Gabrielle Motola is a British-American photographer who has lived in Reykjavík since 2015. She is the author of An Equal Difference, a collection of essays and photos exploring gender, society, art and activism in Iceland. Visit her website at https://www.gabriellemotola.com/
In the interview below, Gabrielle discusses the emotional components of photography, gender dynamics in Iceland, what it feels like to be a foreigner in Iceland, and the news media’s image of Iceland as a utopia.
How did photography enter your life?
My parents gave me this Minolta camera at age 13, but I didn’t understand how it worked. Then, the summer of my freshman year in college, I took the camera to Paris with me. I had a French girlfriend and we spent a month in the south of France; I took loads of pictures — and figured it out.
I signed up for a photography course my sophomore year, so I immediately started learning to develop. As soon as I saw my summer memories on strips of black and white film, something just happened in my brain. It was an incredibly intense emotional experience. I was hooked.
What year was this?
Did it feel mainly recreational or did you want to pursue photography professionally?
Oh, I was going to be a photographer — that was that. I was in film school, but filmmaking turned out to be quite frustrating: there’s lots of components and moving parts, it’s more expensive, and requires a bunch of people to agree on a singular vision. I didn’t enjoy the group experience. I’m probably more of an introvert.
So I pursued photography. But there’s a lot of pressure on people, especially in the U.S., to have to be something, and I liked a lot of things at that time — music was a huge thing in my life, but I’d been taught not to imagine a life where I could make a living in music. I think the idea of wanting to be something is ok but the idea of having to be something when you grow up is destructive because I don’t know if I would have said, “I’m going to be a photographer.” I might have just enjoyed it without the pressure of “having to be something,” and something else might have developed out of it.
But that was it. I just wanted to get better and better and better at it. I saw myself improving, and I also saw myself shooting a lot of failures. Which I have learned to be okay with. I mean, I take more pictures that fail than pictures that succeed.
How do you know when one fails or succeeds?
I don’t get the right feeling. I either just don’t get a feeling at all, or I get a confused feeling. It’s an attempt, but it’s not connecting. There’s no emotion coming back at me. When I’ve taken a good photo, there’s a really clear chime; and it rings out, like when you strike a Tibetan singing bowl. It might not be certain what the emotion is, but it has this immediate impact and then it resonates and holds my attention. I know that it’s a good photograph.
But sometimes I get that completely wrong and a photograph I thought nothing of surfaces years later. Those ones remind me to keep looking, to keep being open.
Is there something that you’re trying to capture when you take photographs, or is it really just an emotional response?
I’m constantly trying to figure that out. It’s multidimensional — it’s light that draws me in, usually, then it’s a situation.
Before I took this big motorcycle trip [in 2017], I was at my friend’s house in Suffolk, England. I had taken a bath. I was coming back to my room, and I walked past his lodger’s room. The door was open a crack, and I caught the light in the room — the turquoise of the walls, the music equipment, the albums, a box on the floor, his bed on the floor, cigarette papers. My brain just took it all in in one snapshot.
He turned from what he was doing and saw me and I smiled and said, “Hey, I’ll be right back. I’ve gotta get my camera.” And so I walked to my room in a towel, got my camera, came back in a towel. I didn’t want to let the moment change. And we just started chatting and I started taking pictures. I was interested in his face, in the visual construction. It was the light that caught my eye, but then it was him and then it was his story. He’s a musician; he’s living as a lodger at my friend’s place because he was priced out of the area that he lived in. We talked about that, we talked about London, we talked about the creative consumption of cities and how they drain you but how they feed you, and the possibilities of creating outside of cities.
I don’t know if that’s all in that photograph. I think there is certainly an emotion. It’s why I usually don’t edit my pictures as soon as I shoot them; I take days, weeks, sometimes months, to not look at them before I go back to them. I want to forget as much as possible about the picture and just see it again for the first time.
What do you feel has shifted for you artistically since you started taking photographs?
My awareness has changed. When I look at a situation, I’m able to take in so much more information. It’s like a reflex — you’re training your brain and your eyes to absorb information quickly.
I mean, in a moment, I can see the green book on the sofa over there just from looking at your face, and the light, and all of the chairs and the tables and the books and the candles. And so, when I look at something I’m much more aware of what I’m seeing. Which is what a camera needs, because it sees only what you point it at. Not what you are paying attention to.
