Lofoten has been an unspoiled natural wonder for hundreds of years, but becoming the ‘must-shoot’ location for landscape photographers around the globe has caused unseen problems for the Norwegian archipelago and its residents. Matty Graham investigates if photographers are doing more harm than good to this amazing area and what can be done to fix the issues….
Lofoten is an archipelago on the north west coast of Norway, well inside the Arctic Circle. It’s a special place and not only due to its natural beauty that has seen images taken of island spread through the internet like wildfire. Lofoten gets a lot of snow but is spared the worst of the winter weather thanks to the benefits of the Gulf Stream – yes, it does stretch that far north. What’s more, Lofoten is remote and not the easiest place to reach. When I visited last year, my journey took in three flights and a handful of trains rides. But the island’s’ beauty and remoteness make them vulnerable. So much so that a number of challenges caused by visiting photographers are causing locals and the authorities concern and resulting in action that could reduce the enjoyment and access around the area for those wishing to capture breath-taking views. This begs the question; is it just a case of a small, remote area being overwhelmed by the increase in visitor tourist numbers, or are we, the photographers, responsible for some of the blame?
Numbers of visitors are up dramatically. Statistics provided by travel website, statiskknett.no shows visitors have almost doubled since 2000 and those booking lodges etc has more than doubled, so there’s no mistake that footfall is well up. But what exactly are the problems caused when photographers visit? One issue that is worrying locals is the way visitors drive around the islands. The roads are challenging and news site, Lofotposten.no, recently reported on yet another accident – this time involving four visitors from Thailand who were trying to reach the popular photography location of Reine. For those unused to winter driving, slipping off a road is easily done and this causes delays for locals. What’s more, it was reported on Instagram recently that ‘no trespassing’ signs had appeared in Reine – worrying as Norway is famed for its tolerance of letting people explore the towns as much as the countryside. For a more expert view, I got in touch with Cody Duncan, a photographer who has relocated to Lofoten and runs the amazing website and blog, 68north.com, to ask him a few questions…
Cody, you’ve been shooting in Lofoten for a few years now. Have you noticed a big change in the amount of visitors and their impact on the area?
Summers have always been busy, with just tourism in general and not anything related specifically to photography. The biggest change has been winter. Even only a couple years ago I could have any choice of the beaches for sunrise and sunset day after day and generally be alone. Maybe a few single photographers would be walking around the Reine area, but that was it. This of course has changed greatly, and there are hundreds of photographers driving around during winter on any given day now. And, due to the landscape being a bit more closed off from the snow, winter makes the islands look busier, as many people travel to the same areas which are easily accessible. In 2011/2012 I wrote a business plan for my first attempt to move here. I think for 2012, there were 3 photo workshops offered on Lofoten for the entire year!
From a photographer’s perspective, are you happy to see how popular the location has become or do the negative consequences outweigh the positive benefits?
In general, it’s good that businesses (rorbu, cafes, etc) which used to have to close in winter can now remain open – though maybe they’d rather be south on Gran Canaria anyhow! And myself, it’s how I make much of my living these days, bringing people here and showing them this fantastic landscape. But visitors also need to realise that Lofoten is not a giant amusement park, which I think seems forgotten at times. People live and work here. People have daily commutes along the E10. So when photographers stop in the middle of the road (yes, quite often) to take photos, it is putting their and other’s lives at risk – especially if stormy or otherwise dark, as it is here in winter. When the locals are walking in the twilight times, they always wear bright, reflective vests for visibility. Photographers are often dressed in all black, and standing on the sides of the road in random locations. Some accommodations have begun offering hi-vis vests to help with this situation. The driving situation has also been a big topic of conversation in the local newspaper this winter. While the 2015 winter was somewhat busy, there really seems to have been a huge influx of ill-prepared drivers this year, with a lot of cars off the sides of the road. Though this is also due to almost all sections of road having drainage ditches on the side, which in winter fill with snow and looks flat, and that one could park there. There is a scenic little fishing shed in Ramberg, right along the road. Numerous times this winter I have seen cars/or past signs of cars off the road there, because the ditch isn’t visible, and they thought they could pull over for a photo. For myself, I rarely visit the beaches or anything ‘low’ these days. If the islands were still fairly quiet, I would probably lazy and just walk around the same beaches taking the same photos day after day. The influx of people has forced me into the mountains for most of my work these days. Which I am thankful for. Overall, it will be up to the community do decide on how they handle the increase in (winter) visitors. There are much needed infrastructure upgrades in certain areas, and, especially for summer, toilet facilities are desperately needed in some of the more popular camping areas such as Unstad, Henningsvaer, and Kvalvika. The lack of facilities can’t be blamed on visitors, and tourism in not a new concept here.
You live on Lofoten now, so what would your message to photographers intending to visit Lofoten be?
First advice would be to enjoy yourself! On a beautiful winter day these islands are perhaps one of the most scenic places in the world. But beyond that, be respectful and remember that all actions have an impact. The islands are not receiving adequate funding to deal with the growing impact of tourism, so this is something that both locals and visitors have to be aware of, and act accordingly.
Having visited and photographed the islands myself, I feel photographer have a real responsibility to look after the locations they visit. This responsibility is multi-layered; along with picking up your trash, it should involve knowing where you can (and can’t) tread, observing local customs and, of course, spending a little money to keep the local economy going. Lofoten is just the newest in a chain of countries to experience a boom in photography-related tourism – Iceland and Greenland are also experiencing a boom – but the little Norwegian archipelago seems well-prepared to meet these challenges. It’s up to us photographers to hold up our end of the bargain! To learn more about Lofoten, visit www.visitnorway.com or take a visit to Cody’s website at www.68north.com