"The Icelandic Red Dress Series" (perhaps somewhat lacking in title creativity, but hopefully not so much in the photos themselves) was the main project and self-portrait series I worked on over the course of two weeks spent travelling all over the insanely beautiful country of Iceland. Why the red dress, you might ask? Two reasons: A. I had very little room in my travelling suitcase for outfits besides the red dress, especially considering I had to save suit-case space for transporting chocolate (yes, that was my most vital necessity for the trip), and B. When I was thinking ahead about creating an Icelandic self-portrait series, I wanted something that would depict "standing out". Not just a bright colour to stand out against the Icelandic backdrops, but also something of a reflection of my thoughts as of late. These photos have been some of my most personal I've ever taken, for the thoughts behind them. As a rather notorious introvert who has always preferred being on the sidelines, who has been afraid of what might be thought of my looks, awkwardness and quirks, who has been known to ignore get-together messages from people for months at a time (sorry guys), and who is often nervous and worried about the future and anything out of my comfort zone (which is basically everything), I've come to realize these last couple of years have been quite a breakthrough for me in letting go of fear. Perhaps it's just been part of growing up, or perhaps it's the snowballing effect from stepping out of my comfort zone and letting one adventure lead to another, gaining more confidence with each one... Or perhaps it's the incredible like-minded friends I've made through photography who have become the most encouraging, uplifting and inspiring influences in my life. All these things have helped me learn to take courage in standing up, following my passions and not being afraid to be different. (...chances are nobody's even lookin' at me anyway, so yet another reason not to worry!). I am still a quiet introvert by nature, but whether I'm keeping to the sidelines to blend in or whether I want to take courage in standing out (more specifically finding a balance between the two), I've been learning to accept myself as someone who simply doesn't need to worry about what people think of me regardless of anything. So this is what these photos are to me - Whether existing silently as a simple but meaningful extension of nature, or standing out amongst it, I can find peace in letting go of my fear as I keep pushing forward. So, this photo series symbolizes my wish to live wholeheartedly. It's a reminder to myself to let go of fear and doubt, to embrace who I am, and especially to focus on a life lived in gentle love, gratitude and absolute wonder of the world and everything in it.
Arrival in Iceland
After years of dreaming about visiting this magical country, I decided in October of last year that I would make the dream a reality to come in the following Spring. I asked a few like-minded friends from across the USA and Scotland if they'd be willing to join me (Rob Woodcox, Whitney Justesen and Sian Davies), which took a total of about 2 seconds for them all to say yes. The next 6 months were spent organizing, fundraising and planning for the 2-week adventure. We were soon joined by Kelsey Kienitz, a new wonderful friend whom we could not have managed without! And so, on that fateful day of May 14th, we all landed and met together in Reykjavik, hardly believing life was real.
One of my weirdly most prominent memories, after exploring some of the city and grabbing a delicious vegan meal at Graenn Kostur, was going to our hotel room to settle in for the night and discovering a box of tea in the kitchen cupboard. After a very long day of travelling and city exploring, I could not tell you how happy I was at the thought of sitting down with a steaming hot cup of tea in my hands. I excitedly boiled the water, poured enough tea for all my friends, sat down in a kitchen chair and raised the teacup to my lips as I speculated how perfect a moment this was... and then I smelled it. "Um... Sian and Whitney... does your tea smell like... well... like, really bad eggs?". They confirmed it. It was decided the tea bags had been sitting in the cupboard for who-knows-how-long and had gone very, very bad. I was rather disappointed in this let-down. It was only later when, washing out all our un-drunken cups of tea, I began to smell it again. I leaned down and took a whiff of the hot tap water running into the sink... it wasn't the tea bags that held the lovely aroma of rotten eggs, after all. It was, in fact, the water. And that is how I learned Icelandic water has sulfur in it. I began to wonder how people showered, if they were to get into the water smelling bad but then get out smelling even worse? I tried it. A glorious steaming hot shower that smelled strongly of, let's be honest, raunchy farts. I was pleasantly surprised when I finished to find the smell had dissipated (or maybe I grew used to it) and I was clean as ever. Not bad, Iceland! :)
The next day consisted of locking ourselves outside of our hotel room with the keys and all our stuff inside (that actually may have been the first day, I can't fully remember), dubbing one person the official key master of our scatterbrained group, more Reykjavik city exploring, grocery shopping, Icelandic sweater buying, much credit card declining and long-distance calling/problem solving, and finally Blue Lagoon swimming and relaxing (as pictured above). After finishing in the Blue Lagoon and emerging like old wrinkly prunes, we spent the next couple hours shooting in the moss covered lava rocks around us as the sun began to set. Suddenly out of nowhere, a heavy hailstorm hit and sent us running to our car, the hailstones stinging our faces and soaking through our clothes and coldly reminding us that we were indeed in "Ice" land. Once safe and soggy in the car, we began the 3 hour drive through the night to reach the Katla house (which I highly recommend booking to stay at if you want an adorably secluded house placed conveniently near our favourite landscapes). Being in the land of midnight sun during the longest days of the year, I found it strangely surreal to be driving through so many beautiful landscapes in the middle of the night and still be able to see everything. We arrived at the Katla house shortly after 2am. This is where we would stay for the next several nights, along with another group of talented photographers (Anna Szczekutowicz, Kassidy Renee Paige, Autumn Wilson and Chelsey Ray) who would meet us there the next day. By next day, I actually mean night... shortly after 4am to be specific. Imagine me, being the only one to wake up and groggily open the door to these talented people whom I have looked up to for so long and am now meeting for the first time, with my unkempt hair, glasses askew and drool undoubtedly dried to the side of my face. I hugged them all and went back to bed.
Week 1: Exploring the South
We started by visiting the adorable little town of Vik, discovering grocery store hours close at weird and early times, and then driving on to shoot at Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls (taking random stops to visit herds of horses, explore glaciers and shoot in little Icelandic grass-roofed houses).
Right after shooting the first image of my Red Dress series under the giant (and freezing) Skogafoss waterfall, I was approached by a friendly older North American tourist couple who seemed excited to chat with me as I attempted to dry my dripping wet hair and struggled to put my socks and shoes back on. They talked in a rather strange manner, using short sentences, easy words and lots of hand motions. I smiled and nodded lots. When they finally asked where I was from, to which I easily replied back, "Canada", they gasped dumbfoundedly and exclaimed, "Oh you are?! We are too! We thought you were Icelandic! We didn't expect you would understand us, and here you were one of us all along!". Yep. I suppose I am honoured to be thought Icelandic (and later on we would meet several more tourists thinking us to be "either artists or Icelandic"), but I also must say, for all the actual wonderful Icelandic people we did meet, most of them spoke perfect English. Certainly not too much of a language barrier here!
*Above photos were taken at the town of Vik (where I hope to someday live for a year), Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss waterfalls, horse fields and Icelandic houses located between the two waterfalls, Solheimajokull glacier and Seljavallalaug pool.
The next day we embarked on a grand adventure to find a fallen airplane somewhere within a huge expanse of black sand that stretched on for miles. With nothing but a general sense of direction towards where I thought the plane might lie, we drove off the road and into the black unknown, weaving around dips and over rises and praying our poor rental car would not get stuck in all the sand. After a few close calls and wondering if we would ever find the plane, we came over a rise and finally saw it in the distance! The cheering ensued, and we were soon parked and spent the next couple hours shooting in the area. When finished, we made our way back towards Vik, replenished our hungry stomachs with dinner, and then went to Reynisfjara beach to spend the evening playing among the strange black rock column formations and attempting not to get swept into the raging sea. After removing my shoes and extra layers of clothing to face the freezing wind and waves for another Red Dress photo (and almost losing my camera when a few waves attempted to drag my tripod away), I looked around and still could not believe I was actually standing on this beach, the same beach I have drooled over photos of daily and dreamed of visiting for years. It was surreal to realize I was right there, right in that moment. Though, the moment lasted only a few seconds longer before the pain from the cold and wet became unbearable and I ended up back in the car... But it was a surreal moment for the few seconds it lasted!
One of my very favourite days spent in the South was the day we drove to Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon. This was the day I was most amazed by the magnificent diversity of landscapes within such a small area of the country. The drive was only a couple hours from where we were staying, but the scenes changed from beautiful green mountains with innumerable waterfalls cascading off the edges, to fields of the richest green moss covered lava rocks, and then to dark brown and black foreboding mountains (where I made us stop so I could take the below photos of Whitney), to fields of grass and then miles of plain black sand, and then on to magnificent snowy mountains with the most beautiful glaciers coming down every valley between them. I have only seen a small handful of glaciers in my life, but in just a few short hours here I saw more than triple the amount of glaciers I've seen in my 21 years.
One of my most treasured memories was on this day, after we finished exploring and shooting at Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, when on our way back the sun was getting lower in the sky and there was golden colour shining everywhere. We passed a couple glaciers, and then we came to another glacier where we saw a gravel road leading up to it. Of course, we had to take the road. When we got there, the sun was shining through the clouds at the top of the mountains and casting this beautiful glow on the glacier, creating one of the most enchanting scenes I've yet seen in my life. There was no one else around for miles but us. I ran up and down these small hills with the mountains and glacier in the background, shooting another of my Red Dress series (from which resulted the photo at the very top of this blog post), and then soon had to stop so I could more fully enjoy the scene without the distraction of a camera (...and maybe also because I was running out of breath from running up and down the hills for my photos). I put my camera gear away, and walked back up the crest of a hill to watch the light move across the mountains and glacier as the sun got lower in the sky. I looked around me and suddenly realized that the rest of my crew of friends and I were all spread out quite far apart from each other, each of us sitting quietly in our own place, and each of us just looking out at the same scene before us. I then felt incredibly thankful to be sharing this landscape, sunset and experience with these people. Thankful and peaceful. We watched in silence from all our different places as the sun slowly dipped down behind the mountain... and after some time, when the light no longer shone on the glacier, we all stood up and met back at the car. Sometimes no words are needed between friends to simply enjoy such a scene.
Week 2: "Roughing" It
Soon our first week of exploring the South of Iceland with our whole crew came to a close. For the second week, it would just be the three of us - Rob, Whitney and I. Our plan? Drive around the whole of Iceland. With no plan.
After saying our sad goodbyes to the rest of our group, and picking up groceries and a rental tent in Reykjavik, we split off to begin our journey clockwise around the country. We drove for several hours and eventually arrived at Kirkjufell mountain, where we explored the surrounding area for several more hours and visited with the wandering horses. After taking another Red Dress photo, and getting rained upon, we went back to the car. "Now what?", we thought. It was nearing 10pm, time to start looking for a place to set up our tent for the night. We soon decided it would be a good idea to drive to the Dynjandi waterfall and set up camp there, where we could wake up and spend the morning shooting and exploring the area. According to our GPS, we could probably get there within a couple hours of driving. And so, we set off for Dynjandi! ...And then ended up at a ferry terminal. With no ferry. At midnight. Thank you, GPS, for selecting the ferry route for us long after ferry hours are over. Being determined as we were, we re-routed for the long way around to Dynjandi, and set off once again!.... And spent the next 5 grueling hours driving through the West Fjords, all on gravel roads, up and down mountain passes, alongside walls of snow in the higher elevations, weaving back and forth around countless ocean inlets, sliding scarily around steep gravel corners, praying not to fall over the cliffs, never passing any signs of human life, wondering how far away we were from civilization and dearly wishing we had filled up at the last gas station because by golly, if we get stuck we're gonna be stuck for a very long time! After that long night, we finally arrived at Dynjandi in the early morning. Overtired and maybe a little grumpy, a couple of us who shall remain nameless (hint - there were 3 of us, and it wasn't me) had our first slightly-tense-not-exactly-seeing-eye-to-eye moment about where to set up the tent for the night. It ended up in a field.
Later that morning, after a much needed sleep, I left the others to continue napping in the tent while I climbed up to the base of the Dynjandi waterfall to take another Red Dress photo for my series. It was a beautiful, sunny day and the view from the waterfall out into the bay was absolutely stunning. I walked bare-footed across a patch of snow and through the frigid stream to get to the base of the falls for my photos. It was the most refreshing morning after such a long night! I was soon frozen from the icy air and water, but when I finished taking photos, the sun came over the top of the mountain and immediately started warming my bones as I ran back to my shoes and coat. After enjoying the scene for a while longer, I wandered back down to eat breakfast at our car. By now Rob and Whitney were up and putting away the tent, and soon they went up to the waterfall while I stayed behind to take pictures of their silhouettes against the falls with my old zoom lens. The scale of the waterfall was astounding and I had to capture it to share!
