Czech photographer Michael Novotny lives, by his own admission, in “the middle of nowhere”. His home in the remote southeast of Iceland has views of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökul, and is surrounded by the kind of sublime landscapes that the country has become famous for.
He traveled to Iceland after finishing university in Prague, but “got stuck”—and four years on, still calls the island home. It’s not hard to see how Iceland captivated him; looking past the harsh weather conditions the country is a place of beauty and intrigue. Mountain passes lead through clouds and snow, across lava fields and down to glacial fjords. Colored houses pepper the countryside, and locals say that Huldufólk—invisible elves—can be found living in the rocks.
With a landscape so majestic it has inspired belief in magic, the country has become a tourist hotspot and a mecca for photographers. But how many images can we take—and geotag—of secret places before they are ruined forever? And what is the value of an image repeated ad infinitum? Novotny’s documentation of Iceland forgoes such clichés, rendering instead fish farms and soccer fields. We spoke to him about the dangers Iceland faces due to tourism, and why he captures the landscape the way he does.
Where do you live, and how long have you been in Iceland for?
I’m currently living in the middle of nowhere—countryside of the southeast coast, where the closest grocery is about 30 minutes drive. On the other hand, I can see Europe’s biggest glacier Vatnajökull from my window and am surrounded by the most beautiful nature imaginable.
You mentioned in a previous email that you “got stuck” in Iceland. When you visited for the first time, did you have the intention of staying long term?
I didn’t really have any plan or intentions, just desired to escape big city life for a while after I finished my studies in Prague. I just easily wanted to try how life is in such a different environment which Iceland definitely is. I fell in love with the country instantly, and haven’t really felt like coming back since ever.
You’re not from Iceland originally, how easily have you found living and integrating into the community there?
Living here is easy–if you manage to get used to the weather conditions and long winter nights. The integrating is whole another level. It’s not that I wouldn’t feel accepted by locals, they are actually very open and friendly. But I guess it’s every expat’s problem—it doesn’t matter how much you try, you will never be the true native. I actually feel like a ghost trapped between two worlds—I know I will never be fully Icelandic, but after four years here I don’t feel like I can identify with my Czech roots anymore.
"I actually feel like a ghost trapped between two worlds—I know I will never be fully Icelandic, but...I don’t feel like I can identify with my Czech roots anymore."
What is it about the landscape that you find so captivating?
I’ve traveled the world, been to the most exotic and strangest places imaginable, but Iceland is completely different. With all its volcanoes, glaciers, fjords, lava fields and so on, it’s like another planet. And once you get to know it better (and its inhabitants) you must love andadmire it even more. There’s always more to explore and it never ceases to amaze me.
Iceland has become a mecca for landscape photographers, but because of that we often see the same visions of the island repeated over and over. How do you capture the place authentically and avoid stereotypes?
I wish I knew an answer to that. It’s probably just a different way of seeing things. I’m not really attracted to the overcrowded touristy places, where the magic is ruined for good. Sometimes I plan a trip, but then come to the place and see cars in the parking lot, so I just turn around and go elsewhere. The real magic lies in the unknown secret places, where you rarely meet anybody, and in the hearts of former Vikings.
Tourism has been booming in Iceland for nearly a decade: What are the negatives and positives you see from this?
Speaking economically it brings enormous wealth to such a small country—this last year, it’s been visited by six times more people than actuallylive here. But the boom is too fast and the hotels spring up here like mushrooms after rain. And I’m a little bit afraid that it could harm the country during the next recession (which is inevitable). Such a small economy has very high volatility and it’s not healthy to be dependent just on incomes from one source, tourism in this case. Once the tourism bubble bursts, it could mean a huge problem. I hope it’s only my pessimistic vision.
And as I mentioned before, the crowds ruin the former magic of some places, but not only that—they harm the environment by failing to stick to regulations of how to behave in nature.