At first glance the Bjelland siblings, Edvard and Bergit, are unremarkable. They grew up along four other siblings in Brusand, Jæren – a remote village on the south-west Norwegian coast, on a farm which dates back to the 1800s and has passed through their family for four generations. On the farm, horses, cows, pigs, hens and over one hundred sheep were kept.
But for Norwegian photographer Elin Høyland, the Bjellands represent something of significance, and worth preserving. When Høyland first met Edvard, Bergit has recently died, the livestock had been sold off and the land was now rented out. He was now alone, save a handful of sheep he continued to look after. The rural existence that defined the land for centuries was now slowly vanishing from sight.
This view was shared by Norwegian regional arts institute Hå Gamle Prestegård. They commissioned Høyland, who was shortlisted for the Photo Folio Review Award at this year’s Les Rencontres d’Arles, to visit the Bjelland homestead and create a record of the 200 year old farmhouse (a listed building) and this lifestyle for future generations.
Though Høyland was tasked with documenting Edvard and his home, as she spent more time with him she realised there was a depth to As the Bjelland siblings grew older, they left the farm one by one – all except Edvard. Whether out of devotion, obedience or fear, Edvard has lived his entire life on this patch of land. Bergit wasn’t far behind – after a brief stint in the city, she returned to Brusand. But instead of moving into the family home, she built a new one just a stone’s throw away. Neither Edvard or Bergit married or had children, and thus lived out their lives together, but apart.
Høyland’s new photobook, Brother | Sister (Dewi Lewis), is her exploration of the bonds of family, the pull of the land and the lives of these two siblings. She collaborated with award-winning Norwegian novelist and Poet Gaute Heivoll for the project; instead of a traditional foreword Heivoll wrote a short fictional piece inspired by the images, imagining the moment Bergit announced she would be moving.
The work bears close relation to her previous photobook, The Brothers, in which she photographed Harald and Mathias Ramen, an elderly set of brothers living in a quiet Norwegian hamlet (Hå Gamle Prestegård approached Høyland after seeing the project). But while those images spoke to an unshakable fraternal connection, Brother | Sister takes on a more somber guise. Høyland’s focus is on empty rooms and the artefacts that fill them up, the unchanged decor rendering the house a time capsule.
“I had never experienced a house from the seventies so intact before so I was enormously intrigued by this. Bergit herself died in 2011 so I never met her, but Edvard had kept all her things the same way as when she lived,” Høyland tells me. In these photographs, Bergit is not merely the titular ‘sister’, but an invisible presence that inhabits the spaces presented. Her absence is as keenly felt as Edvard’s presence – her house hinting at her tastes and her personality.
When Edvard is photographed, he stares into the distance impenetrably, a sense of loss palpable beneath the surface. The intimacy of the images were the result of months of getting to know Edvard, Høyland explains.
Høyland is based in Oslo, and faced a 700 mile round-trip every time she visited Edvard. Despite the immediate inconvenience, she found that the arduous journey necessitated a different approach.
“It is a day’s trip for me by car to visit Edvard. So every time when I have made the trip I would stay overnight (not in Edvard’s home, though) and meet up with Edvard several times on the same trip.
“This way of working helped us get to know each other and me gaining his trust. Sometimes we would just sit and chat – to me it is a gift to be able to be present in [my subjects’] lives, and share some moments of time.”