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Andrea Gjestvang: Life in the Lens by Annika Vande Krol


he rich color and lighting of Andrea Gjestvang’s photographs give them an almost delicate beauty, but the back-stories that inform them are often filled with pathos and suffering. The tension this apparent contradiction creates gives her work its undeniable power and humanity. Through her ability to create intimate portraits and bring to light relevant social and political issues, Andrea Gjestvang is now an internationally recognized photographer. Gjestvang has held numerous solo and group exhibitions in Europe and the United States. She holds many awards, including Freelancer of the Year awarded by the Norwegian Union of Vol. 15, No. 1 2017

Freelance Journalists in 2012 and First Prize NPPA Best of Photojournalism in 2013. While she was growing up in Norway, Gjestvang was curious about the world and wanted to be engaged in issues happening around her, but she was shy and had trouble finding her voice. It was when she discovered photography at the age of 17 that she finally felt able to tell people how she saw the world. Gjestvang found herself absorbed in this new form of expression. She realized that the camera was a means to communicate with strangers and to learn about and understand communities. Photography opened a door for Gjestvang, giving her a way to connect with people on a more 19

personal level than she might not have without photography. When asked why she chose to pursue photography as a career she replied, Photography is a way to give people the opportunity to identify, care, and understand other human beings and what is going on in the world. That is important! For me personally photography means combining my creative, visual skills, and my social commitment. Gjestvang studied photojournalism at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences and is now a freelance photographer living and working in Berlin. An important aspect of her job is to work on personal documentary projects, which means she does everything herself. She researches, applies for funding, takes the photographs, and then presents the finished series to picture editors, galleries, or even contests. Gjestvang is a member of Panos Pictures in London. Panos is a photo agency where the work is motivated by the photographers and staff. The agency concentrates on global social issues and is known worldwide for their new and creative approach. Panos is also known for pursuing stories apart from the contemporary media agenda. Gjestvang has an extraordinary way of telling stories through her photographs. “My goal is to remind people, give

On previous page: Andrea Gjestvang, Return. Negin and her family left Iran because of political persecution. In 2009, they came to Norway and applied for asylum. Her family was active in political opposition in Iran and lived as secular Muslims. In Norway, they lived in Farsund, a town in the south of Norway. While living in Norway, her family converted to the Pentecostal Church and her father started a missionary blog. They were deported in 2014 and sent back to Iran. They feared their lives since they converted to Christianity. So, they decided to flee their country and with the help of human traffickers they went to Turkey. While in Turkey, they have applied for the protection under UNHCR as refugees who can not be resettled in the country they are living in and could be offered resettlement in another country. Negin and her family now live Bolu, Turkey, while they wait. The children cannot go to school and the parents cannot work. The church they were a part of in Farsund helps pay for their living expenses. Negin practices swimming everyday. Her goal is to someday participate in the Olympics. She is still able to swim in Turkey, with the help from friends from Norway, who pay for the expenses. “My life now is very difficult, much more difficult than it used to by. I feel depressed and I often think back to the good days I had before. I think of the house I lived in, my friends, my swimming group. All the things I had, all the clothes I had. Even all my nail polish. It’s hard to think all the time. Small things make me cry.” For more on Gjestvang’s Return, see page 24. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

Andrea Gjestvang, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. In the Adamselv River, Maria stands knee deep fishing in the water. The river, known for its salmon, is near Adamsdal, a very popular fishing destination. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission. 20


Andrea Gjestvang, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Kristina, Orjan, and Marita make their way to their confirmation day. They walk across a desolate terrain in formal attire. They are the only three left in high school in the village of Bugoynes. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

them the opportunity to identify, to care and to understand,” she says. Through her subjects and the environments they are placed in, Gjestvang guides us to have empathy for their journey and the pains they’ve endured. She considers herself a visual storyteller. In her projects Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, One Day in History, and Return, Gjestvang explores the consequences of current social and political issues facing adolescents. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere Gjestvang’s project Everybody Knows This is Nowhere looks at the struggles of the lives of young people living in Finnmark, the northernmost part of Norway. Finnmark has been experiencing dramatic depopulation, mainly due to the privatization of the fishing industry, which has caused unemployment and resulted in the abandonment of fish factories, stores, and homes in the 1970s. Many adolescents are faced with the choice to stay in their remote communities or move to bigger cities with more opportunities. Gjestvang visited Finnmark and did a series of photographs showing what life there is like. The photographs consist of mostly teenagers and how they cope with living in the Land of the Midnight Sun and the Arctic night, where the conditions are harsh and distance between things is vast. In a time when technology and social media is so prominent, teenagers here are able to see what life Vol. 15, No. 1 2017

Andrea Gjestvang, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Ruben and Kristoffer celebrate Ruben’s 18th birthday. They lean on a Mercedes car outside a local bar laughing. Now that Ruben is 18, he is finally allowed to go into the bar. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.


