Terje Abusdal – Slash & Burn, 2017
Tradition and mysticism, provenance and belonging, fact and fiction: in the series “Slash & Burn”, which received the LOBA 2017, Terje Abusdal draws a picture both mysterious and impressive of the Forest Finns, an ethnic group in Norway who lives in close touch with nature.
In the south-east of Norway, along the border with Sweden, there is a sparsely populated morainal landscape with a great amount of forest. The area is known as ‘Finnskogen’, Forest of the Finns. It was settled by Finns between the end of the 16th and middle of the 17th century. Coming from Savo in central Finland, they slashed and burned the coniferous forests to create new agricultural land for cultivating rye. Nowadays, most Forest Finns earn their living as lumberjacks, foresters and farmers. Their original culture and language has largely died out, with only a few traditions and memories of shamanic customs remaining.
“I took certain elements of the past – fire, smoke and shamanism – and introduced them into the story.”
Abusdal began to work on “Slash & Burn” for his final assignment at the Danish School of Journalism – and it evolved into a long-term project. During the three years he spent researching, he increasingly immersed himself in the traditions of the Forest Finns – who have now been officially recognised as a national minority in Norway. “To start with, I applied a straight, documentary approach; then it slowly changed to include more conceptual methods such as staging and physical interventions in the photographs. It is a mix of fact and fiction.”
“As I learned more about the history of the Forest Finns, it became clear to me that I had to reinvent the past to tell this story.”
“But how can you photograph something as intangible as culture, especially when the thing that defined it in the first place doesn’t exist anymore?” Abusdal pondered. Using this question as a starting point, he increasingly blurred the line between reality and fiction. He also technically implemented the title of his series in post-production by processing some prints with a torch: “The reason behind this is to ‘put’ the Forest Finns, who were characterized by slash-and-burn farming, physically into the picture.” Accordingly, documentation and imagination are interwoven into his images in a manner that is both confusing and organic at the same time. “By working in series you can really play with that: pooling a group of images together in a narrative, you can create a completely new world, a mood, a feeling, a sense of place. A photographic series is a bit like cinema,” Abusdal explains. A suggestive power, a special mysticism emanates from the images - the result of a “deliberate attempt to create a fictional universe, a magical world”.
Abusdal also wanted to explore the question of identity, migration and belonging. How many generations does it take to drop the status of an immigrant? At what point do you belong to a country, to an ethnic group? And is that decision based on biology, philosophy or history? The photographer explains that, “In fact, the only official criterion for belonging to this minority is that, regardless of your ethnic origin, you simply feel that you are a Forest Finn.”
(Text updated 2020)
Born in Evje, Norway, in 1978, Abdusal works mainly on independent projects at the intersection between fact and fiction. In 2014 he studied Advanced Visual Storytelling at the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Aarhus, followed by a number of Master Classes. In 2015, Journal Forlag published his first photo book, “Radius 500 Meters”. “Slash & Burn” was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2018 and “Hope Blinds Reason” was published, again by Journal, in 2019. Appearing in a number of solo and group exhibitions, his work is largely focused on questions of identity and belonging. Abusdal lives in Oslo.
Photo: © Marie Sjøvold