So it’s not just what I’m seeing — it’s what I’m paying attention to, what I want to exclude and what I want to include. I once heard that photography is more about excluding things you don’t want, where painting is all about including things that you do want.
My confidence has changed. It’s still a battleground, though. I don’t have what I perceive to be the impenetrable confidence of a celebrity photographer, which I kinda envy. I wonder what I will do with that kind of confidence.
There’s an inner shift that confidence brings.
I think it’s a lifelong process.
I’ve also become much more aware of the difference between an artist and a professional. It’s one thing to be an artist as a photographer, and it’s another thing to be a professional and deliver your talent on command to fit someone else’s purpose. I used to have a huge emotional conflict about doing that. I felt very uncomfortable. I felt like I was betraying myself in some way, and I didn’t know if I could do it.
But I decided to learn how to be professional with photography, and to keep the two connected, but separate.
What drew you to Iceland?
The first thing that popped into my head was the darkness, but I didn’t know about the darkness back then. But I think that the darkness is what’s held me here. And the light. And the dynamic shift in between the two, because that moment closely represents the way that I am as a human being.
What actually drew me to Iceland was this thing I read in the papers about the [financial] crash [of 2008] and what could have caused it. I don’t know exactly who it was, or if it was a group of people, but they were talking about the behavior being over-masculine — which isn’t saying that men crashed the banks. It’s saying that the culture is over-masculinized around these identifiably masculine traits, which we associate with biological males — aggression, short-term thinking. That it was basically a balance issue.
Then, in 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir [former prime minister and the world’s first openly LGBTQ head of state] got elected, and the more I read, it seemed that everything we were thinking about in the U.S. and the U.K. in terms of social change was happening already in Iceland. I wanted to know what the people were like, what the society was like. Were the women more confident, the men more reasonable and affable? What was the deal?
I have to say that what I have found out since is not at all what is reported over and over again in the media. Iceland knows the truth.
So your book, An Equal Difference, evolved from these thoughts.
I decided that the best way to find out was to go there and have conversations. So I came and I spoke to 100 people. In the beginning, most of them were women, because at the time I wasn’t certain of the sheer humanity of the issue that equality is. I was only able to see the female part of it at first.
Thoughts would come out of these conversations that were really interesting and opening. I wanted to put them all in one place that I could share with others. I was looking for people who were thinking for themselves.
And the pictures weren’t enough. A journalist friend of mine, when I described the shoots, said, “Those are interviews. Are you recording your interviews, your sessions?” And I said, “No — I mean, what for?” “You should write this stuff down!” “What for?” I wanted to do it all with a photograph. But I couldn’t.
So then after the first trip I started recording everything, which totally fucked up my photography. I had to learn to forget about the recorder and forget about the words, and just let it flow. The conversation then emerged from the direction of the photo session.
And after a number of trips, you found yourself living here.
Life just pulled me here and kept me. I still feel like this place is good for me, although I find Icelandic people to be closed, much more so than I had ever imagined. They’re open to travelers. They’re closed to foreigners who are living here. It’s a tribal thing. It’s not every single person. But it’s pretty endemic of the culture, enough to be a stereotype. I get the same questions repeatedly, like, “Why are you living in Iceland?” Or, “Are you still living in Iceland?”
I know Iceland is still very new to immigration–so much so that many have not developed an awareness of how they come across to outsiders. A word commonly used in Icelandic to refer to foreigners is útlendingar. Literally it means “outlanders” or outsiders. I learned a new term yesterday which I am embracing. Erlend simply means “foreign,” so a positive concept, of course, does exist. But I find it interesting that in all the years I’ve been here, I learned the term útlendingar, not erlend.
The exclusion I feel here now is so opposite to the experience I had making this book (which was done over several years), because everyone was so open. At the time I was still living in London and visiting Iceland. I thought I’d hit some kind of cultural mecca, some kind of utopian society that the media continuously insists that Iceland is, which it is far from. I keep waiting for the anger about that to pass, because it’s really disappointing. But I have concluded that Iceland calls us, not to itself, but to a place inside ourselves we long to find — a society we long to build that does not yet exist.
