Published: March 2008
Jonas Bendiksen
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

How did you approach this story?

The first thing that struck me is that this type of story, an environmental story, is a challenge. Oftentimes for photographers it is difficult to shoot this type of story because you’re dealing with abstractions or future plans of land use. There may be very little there to illustrate these things. I had to mull it over a lot.

What did you think was important to include in this story?

I really wanted to look at several sides of the story. This story brings up a lot of questions, and some of these questions don’t have easy answers. The issue of land usage in Iceland ties in with global questions about climate change, and the climate change debate is complex. As much as it is problematic to interfere with the untouched wilderness of Iceland, there are benefits of smelters in places like Iceland because they would run on relatively clean energy as opposed to running on coal. Also, in terms of the people who live in the rural areas, they support these construction projects because it brings livelihoods to them. So I very much wanted to cover all sides of this issue.

You photographed protests against the aluminum industry. What was that like?

In Icelandic terms this whole debate [over the aluminum industry] and the protests that took place were very big things in the newspapers that summer. I think to many people the protesters appeared as mysterious figures, because they would suddenly appear places unannounced and people never knew the next place they would be. They did a range of things—there is an image of protesters hanging a banner at one of the smelter plants, and sometimes they did more humorous things, like dressing up as clowns.

Did they keep you at a distance, or did they welcome you in to photograph them?

They come with a fair dose of skepticism about media. I was no exception to that. I went there a few weeks in advance to talk to people and find out who the key people were, so I could have a sense of what was going on before the protests started. The protesters had a camp outside of Reykjavík, and I had to camp out with these guys to cover them. I really didn’t know what would happen when I woke up in the morning—I didn’t know what they were going to do until right before they did it.

What did you think about Iceland?

A lot of my work has been in far-flung corners of the world, so I was very excited to go to Iceland. I’m Norwegian, and I think it is really great to work in the general parts of the world where I am from—I mean, Iceland is not Norway, but it is associated with northern Europe and the North Sea. I had passed through Iceland a couple of times while traveling between the States and Europe. For me, it was slightly novel to work in a terrifically well functioning country. It’s a well-planned-out country—everything works. It is very easy to navigate. My last story for the Geographic was about the Mumbai slums. Mumbai has an incredibly dense population, while Iceland is one of the least densely populated countries. I was there six weeks, and to have that time to roam around there—to go to every corner of the island—that was pretty unique.