Theodore Roosevelt once said, “keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground”. He was speaking about balancing great dreams with action. A photographer from Northern California reminds me of this quote because she is down to earth but dreams of distant lands. She manages these wander-struck dreams of travel by making them into a reality.
Whitney Justesen is an all-around artist. Currently, she runs her own photography business in California and enthusiastically posts about the places she visits. She specializes in portraiture and has no reservations about blending people with the beautiful landscapes she sees. Her presence on Flickr has made her known as both a kind person and powerful artist.
Whitney’s style often aligns with what Damien Rayuela calls “The Halted Traveler”. This style of art was attributed to romantic German painters whose subjects looked away from the viewer. This asks the person looking at the photograph to share the view with the subject.
Whitney’s art is intimate in the same way: you have the opportunity to feel like you are standing with the person she photographed. These emotions are well documented along with her travels on her Flickr and Tumblr. You can tell that Whitney is going to far away places because with each photograph, she invites you to run away with her.
The latest place she brought us to is Iceland.
Whitney, first I wanted to say thank you, both for the interview and sharing so much of yourself. Your passion for life is louder than words and your desire to travel is contagious! It’s a pleasure to interview again and I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future.
Let’s start at the beginning, you teamed up with photographers Rob Woodcox and Elizibeth Gadd for this trip. The three of you funded your stay through Kickstarter under the name “The Restless Youth“. Where did the idea of traveling to Iceland originate and why did you choose this as your name?
The idea for traveling to Iceland was actually Lizzy’s idea, originally. She had been discussing it with a friend of hers for months, and then with another friend of ours from Flickr, and then with Rob. I originally did not expect to go with them, but as soon as I heard about it, I knew that that was something I would love to do. When the other friend unexpectedly dropped out because of financial restraints, Lizzy and Rob came to me and asked if I would be interested in joining them. Without almost a second thought, I made my decision to go—and the rest is history.
As far as the name “The Restless Youth” goes, it was a group decision to come up with a catchy name to go by for our journey. After a lot of discussion and debate, we decided on something that seemed to fit all our personalities pretty well 😉
Rob (MI), Elizibeth (B.C.), and You (CA), come from very different parts of the country. According to your biographies, you also seem to have different artistic visions. How did you collaborate and plan this trip? What were some of the things each person wanted? As a group, what locations and experiences did you decide you couldn’t live without?
Rob, Lizzy, and I met for the first time back in 2012 in Vancouver, BC at a small Flickr meetup. I had been following both of their photography for several years previous to meeting them, and as soon as we got together, it was pretty obvious that we clicked. We all have very different backgrounds and artistic visions, but we are united in our desire to create and inspire the world with our art. We all knew that we wanted to
go into this journey to Iceland with the intention of creating something new—for Rob and Lizzy it was to create their own new photography series’, and for me, I wanted to work on a short film about our expedition. (Hopefully I’ll start working on that soon haha)
Lizzy had all the locations planned out to a T. Since she has wanted to go to Iceland for years, she knew exactly the places we should see and visit in Iceland. With those places in mind, we were able to formulate ideas and come up with conceptual photographs that would work in those environments.
Lately there has been a lot of attention placed on Iceland for its beautiful landscapes. Parts of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were filmed in locations that you visited. Music videos by famous musicians (i.e. Woodkid (“I Love You“) and Bon Iver (Holocene))were also shot there. Artists like Sigur Rós and Björk originate from Reykjavík. With all the media displaying Iceland, what were some of your expectations before arriving?
Yeah! It’s really so interesting how much more attention Iceland has been getting in the media in the past few years. I’ve seen at least three movies in the past year that were filmed in Iceland, and as you said, some of the greatest music artists of our age are either Icelandic citizens, or have filmed music videos there. One of my favorite music videos is Holocene, by Bon Iver, which is filmed on location in Iceland.
It’s no wonder why, too, because Iceland is truly beautiful. It’s gorgeous in such a distinct way from other places in the world because it’s so strange and otherworldly, and relatively untouched in its natural beauty. Unlike the U.S. and other popular tourist destinations around the world, there aren’t fences and security guards and signs all over the place, making sure you don’t touch anything. Iceland is real and raw in every way, and I wish there were more places in the world like it.