In the meantime it’s forcing me to confront myself much more than I would have. In London or New York or Berlin, I would have the distraction of other people; I don’t have that here. The shape of Iceland attracted me, and I’m sticking around because I feel I can learn a lot from that. It’s helping me to change parts of myself that I want to change, that I need to change so that I can continue to grow and evolve — creatively, and as a person.
We run from ourselves in a way. I ran from parts of myself in the past, and thought I could leave them behind and reinvent myself — but they caught up. They always do. As the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. So I’m dealing with all of myself. This isn’t all down to Iceland; this is also down to me and my choice, too. But I feel very different here than I feel in London.
How do you feel in London?
More exhausted in certain ways. In other ways, more energized and open. It’s a different pace.
I appreciate the quiet here and I try not to curse it too much. But I have to force myself to go out here. In London, life is close to the knife’s edge to survive. It’s become like that here as well, especially for me as a foreigner. Before, I was like, “Everyone’s so nice! Oh my God! This is Niceland.” Yeah, they call it Niceland and I never caught the irony. Despite the fact that many people told me, “Wait till you’ve been here a while. You’ll see we are assholes too.” “What?! Don’t tell me that!” “No, you just have this soft, shiny idea of Iceland. Just wait. Why do you think everybody wants to leave it?” “People want to leave here? They always return.” “Yeah, ’cause life is better here.” It’s such a paradox. Like, which is it? Is it both? Is it a place to leave, but a place to come home to? Maybe that’s it. Maybe it is only for Icelanders?
So despite being described as one of the “happiest places on earth,” things here are not happy all the time. Surprise! But in this book, I was figuring out what parts of a society can be constructed to allow more people to grow in a better, healthier way.
What did you learn from those conversations you had for the book?
I learned a lot. The major thing I learned is that, as much as anybody else, I buy into the sexist culture that we’re all steeped in and didn’t realize it. I didn’t realize that I looked at women in a certain way and was trying to photograph them in a certain way, because they were female and because I was worried about whether were pretty in the picture or not, if they thought they were pretty in the picture or not. I suddenly began to see gender differently, and separate it from sex. And separate it from person. Nature created sexes, humans created genders.
And I started to see a fundamental problem that the United States is facing: we have a culture that is for the businesses and banks, and you can’t build society on businesses and banks — because society is made up of families. Families build everything. They build humans, and those humans build businesses and banks. But the businesses are designed to benefit a few people. It doesn’t benefit society as a whole. Especially since the labor that is put into those businesses by individuals is never recouped. People mostly exist.
The director of the Gender Equality Office in the U.K. asked me why Icelanders prosecuted their bankers and we [the UK] didn’t. I said, “Because that would threaten the entire power structure of our society in a way that it doesn’t in Iceland.” I learned that compared to the USA, Iceland is more of a family-oriented, socialist country. Though the banks act as they do elsewhere, the society has structures like parental leave and subsidized childcare which, when properly supported, put more power in the hands of people. In Iceland, the system might not be perfect but it at least is in place. Whereas in the USA, people are at the mercy of private companies who either care for workers’ needs or do not — but are not required to.
I also learned a bit of Icelandic. I’m learning it. I learned that learning Icelandic isn’t impossible.
Það er ekki ómögulegt. [It is not impossible.]
It is just difficult to get Icelanders to speak Icelandic with you because 1) they can speak English, 2) they want to practice their English, and 3) it is easier to communicate in English right away. The temptation is on both sides.
I also learned how to make a book. I learned how to write. I learned that brave people aren’t unafraid; they feel all of that fear and they still step forward. That is courage and bravery.
And I learned that I love swimming. I just love the water. I love the earth; I love this planet; I love this place. I feel closer to this planet here than I have ever felt, even in the middle of the Sahara Desert, or the mountains of New Mexico, or on the coast of California, or in the Alps in France. I’ve never felt closer to the center of the earth. Jules Verne actually wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth based on a place here, out in the Snæfellsnes peninsula. I can understand so viscerally why that was inspired by Iceland.
[My move to Iceland] was all circumstance rather than decision. After three years of travelling back and forth between London, I found part of me had grown out of London and into Iceland. Life is happening to me. I make a lot of stuff happen, but I’m kinda just going with it. I know that I’m not ready to leave Iceland. But there might be a time that I will be.