Brothers of Vaagaa by Elin Høyland

The Spitz Gallery starts off its 2004 exhibitions with work by the award winning Norwegian photojournalist Elin Høyland, Sat 17 - Mon 27 January

08/03/2004 ::

In the small town of Vaagaa, five hours Northwest of Oslo, there lived two brothers…

Elin Hoyland was taking a course at the school of photography in Vaagaa, and was putting together a series of images called "twos", when someone suggested she look up Mathias and Harald Ramen. They were two elderly brothers who had lived together all their lives, since the 1960s doing so in a little wooden house they had built themselves. They lived an old-fashioned life, working as labourers in the woods, collecting timber. Neither had left Norway. So Elin gave them a call:

"When I first talked to Harald I couldn't understand a word he was saying, and neither him me. Not only does he not hear so well but they speak this very old, very proper patois that's fallen out of usage in the village. It's almost like poetry. They themselves were keeping it alive. Eventually we got Mathias on the phone and he said, yes, he was going shopping the next day in the village and maybe we could meet then."

"When I first met them they were dressed identically, wearing these military-issue rucksacks that must have literally weighed a ton. I thought, this is a gift. We went into the house and I returned out back for a flower they had bought. By the time I got into the living room they had taken off their hats, their backpacks and were standing like waxwork dummies. And I thought, this means work. The whole concept was so strange to them they just didn't know how to behave. Slowly, slowly we built up a relationship. We managed, had fun, and made some jokes. I explained to them more and more my intentions and we began mirroring their day-to-day actions. They never forgot my presence. But it was the meeting of such different worlds."

She visited them on three occasions, spending two or three hours with them each time. The beautiful black and white images she produced are striking in their portrayal of the interdependence of the brothers’ identities – and of a simple way of life so different to what has become the Western norm. They are at once wonderfully surreal, at once incredibly natural. One photograph (pictured above) won Elin the Best Portrait category in the prestigious Norwegian Press Photographers’ Competition. Some of the series were also featured in a four-page spread in the Guardian newspaper, and in the Norwegian daily Dagens Næringsliv.

"The shot where they are sitting in their bedroom, with their shirt off was terribly intimate and moving. These are men that have never been married, never been with a woman. And I had to get them to take off their tops, in the middle of winter, while I documented it. Their nephew called the next day to say he wanted the image. In all his years he'd never seen them that human."

Harald died shortly after the pictures were taken, from an asthma attack while shovelling snow. When Elin heard, she went back to see Mathias. She took some more pictures. In one image, Mathias sits on his bed, in an almost identical pose to the equivalent picture taken in the original sessions. Harald’s bed is in the picture too, poignantly notable for his absence. In the background, Harald’s clothes are still hanging up.

Of the forthcoming appearance of The Brothers of Vaagaa at The Spitz, Elin says: "I love the idea of bringing this show to London, into a capital city with the pace of a metropolis. I think it's important to show them, to tell their story, in a city that's always moving, always fast. To show that routine has a value."

Sat 17 - Mon 27 January 2004

109 Commercial St
Old Spitalfields Market
E1 6BG

Read more about Elin Høyland's work by clicking here. (The Guardian)


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Documenting the lives of these two brothers in a remote village in the middle of Norway, Guardian photographer Elin Høyland has captured an intimate and revealing insight into the backwaters of the Nordic world.