Andrea Gjestvang, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. ” Henda attempts to corral a stray reindeer in Krampenes, just outside of Vads. Henda and his family are a part of the Sámi population in Norway. The Sámi people are the indigenous people who reside in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

is like in other parts of Norway and around the world. They are aware of what they are missing while they are trapped in the north. The teens are torn between the dreams of a better life and the reality of their isolation. Older generations believe that their adolescents are the future of Finnmark and bear the responsibility to keep it alive. Some photographs include daily life of teens spending time together outside at a park, messing around at home, dancing at a school dance, and others include adolescents fishing and hunting. Gjestvang is capturing the conflict and challenges that the teenagers face when they wish to leave Finnmark, but are expected to stay. One Day In History During the summer of 2011, Gjestvang was working as a picture editor for the Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang. She was just about to leave work when the building began to shake. Gjestvang initially thought it was an earthquake. As she and her colleagues were being evacuated, she noticed grey smoke outside the window. It was not until she reached the exterior of the building that she realized it was much worse. Gjestvang was paralyzed when she saw injured and lifeless bodies on the ground. “I found myself in the middle of a warlike zone. The buildings around us were destroyed.” After the initial shock of the horrors she was seeing, Gjestvang retrieved her camera and started documenting the destruction. It was July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik had just set off a car bomb outside of the government quarter, next to Gjestvang’s office. 22

Immediately after the bombing, Breivik made his way to the island of Utøya, where hundreds of people were attending the Labour Party Youth Organization (AUF) summer camp. Breivik went on a shooting rampage, killing 69 people and wounding many that day. More than half of the wounded survivors were under the age of 18. After the incident, the newspaper Gjestvang was working for assigned her to portray some survivors that were being reunited with their families. I started to think about what will happen to the survivors, when the next catastrophe happens somewhere else in the world and the cameras are pointed in another direction. I want to give the survivors a face and a voice outside the very journalistic and political context. Gjestvang felt that in most cases, like the attack in Oslo, the media is drawn to the terrorist and not the survivors. Determined to keep the survivors in the forefront, she chose to do a series focusing on youth that were injured during the massacre at Utøya. She titled the project One Day in History. Gjestvang traveled around Norway to meet the survivors. Her intent was to make the individuals as comfortable as possible. The photo shoots took place in their homes, or in a safe place where the subjects felt at ease. “I kept it simple— only natural light, one camera, them, their stories, and me,” she explains. She created a relaxed atmosphere and it was up to each survivor how much they wished to share. At times, Vesterheim

Andrea Gjestvang, One Day in History. Ylva Helen Schwenke attended the AUF (Labour Youth) political camp and, on the day of the attack, she found herself hiding by ‘the love path,’ a walkway along the shore of the island. Many teenagers hid along this path during the attack. Schwenke and many other were found by the shooter. She was shot in her shoulder, stomach, and both of her thighs. “I carry my scars with dignity,” Schwenke says, “because I got them for something I believe in. It’s my attitude in life, it keeps me standing. This is how things are, and I have to deal with it. It helps no one if I sink down into depression, least of all myself, so I keep my head up and focus on the good things in life.” Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

Andrea Gjestvang, One Day in History. Mohamad Hamel Hadi came from Iraq and is a refugee living Norway. On the day of the attack, Hadi hid in the pump house, but was shot in his left shoulder, left leg and chest. He was in a coma for approximately two months after he was shot. Hadi’s left leg and left arm were amputated. He spent nearly 11 months in hospitals and rehabilitation. He is photographed in a rehabilitation home, located in the local old people’s home. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

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Andrea Gjestvang, One Day in History. Aina Helgheim is seated at her favorite spot, just a few kilometers from her home. She is often out in nature mourning and recovering from her experience at Utøya. “I like to sit here, because I feel that my dead friends are in the nature that surrounds us. So here they are close—even if they are gone.” During the shooting, Helgheim hid in a cleft of a rock with three other girls. They were rescued two hours later by boat. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

Gjestvang found it hard to stay emotionally detached while capturing the moods of the survivors, but she is never afraid to mix in her own emotions when working on a project. When asked what she wished her audience would take from the photos, she replied with, “Some scars will never disappear. When thinking of the terror attack on 22nd of July 2011, I want people to remember these youths and not the face of the terrorist.”

