‘Married to the landscape’: Photographing the Faroe Islands, where men outnumber women

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All images © Andrea Gjestvang

Andrea Gjestvang’s new book explores how masculinity morphes and survives in harsh farming and fishing communities – the toils and textures of brotherhood, flesh and land

Located halfway between Norway and Iceland, in the midst of the North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands are home to just 54,000 people. While many of this remote nation’s men follow their fathers into work at sea, Faroese women are increasingly being drawn abroad to study in European cities. More than half of those who leave never return, creating a gender deficit of around 2000 women – as much as 10 per cent among women of reproductive age. 

Andrea Gjestvang’s Atlantic Cowboy is a visual exploration of this reality, considering its impact on the future of the Faroe Islands and on the scores of unmarried men who call them home. Gjestvang has documented social issues in the northern hemisphere for more than a decade. Her projects have captured Norway’s oldest World War Two veterans, followed asylum seekers facing deportation and chronicled the lives of domestic abuse survivors. Across each, her images are both atmospheric and tender.

Fróði rests on a slaughtered whale during a grindadráp in Hvannasund, Faroe Islands. Grindadráp, the pilot whale hunt, is a tradition and part of the Faroese cultural identity. When fishing was poor, as in the 1930s, the pilot whale was what saved people from famine. Nowadays, whale is no longer part of the staple diet. © Andrea Gjestvang.

“You look out the window, you see the big mountains, and then on the wall in the living room there will be paintings of the same thing”

Gjestvang’s stories often relate, in some way, to her gender – but by 2014, she was ready to try something new. “I wanted to turn the camera towards men in some way, but I didn’t know how,” the photographer explains from her Oslo home. “Then I heard that there was a lack of women in the Faroe Islands.” Accustomed to the gender equality of Nordic countries – Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden have all reduced their economies’ gender gaps by between 80 and 90 per cent – the photographer was both surprised and intrigued by this apparent disparity.

“I tried to be very open,” she says of her earliest visits to the Faroe Islands. “It’s not interesting to go somewhere and just confirm your own expectations.” During this time, the photographer drove aimlessly across the sprawling, empty landscapes without appointments or plans. Over time, she began to decipher the habits of the Faroese people. Many men, for instance, meet daily at the islands’ harbours, both to work and to socialise. Gradually, she was able to gain their trust.

View of the small town Vidareidi, which is the northern most settlement in the Faroe Islands on the island Vidoy. The houses are spread out over the evergreen valley, protected by high mountains on two sides. © Andrea Gjestvang.
Andrias (54) with his little white pet kitten outside his home, which he shares with his mother in Vidareidi. As a young man, Andrias went to Denmark to study to become a teacher, because his mother forbade him to go fishing. But after a few years he came home and bought his own boat. © Andrea Gjestvang.

Named in reference to a 15-year-old article by Firouz Gaini, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of the Faroe Islands, the pictures in Atlantic Cowboy reflect this trust. Portraits of men at work and play offer an insight into masculinity in constant flux. Younger generations grapple with their inability to form the traditional family units once so valued by their parents and grandparents. Meanwhile, older men attempt to adjust to a society in which the values on which their forefathers’ identities have been built – strength, courage, Christian morality and dedication to fishing which characterise the ‘Atlantic Cowboy’ – are increasingly pushed to the fringes.

“What I found both unique and touching is that when lacking their own little tribes, they seek other forms of companionships,” Gjestvang recalls of her time among Faroese men. In particular she remembers two brothers, 68-year-old Klæmint and 65-year-old Nicodemus, who, both unmarried, live together in their childhood home. Each day Klæmint goes to work as a fisherman while Nicodemus remains at home. When the younger man sees his brother’s boat returning to the harbour, he begins to cook their dinner: potatoes, whale meat and whale blubber, accompanied by a glass of milk.

This less traditional, though clearly dedicated, kind of familial relationship is mirrored many times in Atlantic Cowboy. Here, notes on Gjestvang’s subjects show how the dynamics of the Faroe Islands’ large, close knit families have been disrupted by women unsatisfied with the offerings of island life, and by men unwilling – or unable – to change. “You look out the window, you see the big mountains, and then on the wall in the living room there will be paintings of the same thing,” the photographer says of the homes of these Faroese men. “It’s almost like they are married to the landscape.”

Aadne and Jóannes together in their childhood home in Klaksvík. They are twin brothers and both unmarried. ''I prayed to God that I would find a wife'', says J óannes ''Maybe he didn't hear me.’' © Andrea Gjestvang.

Atlantic Cowboy by Andrea Gjestvang is out now (GOST)