Joel Marklund is a Nikon ambassador that set out to capture the Sami people of Sweden in a different light.
Nikon has interviewed him about the process of the trip and why the people and this project, in particular, were so close to his heart.
Why did you choose to focus on the Sami people for your Nikon Special Project?
I am lucky enough to travel the world with my work as a sports photographer. In 2016 alone, I spent 220 days abroad and I am used to travelling far and wide to follow a story or event. However, experience has taught me that the best stories aren’t always the ones in the most exotic locations or the most remote places on earth. When I was given the opportunity to work on a Special Project with Nikon, I was determined to cover something I believed in, and something that really mattered to me. The Sami story has not been told by many, but is one very close to my heart.
Why is this project close to your heart?
As a Swede, I feel disappointed about how my country has treated the Sami people; a stigma still exists to this day. Sweden voted in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, but has not yet implemented the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), despite recommendations from international human rights authorities to do so. The indigenous people are frequently treated as second-class citizens. They have been encouraged not to use their own language and families have been removed from territories they have inhabited for generations. I feel a sense of duty to share the individual stories of these people and help give them the voice they deserve.
How much did you know about the Sami people before your Nikon Special Project?
I was born and raised in Boden, in the north of Sweden, close to where a lot of the Sami communities live. This is where my initial interest stemmed from, however, I can’t believe how little I knew about their practices and the way they live, especially given the role they have played in my country for centuries. This project has completely captivated me and has been such a learning experience. One key thing I will take away from it is that things aren’t always as they seem.
What is it about their community that fascinates you?
There are so many strong Sami people fighting the oppression in different ways. Despite an ingrained discrimination, a lot of young Sami people have started to raise their voices and feel proud of their identity. This is a real time of change and this is what I found so fascinating. Sápmi traverses the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Russian Kola peninsula and, although divided by the formal boundaries of the four States, they continue to exist as one group, united by cultural and linguistic bonds and a common identity. For them, national borders are irrelevant; there is just Sápmi.
What is the environment like that they live in and how did you look to capture this on camera?
One of my main objectives during this project was to go beyond the stereotype the Sami community is associated with. Many people just see them as ‘reindeer herders living in the mountains’, and are not interested in understanding more about their community. Whilst reindeer herding is a big part of traditional Sami culture, many Sami now live and work in cities. For example, one of the subjects I photographed was a young woman called Maxida Marak. Maxida grew up in a traditional Sami community, but has now become a successful singer in the city. I love that I could photograph her in her traditional dress in the environment she grew up in, as well as on the stage preparing to perform in front of a large crowd. This cultural contrast runs throughout my images.
What message do you hope you deliver with your Nikon Special Project photo series?
The aim of my Special Project with Nikon was to inform and educate others about the Sami community. I am a photojournalist, so I communicate my story with my photographs, and this is a remarkable story to tell. I hope these images encourage others to learn more about the Sami people and appreciate the beauty of their community.
Why did you take the creative approach that you did?
I wanted to photograph each of the Sami people in something they all have in common, their traditional clothing, which they call ‘gákti’. One of the Sami I documented told me “without gáktis, we are invisible people”. Their clothing is a big part of their culture and helps identify which part of the Sápmi each person belongs to or originates from. The clothing is beautiful and often incredibly colourful; far from invisible. I wanted to create an image series which showcased both the Sami in their traditional clothing and environment, as well as in their day-to-day working lives, which are often more intertwined with the rest of society. I photographed singers and dancers to drum makers, all of whom have their own amazing stories.
Photographing communities such as the Sami people can be challenging, and there is a lot of personal pressure on you to do these stories justices, which I hope this series of images achieves.
How do you plan for a project like this?
A lot of research and planning goes into a project like this. This can be equal to, or even more than, the actual time it takes to photograph the subjects. After my initial research, I contacted a few key people who I knew would point me in the right direction and give me some more information on the Sami community. However, it wasn’t until I spent a weekend with some local Sami villagers that I got a real feel for the structure of the project. I learnt that with a lot of preparation, patience and flexibility, you can get the images you want and send the message you need to.
What challenges have you faced?
When you work on a project which documents people’s lives, there are always challenges. As part of this project, I had the opportunity to enter people’s homes, but it is important you gain their trust first, and that can take time. Before I started photographing, I spent a lot of time listening to my subjects and getting to know them.
A shoot such as this can be hard work, especially when you are working on your own and cannot rely on a team for help. Another challenge was the weather. The Swedish north can be very dark and grey at times, which meant I had to push back timings slightly.
What was your favourite moment shooting your Nikon Special Project so far?
During the first week of photographing, I was invited to join the Sami people as they gathered reindeers to slaughter, a key part of their livelihood. Everyone was hard at work, including the children. Among which was a young girl called Marika Renhuvud, who was determined to help, from the morning into the cold night. After a few days of photographing Marika and her family, I found out she was a dancer at the Swedish Ballet Academy. For me, discovering this type of cultural contrast is what the project is all about. Marika taught me a lot about Sami culture and gave me an insight into the lives of the young Sami people, who have grown up with two, almost contrasting, lives.
What factors impact your choice of equipment and how did it help you on your trip?
The D5 is a sturdy and robust camera, perfect for working in harsh conditions. I spent days shooting in the snow, so I needed a camera I could rely on and one I know could withstand the severe weather. The D5, as usual, didn’t let me down. As for the lenses, the 35mm, 50mm and the 70-200mm were great companions. The 35mm and 70 – 200mm are especially suited to reportage photography, as the shallow depth of field allowed me to capture the incredible detail of the Sami people’s traditional dress. The 50mm was handy when shooting in low light situations.
These prime lenses, combined with the D5, allowed me to take a specific style of image, a style that continued throughout my project.
What advice would you give photographers looking to undertake a similar project?
Something that I didn’t do, but would recommend for other photographers looking to tackle similar project, is using a local fixer/researcher to help you with logistics and planning. It is incredibly helpful to have someone who knows the area well and can offer their help and advice when needed. Having this insight is invaluable and will save you a lot of time on your project.
I would also advise photographers to spend time talking to their subjects – the families and the communities they are photographing. It is important that you engage with them and build a relationship. Listen to them, let them tell you their stories so that you can accurately represent them with your images. This would be my most important piece of advice.
What does it mean to you to be able to be a Nikon European Ambassador and be able to work on a project such as this?
Having an opportunity such as this is priceless. Being able to shoot in Sweden, my home country, and meet the Sami community has been life-changing and has taught me so many things about myself and my work. I’m very grateful that Nikon gave me the opportunity to do so.