I am stuck in the North, but how did it happen?
I’ve spent most of my life in Belgium, in Charleroi. It’s the 5th biggest Belgian city and is located 50 kilometers south of Brussels. Partly because of its past coal mining and siderurgy industries, it’s the ugliest city in the world according to the BBC.
But whether this is true or not, I’ve always thought that Charleroi was such an interesting place to photograph. Even before taking any interest in photography. But although I’ve always dreamed about a big photo project centered around my hometown, I’ve never found the inspiration to actually create images in Belgium.
When I decided to take photography as a hobby, I had no idea what I wanted to photograph. I quickly realized though that I couldn’t find much inspiration at home in Belgium. Maybe everything was too familiar and I needed something different.
However, working in Academia, I’ve had many opportunities to travel to faraway lands. San Francisco, Montreal, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Vancouver, and Japan. (And opportunities to travel in Europe too.)
While I’ve always been (and still am) a very indoorsy person, I’ve also always dreamed of exploring the world. Travel sparkled a desire for Adventure.
In the meantime, I found toy photography online and tried it myself. Over time, my interest in more traditional travel photography decreased and has been replaced by a passion (or obsession?) for toy photography. I forced myself to go out more often with toys and eventually managed to create, without the need to travel far away from home, photos I was happy with.
The one trip that changed everything
After completing my Ph.D., I was looking to use the opportunity of doing a postdoc to spend more extensive time abroad. A new Adventure that would last more than a dozen days. My first work trip after defending my Ph.D. thesis led me, in July 2016, to Bergen in Norway.
A couple of days before traveling to Bergen, I saw an offer for a postdoc position in Northern Finland. It seemed the ideal job offer for me, but I was unsure about moving to a place as Northern as Oulu. Not only because it’s cold in the winter, but also because of the very short days.
In Bergen, the long summer nights coupled with the amazing wilderness next to the city blew my mind. In particular, the forests around the city were the most beautiful I had ever seen. At every corner, there was inspiration for a photo. All the struggle at home for making outdoor toy photos was gone there… It was a real toy photography paradise.
Just after coming back home from Bergen, I decided to apply for the position in Oulu. If the Finnish wilderness was as epic as Norway, it was worth surviving the long winter nights to be rewarded in the summer…
When I decided to leave Belgium to spend three years in Northern Finland, I had no idea whether I would enjoy it in the long term. It’s been an Adventure about diving into the Unkown. Everything was possible. I could end up eventually staying in Finland, going back to Belgium or moving somewhere else.
Emigrating to Northern Finland isn’t easy in many ways. Although (almost) everyone has a decent level of English, learning the local language is difficult and terribly frustrating. With long winters and short summers, many would find the weather way too cold. The lack of light in the winter can really be depressing at times. Some find the constant daylight of the summer even worse because of the trouble it causes with sleep. The stereotype of introverted Finns is not far-fetched and it can make socializing a real challenge.
For me, another source of frustration is living in a remote location. I’ve been used to live in a small country with a very high population density, which can be so convenient. Although Oulu is the biggest city of Northern Fennoscandia, to me, it is a rather small town located in the middle of nowhere.
Becoming Stuck in the North
I experienced most of these issues, and still experience them to a certain degree. But as soon as I arrived in Finland, there’s been things I fell in love with too. For example, the magical sunlight and the wonderful unspoiled nature. Northern Finland is a real paradise when it comes to spending time outdoors. Even more with a camera.
But throughout my first year in Oulu, I gradually learned to live with these issues. The secret lies in trying to see issues in a more positive way. Each time I traveled to Southern locations, even inside Finland, I came back with a greater love for “The North”.
I was afraid of winter because of the cold and short days. Now I’m that crazy foreigner who can’t wait for summer to be over and is sad when the snow starts to melt. I can hardly imagine moving to a place outside of Northern Finland, Sweden or Norway.
Toy photography became over the years the way to express myself. It’s no surprise to me that both the Nordic wilderness and the Nordic light started to become an integral part and major theme of my photography.
I still have no idea whether I’ll eventually stay in Oulu or move somewhere else, in the North or not. But right now, I feel like I’m really Stuck in the North.