The Sami Way by Elisa Ferrari

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This interview between Marco Bohr and the Argentinian photographer Elisa Ferrari was conducted in June 2013.

Marco Bohr: You came to photography via ethnomusicology. Is it fair to say that you came to photography relatively late? Do you think there might be certain advantages on being a bit of an outsider – if that is the correct term to use?

Elisa Ferrari: My father was a photojournalist in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Which is where I was born. So, photography was always a part of my life, but I never considered it as a career. Sure, like many other kids, I had a collection of National Geographic magazines and thought that it would be cool to be a photojournalist, but music was always my first choice. I did come to professional photography quite late. In fact, it wasn’t until I was finishing my Masters degree in ethnomusicology that I realized that I needed a different medium for my work. Writing in academic publications and giving talks for the academic community just wasn’t cutting it for me.

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And, I do think that there are advantages to coming into photography at a later stage in one’s professional life. First, I have a clearer vision for what I want to achieve. Second, I feel that ethnographic studies have supported my photographic practice in several ways. An ethnographer studies society and culture, and to do this we look at culture from many different perspectives, such as by doing in depth research on the arts, language, ritual and tradition, environment, history, politics, religion, and so on. I believe that studying ethnomusicology helped me become a better researcher, made me more observant, sensitive, and critical, not only of my work, but also of myself as an outsider to the cultures that I work with. However, I think that in my work with the Sami, being an outsider has given me the ability to see many of the attributes of social ecology and cultural ethics that are perhaps commonplace to the community itself and therefore, overlooked.

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MB: Are you therefore a double outsider: a) an outsider to the medium you work in and b) and outsider to the culture you are representing? What is it about the Sami people of northern Sweden that attracted you to photograph them? Why did you embark on a project that is culturally and geographically so far away from you?

EF: I was initially drawn to the Sami after reading about Markbygden, the world’s largest onshore wind farm project that is being built in Piteå, in the Arctic region where the Eastern Kikkejaure village has its reindeer pastures. The wind farm will consist of over 1,000 wind turbines and an extensive road infrastructure. It surprised me to hear that Sweden, a country recognized across the globe for its humanitarianism and strife for gender equality, would have such a polemical situation unfolding. I was also surprised that after several months of living in Stockholm, there seemed to be a general disconnect and even a sense of contempt towards Sweden’s indigenous culture. Despite the copious usage of reindeer imagery on just about every product made for export, the Swedes seemed to be, at least to me, quite disconnected from the Sami.

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I decided to make a trip north and I set up a handful of interviews with Sami reindeer herders, professors at the university, activists, and politicians. I quickly discovered that the relationship between Sweden and its indigenous culture is even more complex than I could have imagined. It became quite clear that the Sami are experiencing cultural and environmental threats beyond the wind farms, including oil exploration, tourism, mining, dam building, logging, and climate change, just to name a few.

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MB: The clash between the ‘modern’ and ‘indigenous’ becomes apparent in a whole number of photographs in your series ‘The Same Way’: the wind farms towering over the winter landscape, power lines cutting across the path of a reindeer, or the bright lights of a sky lift punctuating the darkness of the night. I understand these images as signifying a friction between two opposing binaries. Yet there also seem to be images where the two appear to mix. For instance the Sami girl with the nose ring. Is that an image that alludes to the potential synergy between the ‘modern’ and ‘indigenous’?

EF: In my photos I juxtapose the natural and the manmade. When you are that far north, and in a relatively isolated area, the footprint of tourism and various industries, such as lumber, mining, and now wind farms, is quite striking against the natural scenery. In big cities, we are often sensitized to this, but being in less populated areas; you can really get a sense for what is natural and what isn’t. I think this helps to put things in perspective. In the case of the Sami, this gives a glimpse into what they are up against in terms of fighting for their land and the ability to continue to herd reindeer.

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I don’t see this as a clash between the modern and indigenous. In fact, the Sami are very modern. All of the people that I have spoken with are technologically savvy, have a broad worldview, and are just as up to date as anyone living in a big city. So, it’s not a question of a clash between indigeneity and modernity, but rather an ethical clash between capitalistic demands of industry and a culture built on holistic beliefs founded in taking only what is necessary and preserving land and resources for future generations.

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MB: You were born in Argentina, you studied in the US, now you live in Sweden with plans to returning to the US. Your life seems to be quite nomadic. Does that help you to work creatively? In fact, do you feel that in your case nomadism is a necessity to be creative?

EL: I don’t think that nomadism is a necessity to be creative, but travel sure does help to expand your perspective of the world. I do think that surviving a Swedish winter, especially in the Arctic Circle builds character and makes you acutely aware of the all-encompassing power of nature. It’s really quite humbling.

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MB: What are your plans for the future? Will you embark on a new photographic series?

EF: Next month I’ll be attending a FotoVisura workshop with James Estrin from the NYT lens blog. I’ll have one on one time with Mr. Estrin and we’ll be working on editing my latest photographs (from my upcoming trip up north) as well as making plans for another trip to Sweden in the fall. The work will be exhibited soon thereafter. After that, I have plans to start on a project in my new home, Los Angeles. This project will deal with the relationship between identity and environment in LA.

MB: Thank you very much for the interview.

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