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Nature, folklore and serendipitous photo collaborations

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    Riitta Ikonen: Meet our friend Bob.
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    We met on a wintery night
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    in the company of the members
    of the New York Indoor Gardening Society.
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    And one of the regulars
    was this charismatic gentleman
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    studying the wonders
    of carnivorous plants.
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    We were there
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    looking for collaborators
    for an art project
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    looking at modern humans'
    belonging to nature.
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    Karoline Hjorth: We couldn't resist
    slipping a little note in Bob's pocket
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    to say we'd love to hear from him.
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    And the next day, he called us
    and excitedly proclaimed how,
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    "This is not a time in my life
    when I want to lay around in bed."
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    And the next week,
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    we were all sitting on a J train
    to Forest Park in Queens.
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    RI: Bob has worked for decades
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    in New York's fashion
    photography industry,
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    and he had to be replaced by three people
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    when he eventually chose
    to move on to new adventures.
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    Bob agreed to collaborate with us
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    on the condition that we wouldn't
    mess with the style
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    that he had taken many decades to perfect.
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    So we promised to do just that,
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    and only added a few pine needles.
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    You might be wondering
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    why the two of us were trimming
    Bob's pine needle beret in the park
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    in the first place.
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    We met a few years prior,
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    when I was investigating on the internet,
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    looking for a collaborator
    for an art project
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    looking at modern humans'
    relationship to nature.
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    So I do what people do,
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    I go to Google and I type in three words:
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    "Norway,"
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    "grannies" and "photographer."
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    And I click on the number one
    search result,
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    which was Karoline Hjorth here.
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    (Laughter)
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    KH: I had just put out a book
    about Norwegian grandmothers.
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    And initially, we teamed up
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    to look at how natural phenomena
    were explained through human form.
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    And we started investigating folktales
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    in a small coastal city in Norway.
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    RI: We reasoned that the older
    the local interviewee,
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    the closer we would be
    to these talking rocks of these stories.
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    KH: Agnes, for example,
    is Norway's oldest parachuting granny.
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    Her latest jump was at 91.
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    And this portrait is an homage
    to the fabled north wind
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    often featured in Nordic folk tales.
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    We met another fabled character
    called Lyktemann,
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    on a bog just outside of Oslo.
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    Lyktemann's presence as mysterious lights
    has been recorded for centuries
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    in many different cultures
    under as many different names,
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    like Joan the Wad, will-o'-the-wisp
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    or the man of the lantern.
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    The contemporary view
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    or the contemporary
    explanation to these lights
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    is that they are the product
    of ignited marsh gas.
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    The more adventurous view
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    is that a character appears
    when the fog hangs low,
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    and there are unwary travelers about
    who have lost their path.
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    RI: He is known for being
    quite a mischievous character,
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    never quite revealing the true nature
    of his intentions.
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    KH: And as Bengt is an expert
    in astronavigation,
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    an ex-submarine captain
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    and the previous chief mate
    on board the tall ship Christian Radich,
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    Bengt was the perfect
    personification of Lyktemann.
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    RI: In our initial quest
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    of looking into the contemporary
    role of folklore,
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    we were quickly pooh-poohed
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    for looking into something seen
    as childish children's bedtime stories.
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    Even saying the word "folklore"
    got people looking really puzzled.
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    KH: And it wasn't just the accent.
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    (Laughter)
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    RI: We even had an eighth-generation
    local potter state
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    that people from this region
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    have come up with some
    of this nation's best inventions,
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    and they don't have time to turn rocks
    and wonder what is under.
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    This rejection was exactly what we needed
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    to keep poking further into this subject.
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    (Laughter)
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    KH: We continued to interview people
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    about their relationship
    with their surroundings
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    and started wondering
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    what's happening
    with people's imagination.
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    Can our relationship to nature
    really be explained so pragmatically,
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    so entirely boringly,
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    so that a rock is just
    a good old straightforward rock,
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    and a lake is just a basic wet place,
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    entirely separate from us?
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    Can our surroundings really be explained
    to such a dull degree of rationality?
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    RI: The name of our project,
    "Eyes as Big as Plates,"
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    is borrowed from a folk tale.
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    And there's one with a dog
    that's living beneath a bridge
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    and another version,
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    where there is a troll
    doing the same thing.
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    And this open-eyed
    and potentially risky approach
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    to seeing the world around you
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    has become an emblem of the curiosity
    that guides our interactions.
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    KH: Serendipity is our project manager.
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    And ideally, we meet our collaborators
    through random chance.
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    In the opposite lane in the swimming pool,
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    at the choir practice,
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    in a noodle bar
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    or in a Senegalese fishing harbor,
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    as you do.
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    Each image starts with a conversation,
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    much like a casual interview.
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    RI: And we never call
    these collaborators "models,"
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    as there are three authors to each image,
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    all equally crucial
    to the realization of their portrait.
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    There is no age limit,
