Journeys, Images, Belonging: An Interview with Emilie Dalum

Gabriel Dunsmith
Jun 27, 2018 · 13 min read
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“My own body became a mystery to me,” says Emilie Dalum, speaking of her experience with cancer. (photo by Maresa Jung)

Emilie Dalum is a Danish-born photographer, artist and art curator living in Reykjavík. At the age of 26 she was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, which reshaped her worldview and ultimately led to a series of self-portraits entitled ‘Emilie.’ In addition to her portraiture, Emilie curates an annual exhibit entitled ‘The Factory’ in the remote Westfjords of Iceland.

In the interview below, Emilie discusses her confrontation with cancer, her dual journeys to Iceland and into photography, and the necessity of sadness. You can visit Emilie’s website at http://www.emiliedalum.com/.

When did you first come to Iceland?

I first came in January 2011, when I was 21, to visit an Icelandic friend. We’d gone to the same school in Denmark. I hadn’t planned anything; I felt attracted to the idea of going to Iceland without knowing much about the place.

What were your impressions?

It was just a six-day visit, but I fell in love with a guy. We met on my very last day. We stayed in touch over email, and I went back in March to have a few days with him.

The relationship faded out, but I had this need to go back to Iceland. I couldn’t figure out if it had to do with the guy or the country, so — because I was curious to find out — I went on an exchange here in my third year of university. I had told myself that I only wanted to go abroad if I could go to Iceland. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.

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One of Emilie’s drawings.

I was planning to stay for one semester, but I already felt very grounded. There came this urge to make a living here, after I’d established myself with friends and work. So I extended my stay at the university for one more semester, handed in my thesis in August 2013, and didn’t know what the next step was going to be in my life. I knew I didn’t want to continue studying. My life was really open.

After a brief interval in Denmark, I came back here without buying a return ticket. My family found this very strange, that I didn’t have a plan.

Within one week, though, I was working and soon got together with an Icelandic guy. And that kind of kept me here. I started learning some Icelandic, then got into this photography program in Denmark. So that meant that I had to go back again to Denmark.

Why had you applied to this photography program?

In 2012, before I moved to Iceland, I randomly bought a camera. I had never been photographing before. But I felt I had this urge to express myself, and I thought that taking pictures could be a way.

Then I took a workshop with the American photographer Carolyn Drake that unfolded me and my emotions and my creativity, which I had always more or less suppressed. But this unfolding all started when I initially came to Iceland. It really opened up something, and I wanted to open that up even more.

If I had stayed in Denmark, I would have lost this openness.

When you finished the photography program, what was foremost on your mind?

I just needed space to breathe — and I wanted to settle in Iceland. Even though I didn’t know what I was going to do, really, I knew it would be here, on this island.

So when I came back, I took my camera with me and would just photograph around on my way in life. Not anything specific, just using my intuition — very much like a way of keeping a diary. When I had taken a picture, I always felt a little lighter.

You were motivated from a sort of need, in a sense.

Some kind of call. It could have possibly been something else — painting or drawing — but I just ended up with a camera.

There was a time when I would just work a lot and then party a lot and not even think about that camera. But I think it’s very natural to get the need back.

What’s your subject matter?

I mainly photograph people. It’s quite funny, in a way, because I live in Iceland and everybody thinks that I’m photographing the landscape. But when I’m in nature, I don’t want to be interrupted with the camera, you know. And I’m just not interested in it. I love people — both the mental and physical conditions of the human being. And I like movement. A human being can move within the frame. So that is my main focus.

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‘Untitled,’ from the series ‘Michael’ by Emilie Dalum

In Iceland, I had a job caring for this handicapped man, and I started photographing him because I was close to him all the time. Many people don’t want to go to those spaces with others, but I was there in the most private and intimate situations because he needed 24-hour care. And this is what I love most — getting as close as possible to another person.

There’s an element of self-study in it: through other people, I get to know myself better. Facing someone else is like facing a mirror. When I see someone standing in front of me, whether it be someone I photograph or someone I know — a partner or a friend — I always reflect about myself. You do reach some truths about yourself and you learn what it means to live on the margins. Many of those I photograph have been social outcasts in some way.

How did your diagnosis with cancer shape your worldview?

