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Haunting photos bring fictional female explorers to life


Tonje Bøe Birkeland as Tuva Tengel on a camel in Mongolia.

Tonje Bøe Birkeland

The imagined female scientists, explorers and adventurers seen in Tonje Bøe Birkeland’s photographs are echoes from a footnote in women’s history. In her ongoing series, The Characters, the photographer frames herself in the guise of Victorian and early-20th century pioneers – dressed in period costume, holding binoculars and bellows cameras – snapped in widescreen vistas of mountains, fjords and ice flows. Each picture is a performance.

The project began in 2008, when Birkeland was on a course about photography’s role in shaping historical truths. “It was all about did Neil Armstrong go to the moon? Did Roald Amundsen actually get to the Pole first?” she recalls. “That made me want to do something about women.” Her first character was a glaciologist.

Character_IV_Plate_1_Astrups_Horn

Her photographs are puzzles and her work taps into the names, appearances and biographies of real, unrecognised women, such as Louise Arner Boyd, a polar scientist who traversed the north-east coast of Greenland in the 1920s. As well as stepping into the boots of her creations, Birkeland writes their journals and creates installations of their travel cases (packed with maps and geological samples), which she both photographs and exhibits. She has immortalised her intrepid alter egos in various settings, from the snowdrifts of Svalbard to the foothills of Bhutan.

Character_IV_Plate_9_Astrups_Cottage kopi

In the top photo, she is seen as desert traveller Tuva Tengel on a camel in Mongolia. The three other photos show her as Arctic explorer Anna Aurora Astrup in Greenland.

Birkeland’s work will be at Forum Box in Helsinki, Finland, from 22 August to 19 September.

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