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    absolutely anybody
    with an interesting lived life
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    is more than qualified to join.
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    KH: This is Boubou.
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    His son-in-law happened to be
    in this harbor
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    when we came looking for locations.
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    And one impromptu house visit
    and fish market shopping spree later,
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    Boubou and his family
    all waded in a low tide with us.
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    RI: A wearable sculpture is born
    from the conversation
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    with each collaborator
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    and is made from materials
    found in the surroundings.
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    About one third of Senegal's arable land
    is devoted to millet,
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    an incredibly itchy-to-wear,
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    nutritious and hardy staple
    with deep cultural roots.
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    This is Mane,
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    one of the grand grandmothers
    of the Ndos village,
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    a tornado of vigor and energy.
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    And she applauded to our invitation
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    to portray her in her personal
    favorite crop,
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    with which she works every day.
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    KH: It's important
    that participation is voluntary.
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    (Laughter)
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    If you have doubts in the beginning,
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    you will definitely regret it
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    by the time Riitta is stuffing
    cold, wet bull kelp up your nose.
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    (Laughter)
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    Working with an analog camera
    means the process can be slow
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    and physically challenging.
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    The person in front of the camera
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    might be kneeling for three hours
    in a freezing sleet,
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    be bombarded by mosquitoes
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    or actually, they can also be allergic
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    to the local flora
    they've just been coated in.
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    RI: And many other things.
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    (Laughter)
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    And then, there's,
    of course, the elements.
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    Unpredictability
    is one of the main drivers
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    that keeps this process interesting.
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    For example, in Iceland,
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    we were in operation mode,
    shooting for two weeks,
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    without knowing that the camera
    was not functioning properly.
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    Ooh, right?
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    KH: And because we work
    with analog cameras
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    with actual film rolls,
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    the excitement
    from the shoots keeps giving
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    until we pick up
    the negatives from the lab.
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    RI: Luckily, Edda, pictured here,
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    was one of the few that was captured
    on film in Iceland.
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    Pictured here amid bubbling,
    steaming hot springs
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    between two tectonic plates.
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    Supposedly, there are these little
    hot spring birds
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    that dive into these bubbles,
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    and according to the legend,
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    these little birds represent
    the souls of the dead.
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    We have the honor
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    of working with some of the toughest
    and bravest and coolest people around,
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    and thoroughly enjoy
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    how some of our works and portraits
    stomp on stereotypes about age,
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    gender and nationality.
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    KH: To us, much of Western society
    is unnecessarily confused
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    when it comes to the usefulness
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    of this absolutely
    rock-and-roll demographic.
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    (Laughter)
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    RI: Attitude, life experience and stamina
    are some of the main traits
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    we have found amongst
    all our collaborators,
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    as well as a formidable curiosity
    for new experiences.
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    KH: We have noticed
    how the solitary figures in our images
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    are increasingly viewed as representations
    of the age of loneliness,
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    known as the Eremocene.
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    RI: We are trying to encourage
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    a new way of participating in
    and communicating with our surroundings.
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    KH: There is the assumption
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    that humans have created
    a new geological epoch,
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    and we need to learn how to see
    what our role is in it.
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    RI: We'll be working with farmers,
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    cosmologists, geo-ecologists,
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    ethnomusicologists and marine biologists
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    to see how art can change
    the way we think, act and live.
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    KH: It's not clear who or what
    is the protagonist in our work,
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    whether it's the human figure
    or the nature around them,
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    and we like it that way.
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    Ten years and 15 countries
    into the project,
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    we are not sure how, if,
    or when this project will end.
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    RI: We have vowed to continue
    as long as it's fun,
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    and we'll keep making new images
    and more books that explore --
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    KH: How to balance life amongst
    the effects of the climate crisis.
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    The writer Roy Scranton
    beautifully summarized
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    how our project can be approached.
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    "We need to learn to see,
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    not just with Western eyes
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    but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes,
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    not just with human eyes
    but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes,
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    coho salmon eyes
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    and polar bear eyes,
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    and not even just with eyes at all,
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    but with the wild, barely articulate
    being of clouds and seas
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    and seas and rocks and trees and stars."
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    RI: Perhaps if we start seeing ourselves
    through coho salmon eyes,
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    we might begin to synchronize better
    with our fellow flora, fauna and funga.
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    To do this requires
    both imagination and empathy.
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    And curiosity is at the root of both.
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    KH: As Halvar, one of our first
    collaborators, said nearly 10 years ago,
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    "If you stop being curious,
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    you might as well be dead."
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    (Both) Thank you.
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    (Laughter)
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    (Applause)
Title:
Nature, folklore and serendipitous photo collaborations
Speaker:
Riitta Ikonen, Karoline Hjorth
Description:

Inspired by Nordic folklore, artists Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen collaborate with local elders -- farmers, fishermen, cosmologists and more -- to create richly imaginative portraits that explore humanity's connection to nature. Discover their serendipitous artistic practice as they share a selection of fantastical imagery where nature and myth intersect to awaken a sense of wonder.

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Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TEDTalks
Duration:
11:50

English subtitles

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