Visions of the Past: Mapping and Reading Historical Photographs of Sámi people

Project leader, art/photography historian Sigrid Lien


Jenny and Thoma Johanne Henrikke Persen (Søstrene Persen), Girl in Sámi Costume, probably 1898, private collection.

In Norway, the evolvement and distribution of photography coincided with the national consolidation in the decades following 1814. After the liberation from the 400-year long union with Denmark, the country was (albeit in a new union with Sweden) in the process of establishing a new national identity. It was crucial for the young nation to show how it was different from its neighbours (former and present colonizers), and images of the rural population and of the landscape became essential in this process of differentiation. But the photographic mapping of Norway and Norwegians was also related to western colonialism and the development of modern tourism. The first travelling photographers, Marcus Selmer (1818-1900), Knud Knudsen (1832–1915), Swedish Axel Lindahl (1841–1896) and later also Anders Beer Wilse (1865–1949) searched out motifs first discovered by the painters: glaciers, mountains, waterfalls and fjords. In this early photographic discovery of Norway, the urban population, like the climate, the architecture and the atmosphere, was represented as an almost organic part of the landscape (Larsen and Lien 2007). These recordings of the nation did however also include photographs from the Sámi areas in the North and of the Sámi people who lived within the Norwegian borders. The project examines how Sámi people are represented in the work by the photographers who travelled along the Norwegian coast from 1842 and onwards, for example in the images by Selmer, probably the first photographer ever to produce images (daguerreotypes) of representatives from the Sámi population in Norway.In the 1850s the wet-plate collodion process gradually replaced Daguerre’s method, followed by a considerable expansion in the photography profession. While there were around 53 photographers active in Norway during the heydays of the daguerreotype (between 1840 and 1859), there were 200 photographers registered between 1860 and 1865 (Larsen 2013) – and even more followed after the introduction of the dry-plate process in the 1870s (Larsen and Lien 2007). It is known that some of the late 19th century/ early 20th century photographers were of Sámi background, such as for example Kaia Larsen (b.1892) who was active in the Narvik area (Harnang 2013). Visions of the Past intends to map and analyse the work of these early Sámi photographers. It will ask how and to what extent their work represents an alternative, or insider’s view – in opposition to the representations of the Sámi culture and people presented by outsiders: travelling photographers, such as Selmer, Knudsen, Lindahl and Wilse as well as representatives of the Norwegian central powers, such as scientists, missionaries, teachers, doctors, in addition to travelling photographers and explorers from other nations. An example of the latter is the French photographer G. Roche’s anthropometric documentation of Sami people from Roland Bonaparte’s expedition to the north of Norway in 1884. The sub-project asks whether and to what extent the images by these outsider observers represent the stronger part of an asymmetrical power relation? And to what extent is it possible to find exceptions? Does for example the work by Sophus Tromholt (1851-1896), considered as one of the pioneers of Norwegian ethnographic photography, represent such an exception? Tromholt who was born in Denmark, came to Bergen to work as a teacher in 1875. As a scholar he took a great interest in Aurora Borealis (or the northern lights) and in 1882 he was paid by the Norwegian state to travel to Kautokeino in Finnmark to conduct studies on this phenomenon. While he did not succeed in photographing the northern light, he produced around 300 photographs of buildings, landscapes, fauna and the local Sàmi population. These extraordinary images (now kept in Bergen University Library) became in 2013 a part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World list of important historical collection. The project also examines the representational politics in the photographic work by Ellisif Wessel (1866-1949) who in the capacity of being a doctor’s wife in South Varanger from the end of the 1880s engaged not only in politics and social work among the local population, but also photographed extensively (Johansen et al 2007). The images by these well-known photographers have circulated in many different contexts and the project therefore also aims to trace their various trajectories and uses – their social biographies.


Negotiating history “from below”: Sámi photography in exhibitions, publications and digital media

Senior Researcher and anthropologist Hilde Wallem Nielssen

Bente Geving: Margit Ellinor 1O, 2003, RiddoDuottarMuseat, Karasjok

Bente Geving: Margit Ellinor 1O, 2003, RiddoDuottarMuseat, Karasjok

This sub-project addresses the novel ways in which photography is used by the Sámi communities, with a view to the following main venues: exhibitionary practices, publications and digital media. The project examines the new uses of photography within these venues as spaces for the articulation of experiences, contestations and negotiations of history. How do Sámi cultural institutions such as museums and archives, printed publications, websites and digital networks relate to a legacy often marked by the gaze of dominant others? In which way is photography connected to the ongoing production and circulation of images and narratives vital for the construction of identity, community and nation? Which themes and issues are addressed? What happens when grass-root bloggers make use of the visual legacy in new ways? What happens to history and Sámi self-articulations when virtually configured?

The introduction of digital technology has opened up new ways in which museums and archives share information about their collections and make them available to wider audiences. Also, individuals and groups increasingly share historical photographs from private collections and albums on the internet. Historical visual material has never before been so accessible, and circulated so widely. Many indigenous groups around the world, whose identity may not be defined by state borders, actively use media as a tool in identity construction (Ginsburg et al. 2002, Wilson 2008). Indigenous media has not only been crucial in the process of increasing visibility and provide information, but has also contributed to nation building and language revitalization (Pietikäinen 2008).

Likewise media activities, such as radio, television and film have been essential in the ongoing processes of imagining the transnational Sámi nation. During the recent years, digital media also adds to the picture. Digital networks provide new possibilities of interaction among a population that is spread across localities, regions and national borders. Today there is a wide variety of web-sites created by Sámi organizations, groups and individuals. Such network-based media technologies enable new forms of sharing, mobilization, identity formation, reaction, communication and publication (Srinivasan 2006). A striking feature of many of the Sámi blogs, groups, and websites is the extensive use of photographs, and particularly historical photographs. While multiple groups and individuals in the Sámi community actively use the web to express themselves, the younger generation is, as elsewhere, particularly active.


Photography in Sámi Contemporary Art

PhD-student and Sámi art historian Kjellaug Isaksen


Gjert Rognli (b. 1966), The Hidden Place – The Dawn of Day, stillsfoto fra verket Behind the Silverwidths (2005)

This project studies how Sámi contemporary artists use photography, not merely to recreate history, but also as a tool to create new stories. Isaksen situates her approach within a contemporary Sámi reality. Her background enables her to draw on both an inside and external perspective. While trained as an art historian in a Western educational system, she also builds on multicultural experiences and a strong rootedness in Sámi culture and identity. Thus, the project will contribute to the current methodological discussions on the positionality of the scholar and the fruitfulness of alternative and indigenous perspectives.

While contemporary art in general has turned into a flourishing field of academic scholarship, very few studies have so far been done on Sámi contemporary art. Eli Høydalsnes’ Møte mellom tid og sted. Bilder av Nord Norge (2003), which established how the traditional Sámi iconography has resulted in a stereotypical view of Sámi culture and art, may thus be considered as a pioner work. Hanna H. Hansen’s Fortellinger om Sámisk samtidskunst (2007) expanded this perspective further by discussing how Sámi artists in the 1970’s confronted these stereotypes and established a new space for Sámi contemporary art. Furthermore, Isaksen’s Sápmis kunst i globaliseringens tid (2010) demonstrated how the work by many Sámi artists are inscribed, not only in local, but also in global artistic practices. Thus, the study emphasized how Sámi art has moved from the first initial phase where it played an important part in the Sámi nation-building process, into a new phase where it raises critical questions concerning indigenous peoples’ rights, environmental issues, as well as asking how global power structures inflict change in local communities, ways of living and culture. In this field of contemporary practices, photography seems to hold a particular strong position.

Photography is a medium well suited for projects that renegotiate the past and identity (Edwards 1999, Sandbye 2001, Lien & Larsen, 2007), subjects that definitely occupy Sámi artists. Isaksen’s PhD-project, Photography in Sámi Contemporary Art, examines the recycling and uses of photography in Sámi contemporary art, and thus further develop some of the perspectives from her MA-thesis (2010). The study will focus on how photography in works by Sámi contemporary artists contributes to establish new understandings of Sámi culture and identity, in the past as well as in the present. It will also discuss such art works in the perspective of the local and global circulation of which they form a part.