When I got ill, I very quickly knew that I would have to turn the camera inwards and photograph myself. Suddenly there wasn’t another person that I could reflect myself in or that I could depict. Instead of other people, my focus became the cancer. That would be the thing, the spirit, that I would reflect myself in. My cancer became like a person; it became very present — it was a part of me, but of course something that I really didn’t wish to be a part of me. But it was there.

You can’t ignore it.

No, you really can’t, you cannot just throw it away. Even though it would be nice to take it from the inside of you and throw it out, it’s not that easy. Chemotherapy is a process.

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‘A Life On Its Own,’ from the series ‘Emilie’

As I started to photograph, it created a very intimate relation to the camera — much more than I had ever felt, because it was just me and the camera. Most often, I was alone when the pictures were taken. I realized this was also a time I could do something for myself when everything is about going to the hospital and updating your friends and family on how you’re doing. When I photographed, though, I could be creative. I don’t think I would have been able to do a project on anyone else during that period. Because I just had enough in myself, I couldn’t focus on anything else. It may sound egoistic, but I think it’s simply what happens. You’re just full of your own self and full of the illness.

The principal at the photography school would always say that we should use the traumas in our lives to create something. I’ve always kept that philosophy with me. It is often difficult situations and life conditions that I’m depicting. I’m really interested by the dark side of life — and being ill, of course, was a very dark time.

My own body became a mystery to me. I was constantly wondering what was going on, and sometimes I knew how I felt and sometimes I didn’t. I experienced this confrontation with many things: with the illness, with myself, with other people.

In your photo series ‘Emilie,’ with these self-portraits from the period of your illness, it’s almost as if the world falls away and you’re left with something very essential — just you and the cancer.

The photos also show this cynicism — when you hate something so much. Everything felt so detached from how a life should be when you are 26. You do start to hate life a little bit, or just wonder what it means. Of course, I had to accept the cancer and live with it, and I did. But I also took it in, as a part of me. And that’s what the series ‘Emilie’ is showing, how much cancer actually becomes a part of you.

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‘Untitled,’ from the series ‘Emilie’

Again, the photography gets a little bit of myself out. Whenever I do that, when I express myself through art, I feel that I can be more present with people afterwards — if I have taken one picture that captures how I feel, then I can go back to my social life or my work life, and then I feel more present.

It is as if you have so much around you or inside of you that, in order to be present and to be human, you need to get rid of it. This is how it is for many artists. Of course, what drives us is different, but we cannot function if we don’t get to do it. Even though it’s hard work and we’re struggling, and it doesn’t give us any money or anything. It’s just — it cannot be any other way. Because otherwise we cannot be who we want to be.

The pictures in ‘Emilie’ seem very honest. They don’t sugarcoat anything, do they?

The photography is stating a fact: this is what’s happening. Here you have me. I’ve never been afraid of opening myself up. When I was a teenager, I could talk for hours with my mother about difficult things, so it’s quite interesting when you start to realize your personality is mirrored in the work you are doing. And this honesty is important. Honesty can be very vulnerable.

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‘Hospital Bed,’ from the series ‘Emilie’

Some people may think it difficult that I revealed myself at the most vulnerable time of my life. But actually, that wasn’t a problem at all.

When the treatments were finished and the cancer was in remission, how did you look back upon your experience?

The experience hasn’t really ended; it never quite ends. Of course, you come to a point where you think less and less about cancer, and the fear of relapsing diminishes gradually. But it was only a year after my treatments ended that I started to feel hopeful again. I hadn’t allowed myself to have any dreams or hopes, because then it hurts even more in case of a relapse — if you have to go through everything again.

When I got the result from the last scan and everything was looking good, I wasn’t even happy. I had absolutely no energy to be happy. My mother was really happy, my family, everybody. I just didn’t feel it. I knew rationally that I had to be relieved, but the feeling didn’t come to me. It was not that I then woke up one month later or six months later and thought, “Now I’m happy,” you know? It comes slowly, because you have to work yourself back to life.

I think differently about illnesses and my body now. I have more respect for what my body is telling me. On the other hand, I also worry more: when I feel unwell, the trauma of cancer reemerges. I cannot stand that feeling of being suppressed by something you cannot control — whether it be mentally or physically — because I have gone through it before.

The cancer continues to haunt me. The whole idea of having something chronic makes me desperate and very frustrated. If I start to worry, it’s like everything in my life is being ripped up all over again. In that way, the cancer is never going to leave you. It will always show up in one way or another, or when you hear stories from other people.

