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In the Faroe Islands, a Photographer Meets Locals Embracing Their Roots

By Sara Button

Aug 23, 2021

From the September/October 2021 issue

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The village of Velbastaðu on the island of Streymoy is considered one of the oldest settlements in the archipelago. Photographer Celeste Noche passed through on her way to visit some local sheep, of which there are many on Streymoy island.

Photograph by Celeste Noche

The village of Velbastaðu on the island of Streymoy is considered one of the oldest settlements in the archipelago. Photographer Celeste Noche passed through on her way to visit some local sheep, of which there are many on Streymoy island.

On a quest to explore the remote archipelago, photographer Celeste Noche captured how the Faroese are adapting ancient traditions to a modern world.

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What does it mean to leave home? What does it mean to stay, especially for people who face limited choices? Photographer Celeste Noche thinks a lot about these questions. Noche grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she was deeply influenced by the instability her mother, Erlinda, experienced as an immigrant from the Philippines. After fleeing dangerous conditions in 1980, Erlinda started over in the United States with Noche’s two older sisters, before Celeste and her brother were born. 

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“She went through a lot,” Noche reflects. “She was working as a single parent, she changed jobs often, and had to start over again and again. I wonder where she would be if she’d been able to stay in the Philippines with more family and access to things she knew. But that wasn’t really an option for her.” Noche’s mother’s life has inspired Noche to consider the complex relationships we all have to home. And, as a photographer, Noche is drawn to people who live in remote places where populations are small, even declining. 

So when Noche visited the Faroe Islands—an archipelago (and  part of the Kingdom of Denmark) in the North Atlantic with around 53,000 people—she was curious to see how the people she met were able to make a life (and a living) in their home country, in large part thanks to the burgeoning local travel industry. Rather than leaving the islands for economic opportunities elsewhere, “a lot of the [younger] people I met were able to stay in a place that was special to them culturally and personally and still have careers that gave them agency,” she says. “They weren’t being forced to take over the family business. A lot of them adapted to the increasing tourism so they could become stewards of their homeland.”

Many of the entrepreneurs she met during her weeklong trip realized they could use their skills and also make a positive impact on the community they were raised in. Harriet Olafsdóttir av Gørðum and John Petursson av Gørðum, a couple she met in the community of Æðuvík, had renovated a farmhouse and welcomed travelers into their home for multicourse meals, part of a broader movement called heimablídni in which locals host dinners to showcase their cuisine and culture. Jóhannus Hansen runs adventure tours through his company Reika Adventures in the same places he grew up hiking. He now advocates for their preservation. And Katrin Bærentsen, who had initially moved away and engaged in queer activism abroad, realized that her home country needed such activist work and she could create change there; when Noche met her in the capital city of Tórshavn, she had helped advance queer rights in the Faroes and had founded a surfing business, teaching people how to enjoy the icy waters of the North Atlantic on their boards.

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This deliberate decision to stay (or return) home, especially to make things better, captured Noche’s imagination. The landscape of the Faroe Islands did, too—distinctive rocky outcroppings rising from the sea and expanses of green and sea and sky. “Taking photos, I kept thinking, ‘This is somebody’s home. This is new and exciting to me, but it’s someone’s home every day. It’s comforting to someone.’ ”

Noche tries to bring that perspective to her photography. “When I think of my approach to home through photos, I don’t always want to look at things as if they’re being ‘discovered.’ Discovery is an overdone, simplified way of understanding something,” Noche says. For her, experiencing the landscape and environment of the Faroe Islands was more about how sacred that place was to the people who live there. “It’s beautiful for me to witness, but it’s even more special for people who call [the islands] home.” 

Left: Heimablídni host Harriet Olafsdóttir av Gørðum feeds the chickens on her farm, Hanusarstova, in  the community of Æðuvík. Right: The view from Noche’s Airbnb in Klaksvík, the second-largest city in the archipelago. “After a morning of driving around, we came back to rest and have snacks before setting out for dinner later in the evening,” she says. “I couldn’t believe our luck with the weather— earlier that morning the fjord was clouded in fog.”

Roasted potatoes and breaded fish with caramelized onions are one of several Faroese dishes Harriet and her husband, John Petursson av Gørðum, might serve to guests at their heimablídni dinners.
Left: The Faroese goose—raised for its meat and feathers—is indigenous to the islands and considered to be the oldest type of goose in Europe. Right: Lena and Jákup Hansen, who live in a home built in 1868, are credited with being the first to host heimablídni dinners in the Faroe Islands.

Seafood and root vegetables feature heavily in the Faroese diet, so a heimablídni dinner might include eggs, potatoes, and roasted fish drizzled with browned butter.

Lena and Jákup Hansen’s home was built in 1868 and overlooks the village of Søldarfjørður.

At another heimablídni dinner, this one hosted by a couple who live on a ninth-generation farm in the village of Velbastaðu, Noche joined 16 other guests for a multi-course Faroese meal.

>> Next: North Star

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