Andrea Gjestvang, One Day in History. Cecilie Herlovsen hid at the end of the south side of the island with her best friend, Andrine. Herlovsen was shot in her arm, shoulder, and chin. The bullet in her chin was stopped by her wisdom tooth and without her wisdom tooth she would most likely be dead. She did have her arm amputated, but her best friend, Andrine, died that day. Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.


Return Thousands of people have come to Norway hoping to be granted asylum. This process, however, can take years. Believing it is important to share people’s stories and the story of the refugees in Norway, and being committed to the idea that it is an international responsibility to help those in need, Gjestvang created a project called Return. Return focuses on the children of refugees seeking asylum in Norway and who, years later, were deported because their applications were rejected. During the time it takes for an application to be processed the children are integrating into Norwegian schools and communities. They are learning the language and making friends. After becoming comfortable and safe in their new home, for many, their asylum applications are suddenly denied and they are forced to return to their home countries. For the youth this is very difficult because they feel that Norway has become more of a home than their country of origin. Teenage years are a critical time for developing identities, but when families are deported from a country that they Vesterheim

now call home, teenagers struggle with the loss of friends, education and basic needs. Many become depressed as they try to re-adapt upon returning. Gjestvang wanted to capture these emotions and what their new lives were like once they returned home or to a new country. She focused on the children because she found that there is a larger impact on them rather than their parents or guardians. Impact Gjestvang’s profession has shaped who she is today. Each assignment has taught her more about herself: “Through One Day in History I have definitively seen a very dark side of life. It will always be there somewhere inside me.” Her work has helped her understand what is most important in life. Photography has changed her perspective: “I don’t take my everyday problems as serious anymore. I try to lift my head and focus on what is important.” Photography defines who she is and the whole world gets to see that through her photos: “I take my role as a photographer in a more earnest way now. I have experienced how a work can grow from a tiny idea in my head to one seen by—and moved by—people around the world. That motivates me to continue photographing.” Finding her voice through photography, Gjestvang has been able to enlighten her audience on important social and political issues by telling the stories of many young people and the difficulties impacting them. And she does so with an unfailing eye for captivating light and color, holding a viewer’s attention and encouraging reflection.


To find out more about Andrea Gjestvang and further explore her remarkable work, visit her website at http://andreagjestvang.com/. 20


Andrea Gjestvang, Return. Bayan, Sara, Nora, Doa, Israe, Gofran, and Mona are all sisters who came to Norway with their parents in 2004. They told authorities they were stateless refugees from Palestine. They lived in Namsos, Norway, where the children went to school. The youngest daughters, Sara and Nora were born in Norway [pictured in 29]. While living in Norway, the authorities discovered they were Palestinians who had been living in Jordan. Their application for asylum was denied and they were sent back to Jordan after nine years. They now live with family in Irdib. None of the sisters attend school, they spend their time inside, helping their mother with chores, sleeping, watching TV, and talking with friends in Norway through Facebook. (In photo 24) Israe combs Bayan’s hair while Mona reads beside them. (Photo 20) Gofran and Nora take a nap. (Photo 29) Sara and Nora play outside in the courtyard of their home. The only language they speak with each other is Norwegian. Since their Norwegian birth certificates are not valid in Jordan they have no rights to go to school.

This article is based primarily on a series of e-mail interviews the author conducted with Andrea Gjestvang and supplemental information from Ms. Gjestvang’s website. 1

Photo courtesy of Andrea Gjestvang, used with permission.

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About the Author Annika Vande Krol is a Luther College student majoring in Nordic studies with a minor in museum studies. She is passionate about photography and all things Norwegian. She will be studying in Norway in the fall of 2017, where she hopes to document her experience through photographs. 25

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Andrea Gjestvang: Life in the Lens  

Andrea Gjestvang found a way, at age 17, to portray her visions to the world. She discovered a love for photography, and it soon became appa...

Andrea Gjestvang: Life in the Lens  

Andrea Gjestvang found a way, at age 17, to portray her visions to the world. She discovered a love for photography, and it soon became appa...