Soon we were on the gravel road again, winding back and forth as we drove our way back to the beautiful, solid and smooth Ring Road (which I guess felt so nice to be on again that we didn't even realize we were speeding until we got a speeding ticket). The day led us to Godafoss waterfall, and then on to Grjotagja, a small lava cave with a natural hot spring inside it. By the time we reached Grjotagja, it was already late and we were cold (as usual) and ready to warm up in the hotspring... Which turned out to be too hot. I could not even hold my hand in the water for more than a few short seconds. But nonetheless, the cave was still warmer than outside, so we spent a good part of the evening sitting by the water and feeling the warmth radiate from it while the three of us talked and bonded and indulged in chocolate for dinner.
It soon became late and we were ready to find a place to set up our tent for the night again. We started driving, passing lots of geysers along the way, and then suddenly found ourselves in a snowstorm! We kept driving through, looking for a drier, warmer place to set up the tent. No such luck of course, even after several hours of driving. The snowy mountains we drove through were so surreal and incredible, we almost pulled over several times to get out and take photos, but changed our minds every time we saw the temperature on the car dashboard. I rather deeply regret not pulling over... The suffering would have lasted only a few minutes, but the photos forever. Remind me to tell myself this next time!
By 3am (this would become the routine of the week, setting up the tent at 3am every morning) we eventually came out of the snowy mountains and pulled over just outside a small town. The warmest temperature of the night was -3 degrees Celsius (26 F). We bundled up in as many layers as we possibly could, and still fell asleep frozen... but woke up a few hours later with the opposite problem. The sun was beating down on our tent and I was beyond comfortably warm, pulling off layers as I unzipped the door to the tent and breathed in the cold fresh air. I looked over at the mountains, which had been covered in snow a few hours earlier, and saw they were completely bare. I thought it was amazing how much change a little direct sunlight can bring.
Another long day of driving ensued. It was gorgeous and sunny, and the only thing I thought of that could make it better would be to find some trees (a week and a half without seeing trees is a week and a half too long for me). Lo and behold, we accidentally took a wrong turn (though wrong turns almost always end up as right turns in my eyes) and ended up by a lake, driving through a forest of thousands of little trees that were just beginning to grow their Spring leaves! We all felt ourselves drawn to our beloved trees that we missed so dearly. We immediately pulled over and became forest people for the afternoon. Whitney and I wandered through the forest and by the lakeside while Rob collected branches to use in a later photo. Eventually I climbed the biggest tree I could find, and was soon joined by Rob in it's branches, where we stayed for almost an hour as we enjoyed each other's company along with the quiet of the forest and the dappled sunlight shining through the new-grown leaves. After climbing back down, we found Whitney sprawled across the hood of the car, completely sound asleep. We let her nap a little longer, and once we all felt fully rejuvenated by the trees we decided it was time to keep going. I opened the back door to climb into my usual seat, and.... it was taken. By practically the whole forest. Rob swore I would only have to ride with all his sharp, pokey, crumbling branches and sticks for a short time until he was able to craft them into wings to use in a photo... so I obliged. The "short time" was 2 days. I know I missed the trees before, but after 2 days of riding with a forest on my lap and in my face, I was more than ready to release all the branches back into the wild. Sigh... only for you, Rob!
We kept driving, up through more mountain passes, and stopped at a gorgeous look-out point where we did a bit of team-work to build an inukshuk which we dubbed "Jöelle". Then we continued on, reaching the east side of Iceland and driving along the coast for a few more hours, stopping here and there to explore fields and mountains and abandoned buildings, and accidentally getting mobbed by thousands of angry birds (we survived).
Nearing midnight, we reached Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, this time coming around the opposite direction from last week. We made the full loop around Iceland! The soft blue midnight light drew us in, and we stopped to wander around the quiet lagoon while it was empty of tourists. Whitney soon couldn't get the idea out of her head that she had to float away bare-footed and in a dress, on an Iceberg. Partially due to insanity, and perhaps partially for a vision of art, she somehow made it out to a free-floating iceberg and remained there for a few long freezing minutes as it drifted in and out with the tide. It was quite a sight, and I was rather terrified for and proud of my girl at the same time! We soon got a wet, freezing and blubbering Whitney back to shore and quickly got back to the warmth of the car. After driving a little further, we pulled off the road and set up the tent before the foreboding clouds would start raining or snowing on us again.
This next day was a good one. Er, let's say memorable one. We started the morning by driving to Skaftafell, where the Svartifoss waterfall is located. We found a secluded place by the river where we freshened up and enjoyed a breakfast of what little food we had left in the car.
(By the way, for all the people who keep asking me the personal question, "Did you camp anywhere with bathrooms, or...?", the answer is no. This might be too much information for some, but Men, I envy your natural capabilities. A word of wisdom to my Women: Always have toilet paper with you when camping in Iceland. Trust me, you probably won't see a man-made toilet for days. And even if you think you're in the middle of nowhere, ALWAYS look EVERYWHERE, including up at the cliffs-tops above you, to make sure the landscape is clear of people. Believe me, looking up to see tourists watching you squat n' drop is really embarrassing. Like really, really, really embarrassing. Did I mention really embarrassing?)
For the next few hours, Rob diligently crafted together his forest of branches into wings (I was very impressed with his handiwork, and even more impressed that I had my back-seat of the car to myself again). Whitney and I wandered around the area while Rob made his wings, and when he was finished we all hiked up towards Svartifoss together. I ended up splitting off to hike further up the mountain behind the waterfall to spend a while in silent solitude (which every introvert needs). I quietly explored and took a few self-portraits in the bushes and with the view of the rivers winding their way through the black sands in the distance. After a couple hours, I wandered back down to the waterfall and found the others still shooting Rob's winged concept.
After finishing at Skaftafell (we realized we had spent nearly the whole day in the park), we drove down some lesser-known roads to explore a couple glaciers, and soon realized it was getting late and we were hungry. Upon returning to the car, we rummaged through everything, looking for anything edible we might have left. We had been running low on food for the last couple days, and every time we passed a grocery store it was closed... We eventually bottomed out to these last few items of edibility: A few end pieces of bread, a tiny bit of peanut butter, some tuna, and chocolate bars (the chocolate was really the only thing that kept our bodies going the last few days). Rob and Whitney decided the most logical thing to do in our situation of hungriness was to make themselves a peanut butter tuna sandwich. From the backseat I merely rolled my eyes at their choice of food creativeness while I folded the last piece of bread in half and put a chocolate bar in it.
It got late, and we continued driving. The thick dark clouds above us made this night the darkest yet, the first time it really felt like "night" since we arrived in Iceland. We were all tired, driving silently through the dark, when we were suddenly awoken from our reveries with a loud smack! We all started freaking out at once. A dear old Snipe bird had crossed its path of flight with our car at exactly the wrong moment, and was stuck to our windshield. We pulled over as soon as we could, and Whitney and I silently cried in the car while Rob gave a little funeral by the side of the road. I still think of the bird often, and trust it's in a better place now. We had several other close encounters with the same type of bird, those poor things seem to be lacking road sense...
The night continued to be a long one. We saw some old abandoned white buildings in the distance down a quiet road, and decided to drive closer and see if it would be a good spot to camp and shoot at the next morning. As we got closer to the buildings, we noticed a bunch of very strange white vehicles parked outside. Having already been put on edge by the death of a bird and our overwhelming tiredness, we somehow concluded this place was either haunted or full of scary people who drove the white vehicles. Terrified, we quickly turned around and drove as far as comfortably possible before finding a new place to set up camp for the night.... The next day we went back in the daylight and saw it was just a regular abandoned building with some abandoned white vehicles beside it. Nothing to worry about.
One of my very favourite places we explored that next day was Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon (I've gotten pretty good at pronouncing the names of the other locations we visited, but I'm not even going to try with this one). It was cold, windy and rainy, but it created the best mood for exploring such a dramatic place. I took another one of my Red Dress photos here, standing on a clump of moss at the very edge of a 100 meter drop, and got screamed at and told off by a very angry mother of a Whitney for risking my life so close to the edge. I will do my best not to put her through seeing that again (although she stood rather close to a few edges herself).
Our last couple of days on the road we spent in the South, re-visiting our favourite locations and discovering new ones. On one day, it rained so much that we couldn't set up the tent, and so we spent the night crammed together in the car with all our stuff, listening to the rain drumming on the roof. It was a sleepless night for me, but by morning the rain began to let up and we all tumbled out of the vehicle with our cameras into the extra green, thick moss surrounding us. Everything was beautifully fresh, though cold and damp, but that didn't stop me from flopping down into the inviting moss for some photos.
That night we reached Hrunalaug hot spring, where we more than gladly submerged ourselves into the steaming water and felt our bones warm up again for the first time in a few days. We stayed for several hours, enjoying the still evening and the strange company of other American tourists (who at first claimed they were Canadian as they thought it would gain them more respect... C'mon guys, I'm Canadian, I can see right through you). Eventually we got back on the road and set up camp near Gullfoss waterfall. A very strong wind came up that made us feel as if we would fly away in our tent while sleeping, but after I few hours I grew used to the constant noise and movement and finally slept.
After spending the next day exploring around Gullfoss (which is a BEAUTIFUL waterfall, but beware of hundreds of tourists!), we finally made it back to Reykjavik where we'd spend our last couple days before flying back home. We discovered our friend Kassidy (who was part of the group of girls who joined us at the Katla house the week before) was still in Reykjavik. Without having any plans of what to do or where to stay during our last days in Reykjavik, we contacted Kassidy and met up with her. She brought us back to the Bus Hostel, where she had been staying the last few nights and had made several wonderful friends there whom we also clicked with immediately as soon as we met. We decided to stay at the Bus Hostel as well and enjoy the company of these new friends, and take advantage of the hostel showers (which felt pretty good after a week of camping).
On our last night in Iceland, we lost Rob in Reykjavik. For several hours we wandered the city in the wee hours of the morning searching for him, worrying we would miss our flights home in just a few hours... It was perhaps a stressful, but also rather hilarious night looking back on it. It ended well when Rob finally found us back at the Bus Hostel. Next time, I'm putting that 24-year-old kid on a leash before wandering through the city again. Love you, Rob!
On the flight home I spent a lot of time processing the whole adventure (the processing and post-travel depression would last several weeks). I still miss the land, the experiences and the company of those with me. My mind was constantly blown every single day by how much beauty there was all around us, and I am now practicing taking that open mindset with me wherever I go, so I can find beauty everywhere. Iceland changed me, as every experience changes us. Someday I hope to return there, but for now I am ultimately thankful for the opportunity and experience I got. It is unforgettable and I shall treasure it always!
If you made it this far in this novel-length blog post, I greatly applaud you! I'm almost done now, I swear. I just want to take a moment to say thank you to a few people:
Rob and Whitney are like brother and sister to me. The two weeks we spent together in Iceland were easily up there in the best two weeks of my life. To explore my dream country with my best friends is not something I will ever easily forget, and these two people and their willingness to make this adventure happen meant the world to me... So, thank you Rob and Whitney for being such beautiful, important people in my life! I could almost say I love you both more than chocolate, but that would be slightly pushing it.
Thank you to Sian, one of my most understanding best friends who was with me from the very beginning when I first started planning a trip to Iceland. I'm so glad we made it happen!
Thank you to Kelsey, whom without her support we would not have gotten very far in our dream adventure. You are amazing Kelsey, and I value our new friendship so much! I can't wait to go on adventures with you in the future!
And thank you to every one of our wonderful backers on our Icelandic Expedition Kickstarter, you all helped make this dream a reality and I can't ever thank each of you enough. We will be sending out thank-you prints from the trip to all our supporters very soon, though even that won't come close to showing my full appreciation for you people. I love you all!
...Now, if by some strange reason you are not yet bored of our time in Iceland, I invite you to watch this beautiful video of our adventures and experiences, filmed and put together by the ultra talented Whitney Justesen. Enjoy!