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‘Torso,’ from the series ‘Emilie’

You had several years of upheaval — your sporadic move to Iceland, and then your diagnosis.

I was starting from scratch again, in a way. I’m just happy that I discovered photography because I was then very unlucky to get ill, but then again, I could use this camera to make life a little more bearable when it was difficult.

And once a place feels like home, your life can develop there. One thing leads to another and you don’t really know where it’s going to end. But you have a grip on something which makes you feel good.

Now, I actually haven’t photographed for a long time. So I’m not one of those photographers who has to photograph every day and always have a camera with me. I need something in my surroundings, and very often something close to me, before I get inspired. That is really what keeps me going.

Could you speak about your work curating The Factory art exhibit in Djúpavík?

In Djúpavík there are ten houses, a hotel and an old fish factory which closed down in the 1950s. The hotel owners also own the factory. When Eva, a local woman, decided to open a hotel there in 1985, everyone thought she was crazy because it’s the most isolated place in Iceland. There were no tourists thirty years ago. But she did it, and it’s still running today.

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The town of Djúpavík, which means “Deep Bay,” in the Westfjords of Iceland. (photo by Gabriel Dunsmith)

For the past few years, there’s been an art exhibition down in the factory which I curated for the first time in 2017. Artists present work that focuses on some aspect of Iceland.

The inside of the factory is immense, so I accepted a lot of big-format artworks. There will be a soundscape installation in one of the tanks that used to store fish oil: you can put your head through a hatch to look inside and listen, and there are crazy echoes inside the tanks.

Curating is a pleasure because, first of all, I love to look at art. I love what it does to people and I love what it does to the world. I believe more in that than anything else. I think art is the best way of learning and teaching.

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Emilie at work inside the old herring factory in Djúpavík. (photo by Réza Kalfane)

My work in Djúpavík is like making a puzzle; it’s demanding, because it’s a huge space and there’s a lot of work you have to deal with. But I get to do manual work, which appeals to me because I can be restless and tend to shift focus a lot.

The place is very remote, and there is a freedom to it. I also feel that freedom when I curate. The building itself opens up a lot of freedom and creativity and emotions; it is full of emotions and cultural history. You see a crack in the wall, you hear echoes inside the tank. There’s such a strong personality to that building. Whenever I enter, I fall in love with the place.

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Inside The Factory 2018. (photo by Emilie Dalum)

It’s curious you should speak of the building as having a personality. What’s your relationship with it?

Like people, the old factory in Djúpavík has hidden places and dark sides. When I enter, I feel I can breathe. Here is a place where no one is judging me. If someone is judging me, it’s only myself. We all need to find places where we can be intimate with ourselves in order to get along with life. Because it offers a lot of difficult things, really, a lot of challenges — with work and love and society.

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Another of Emilie’s drawings

The things we confront are just as much in ourselves as in the wider world around us.

The world is controlled by politics and economy and religion, and I couldn’t care less about these things. Maybe it sounds a bit stupid, but it never interested me. I just want to see the person. I just want to interact with the person, feel the person; I cannot do anything else. If people start to talk too much about economy or politics, I’m out. I don’t know what to say, and I don’t feel like saying anything — because I don’t believe in this kind of discussion.

Your approach is more experiential, more emotional. Your photographs speak very strongly of suffering.

People dream of constant happiness or the good life; we tell ourselves everything is going to be fine. And that has nothing to do with the present moment.

Nowadays we don’t allow ourselves to feel sadness: we don’t have time for it, or we’re looked down upon if we’re upset. So we keep on pretending that everything is fine. But sometimes it’s not fine. Sometimes you do have cancer and you feel like shit, and you don’t care if you feel better in two months because you can’t imagine that you will ever feel better.

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From the eponymous series ‘Emilie’

In my mind, art should speak to the heart. It should hit a very precious core inside of you, so that we begin to practice these emotions that we’ve always denied. There are many people who don’t see their own shadow. Big parts of their emotional life never come out — they drink or go to the gym or do anything to keep the emotions out, because people are afraid of that confrontation. You start worrying about how the emotions will change you, how they’ll make you feel, how other people will regard you if they see you in this condition. There’s so much pressure and so many expectations.

My mother wanted me to finish my photo series with a picture of me after my illness, with hair again and smiling. She needed something uplifting at the end. But that is not what it is about. It is about reaching the vulnerable parts of ourselves.

Nætur: Dispatches from Iceland

People, place and ephemera in the Far North.

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