Homage to Nordic Light

Nordic Light Festival co-host (and veteran) Mikkel Aaland shares his wise words and memories in this homage. 

Nordic Light Festival co-host (and veteran) Mikkel Aaland shares his wise words and memories in this homage. 

By Mikkel Aaland, Nordic Light co-host

I have attended photo festivals and events all over the world and Nordic Light in Kristiansund is my favorite. Here in this small coastal town, squeezed between impressive snow-capped mountains and the temperamental Atlantic, magical things happen. Larger than life personalities such as Pete Turner, Joel Peter Witkin, Greg Gorman, Mary Ellen Mark, Elliot Erwitt, Steve McCurry, Marc Riboud, Anton Corbijn, James Nachtwey, Joyce Tenneson, and many others mingle comfortably with students and amateurs and relatively unknown artists and create a familiar bond that lasts long after the festivals are over.  

My memories of Nordic Light start in 2009 and playback over the years like a streaming miniseries. In 2011, for example, I remember two photographers from Finland, Esko Männikkö and Pekka Turunen. I see them seated on stage with Morten Krogvold, the charismatic leader and creative director of Nordic Light. The theatre is dark and filled with an eager audience waiting to hear their story. The day before, in my role as Morten’s wingman and co-host, I had introduced the relatively unknown Finnish artists to a smaller audience who had fallen in love with their comic retelling of their journey in a beat-up old Citroën through northern Finland and the former Soviet Union. Now, with a larger audience and the spotlight on them again, they sat stoically as Morten tried futilely to engage them in conversation. The audience grew restless. Finally, Esko (I think it was him) looked quizzically at Morten and said slowly, “But we said everything yesterday.”

The audience roared with laughter but Esko was serious and it took great effort by Morten to get even a few words from either of the Finns who had been so animated the day before. At one point, a woman in the front row fell asleep. Pekka (I think it was him) jumped up from the stage and walked quickly toward the woman carrying a pillow. He placed the pillow gently behind her head and then went back and sat quietly next to Morten. It was pure theatrical genius and true to the Finnish character. 

I will never forget the first time I saw the work of the great Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axelson (2011). I was late for his lecture and stood in the back of the main theatre as a series of stunning black and white photos from the Arctic filled the large cinema screen. Axelson spent almost three decades documenting the Inuit native people of the north and I was shaken by the overwhelming beauty of his photos and the painful realization I was seeing a world not long to last.   

Then there was the work of the Cuban photographer Raul Cañibano Ercilla. In 2013 Anne Lise Flavik, one of Nordic Light’s founders, and at the time, director, organized a Cuban theme for the festival and flew in a group of photographers and curators from Cuba. I can still hear the stunned silence in the room as Raul finished his presentation. Then the room erupted and the audience jumped to their feet clapping wildly for the longest time. It was electric.   

I have vivid memories of swimming in the crazy-cold sea between presentations with Burkhard Arnold the German director of Focus Gallery, (2009), Cooper & Gorfer, the talented photography duo from Sweden (2014), and Lucas Foglia a San Francisco fine arts photographer (2017). I have warm memories of sneaking into the sauna at the top of the Scandic hotel with the Brazilian photographer Mona Kuhn and the American photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood. And memories of organizing the Beyond Pixel Unfestival with tech savant Hans Peter Brøndmo (2013) and sharing Nordic Light with technology legends from California Leo Laporte and Bill Atkinson.

My memories would not exist if it were not for the volunteers who put their heart and soul into making the festival happen. Volunteers like Martin Unger, Odd Inge Teige, Per Arnfinn Persen and Dag Nystuen, just to name a few. They are the true heroes of the festival.

And then was Iké Udé, the Nigerian photographer living in New York (2017). While we were on the stage together I expressed lust for his hair and afterwards he grabbed me by the arm and marched me to a nearby hair saloon where he bought me body-boosting mousse and showed me how to use it. 

My hair was only marginally improved, but something always happens at Nordic Light that leaves me smarter, wiser and more convinced than ever how important photography—and the Norwegian perspective on it-- is for the world.  Here is one last memory.  

It was the wrap up party (2015) and we were at the home of Lars Liabø, chairman of the Nordic Light board, feasting on homemade Baccalà and aquavit. Something made me remember a story I had heard recently in New York about a guy who always carried around two notes he had written to himself. The first note in one pocket read, “I am the center of the universe”. The other note in another pocket read “I am a piece of shit”.  I told the story to photographers sitting around me and after a moment of silence, one of them, Hilde Carling, spoke up. In Norway, she said, we would say it a bit different. Here, the first note would say “we are the center of the universe”, but the other note would say, “and so is everyone else”. 

These are wise words and just one more of many Nordic Light memories I savor. 

About Mikkel Aaland
Mikkel Aaland is a professional photographer and the author of 12 best selling books on digital photography.  His non-technical books include, "County Fair Portraits,”  “Sweat” (an illustrated tour of international bathing customs), "The Sword of Heaven," "Pilgrimage to Kailash" and a recently published memoir, "The River in My Backyard.”Aaland, along with his wife and two daughters, is currently based in San Francisco and Telemark, Norway.

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