temperature recorded whilst I was there was -37 C. I tended to wear it under all my layers, so getting it out to shoot was both complicated and painful! I shot on Kodak Portra 800, which was so forgiving, in both too much light and too little.
It was quite a difficult place to shoot. On one hand you’ve got bright sun and reflective white surfaces, and on the other you’ve got very little light at all. It made for interesting shooting times! I tried to shoot either in the morning at around 10:45, and then just before or during sunset. If I go there again, I’d definitely stick to Portra 800, but I’d probably take a 28mm lens and a 135mm as well.
What do you consider to be the highlight of this trip?
On the last day we took a skidoo expedition through the wilderness, which included travelling over and stopping on a frozen lake. The wind had picked up and travelling at 20-30mph, and the wind chill factor took it to -56oC. The lake was just a vast expanse of frozen snow, surrounded by trees, and the wind created a sort of mist. During the ride, one skidoo got lost and so an instructor had to turn back for about 20 minutes to find them. The sun had set, so everyone had their lights on. I managed to get of the skidoo and shoot quite a lot of photos. It felt like a real battle against us and the elements. It felt like quite a hostile environment and you feel a real surge of companionship with the group. It makes you think that alone, you wouldn’t stand a chance.
Can you give an important piece of travel advice for film photographers like yourself, especially for those who are thinking of visiting such a desolate and harshly-temperatured destination such as Kiruna?
Trust in your stock. So many times whilst there, I was taking photos thinking, ‘this isn’t going to come out’, but it did, and all credit to Kodak! The other thing I’d say is invest in a pair of gloves that allow you to take photos whilst keeping them on. My hands definitely paid the price of my photos on that trip!
Lastly, if you could take just one camera and one roll of film to a dream destination, where would it be, which camera and film would you bring, and what will you make sure to take photos of?
Tough question! There are so many places I’d like to go, and I’d take my camera to all of them. After Kiruna, I’m very keen to go somewhere hot, like the Moroccan desert or Kenya. I like to shoot people outdoors to try and capture the effect of that environment in their face. One day I really hope to walk the Appalachian Trail, and I’d love to take my camera to shoot the people I’d meet along the trail and the changing landscapes. My dream camera tends to change weekly, but I’d love to get my hands on a medium format camera – either a Yashica Mat 124 G or a Pentax 67. I’d take either Kodak Portra 400 or 800. Such forgiving film with fine grain and great contrast.
To view more of Laurence’s work, please head to the link below: