The image above, upon first glance, features the oversized rocks of the Faroe Islands, crusted with barnacles and the occasional drops of guano. Look a little closer however, and you’ll notice something else. His name is Niels. He too is sprinkled with various crustaceans, shells covering his eyes, his white beard mirroring the furry algae sprouting from the landscape surrounding him. Like the gentlest of guardians, Niels keeps watch over his environment while simultaneously falling deeper into its grip.
This photograph, taken in 2015, is part of Finnish-Norwegian artists Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen series “Eyes as Big as Plates.” Since 2011, the photographers have documented retired farmers, fishermen, zoologists, plumbers, opera singers, housewives, artists, academics and 90-year-old parachutists in a variety of handmade costumes inspired by natural environments.
“We were curious and on a mission to find out what kind of connection the Norwegians had with their rocks, fjords and hills,” the artists explained in an email to The Huffington Post. “And [we were] especially keen on looking at the folktales where nature or natural phenomenons were personified. Folktales often made complex natural and sociological issues understandable and accessible, with phenomena taking on forms and characteristics that even a mere mortal could have a dialogue with.”
Scandinavian folklore, which was collected on a large scale in the 17th century, features mythological tales revolving around trolls, mermaids, water spirits, seductresses and she-wolves. The mystical beings offered fantastical explanations for the natural world’s many mysteries, offering a neo-pagan alternative to Christianity.
In a way, “Eyes as Big as Plates,” the artists explain, is a contemporary take on the same gesture, of approaching humans’ relationship to nature in an accessible language. “We reasoned that the older the local interviewee we would work with, the closer we would be to the tellers of the tales and the talking rocks of the stories,” they said. “Those Nordic hills hadn’t changed since the tales, but the people sure had.”
Hjorth and Ikonen began working together in 2011, after Ikonen Googled “Norway + Grannies + Photographer” in search of a collaborator. Both artists are interested in depicting older people in their work. Intrigued by a particular combination of experience and curiosity, the artists seek out subjects who are often overlooked and marginalized by society at large. Through their stunning images, in which senior citizens are transformed into mythical beings outside time and place, the artists hope to address the stigmatization and marginalization so many elderly individuals face every day.
By working with older subjects, the artists also allude to the radical changes that both the natural world and our understanding of it have undergone in recent years. “So many natural phenomenons that were mysterious in the past can be explained to a dulling degree of practicality in 2016 and the hills with rocks are at times undisguised to nonexistence,” Hjorth and Ikonen said. “Our quest with the project therefore turned more toward imagination and curiosity and the title ‘Eyes as Big as Plates’ seemed to fittingly describe many of our models’ way of looking at the world.”
Hjorth and Ikonen begin their process by seeking out the best bogs, hills, glaciers and volcanic plateaus to set their scenes. They then forage the area for moss, sticks, rhubarb, and whatever else is available, fashioning the natural materials into a makeshift disguise. Ikonen is in charge of the wearable sculptures at the forefront of each image, while Hjorth mans the camera.
Over the past five years, “Eyes as Big as Plates” has left the internet collectively open-mouthed, providing real-life images that seem ripped from the pages of a Nordic fable. The popularity of the project has allowed Hjorth and Ikonen to continue it on a larger scale, traveling to locations including South Korea, Japan and Switzerland. They find their subjects through friends, family and newspaper ads, as well as chance meetings on the street, in a noodle shop, or wherever luck takes them. The artists are currently working on a photography book chronicling the project, featuring 50 magical portraits. The duo raised 47,1567 Swedish Krona, or approximately $55,000, on Kickstarter, far exceeding their goal to make the vision a reality.
“We both grew up with an understanding of the outdoors as something intermixable with the indoors,” the artists said. “It is part of every day and the awareness and interaction with our surroundings still drives our practices strongly. Both of us live in big cities so there is a definite need to roll in the leaves regularly. We are a bit hesitant to talk about nature as we’re coming to think that there is no such thing. There is just us in our surroundings, whatever those may be. Either way, acknowledging that we are not separated from our surroundings can be a way to make the most out of the world around us!”