I think if I had any expectations of what Iceland would be like before I went, I think I knew I was going somewhere that was totally otherworldly—almost like walking on Mars or being transported into a prehistoric age. Obviously, my expectations were met and exceeded in every way.
A couple weeks before traveling to Iceland, you shot an elopement in Alaska. You’ve also been to many other locations including Paris, Vienna, London and all over Italy. What have you seen on this journey that is different from the earlier ones? What were some of the unique challenges to visiting Iceland? Were there any barriers in language or with laws that you had to overcome?
That’s the thing I love about traveling. Everywhere you go is different and interesting in it’s own way. That’s why I have such a strong desire to see more of the world, to experience life in other places and feel pleasantly uncomfortable in my surroundings. Europe is different from Iceland because of course there are several places that are tourist traps, so you have to be on your guard and watchful of everything you do.
That’s not to say you can’t enjoy Europe, because obviously that’s not true—I love Europe with all my heart and can’t wait to see more of it! However, it was different in Iceland because, while some places were more “touristy”, the majority of the country was open, untouched land just waiting to be explored. I loved it.
Also, I was actually surprised how few language barriers there were in Iceland; almost everyone in the country spoke English! I wasn’t expecting that at all, especially knowing that Iceland was an isolated island without as many tourists coming through as other places in Europe.
I think the biggest challenge we faced was understanding the names of certain locations we visited (try saying Fjaðrárgljúfur five times fast) and figuring out our way around the country. There was also a little incident with a speeding ticket at one point that I won’t elaborate on… 😉
We all know how long a flight feels when you’re excited to go to a new place. Especially when you have to fly over the ocean! You’re an experienced traveler, so could share some of the ways that you keep yourself entertained on a long flight? What songs were stuck on repeat for the flight over? Were there any books you couldn’t put down?
Haha anyone who knows me knows that I strongly dislike flying. Reasons being, a) I dislike sitting in one place for several hours and b) I severely hate turbulence. So I guess with that being said, I’m a good person to ask this of because I usually have a lot of things to distract me on long flights haha.
I have a hard drive I usually bring with me that has movies on it, or I read until I can’t keep my eyes open any more. This planebride it was “The Fault in Our Stars”, because the movie was coming out right after I returned and I hadn’t read the book yet. Finished it halfway through the first flight 😉
When I don’t feel like reading or watching movies anymore, I often just stare out the window at the patterns in the clouds and the textures of the earth far below me. Those are always some of my favorite views on my
Also, I tried to keep a journal on this trip, but I literally just wrote one entry the entire time—on the flight to Iceland. Whoops…
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty showed that Iceland is very different from the US. There’s a scene in the movie when Walter interacts with two Icelandic boys who don’t speak English. After non-verbally exchanging an item for a long-board, he skates down the side of a mountain. During your adventure you visited that same location. The newness of that experience was enough to change Walter’s outlook
on life. When you first arrived to Reykjavík, and your view of Iceland was fresh like Walter’s, what was the first thing that struck you? What were some of the bizarre things that you saw while visiting the country?
I saw that movie (Walter Mitty) at the end of last year, and as soon as the credits rolled, I told my friend Katie, “That’s it, I’m going to go to Iceland someday.” At that point, I didn’t have any plans for visiting the country, and Rob and Lizzy hadn’t even started discussing the trip. Who could have known at that time that just about six months later, I would actually be going to Iceland? It’s crazy to think about it now.
Anyways, on to your questions 😉
Since I was about as unfamiliar with Iceland as Walter Mitty when I arrived, besides reading some books and seeing some pictures, I didn’t know fully what to expect. As I said in a previous answer, I knew Iceland was going to be strange and different, but nothing could have truly prepared me for what I was going to see. Iceland is such a mixture of landscapes and environments—from calm mountainous valleys with waterfalls trickling down, to harsh volcanic regions, to tumultuous beaches with gigantic cliffs all around.
When I first arrived in Reykjavik, I was surprised at how modern the city was, while still being so…quaint, I guess? It was a bustling metropolis, with shops and bars and restaurants on every street. I definitely preferred the open landscapes of Iceland to the city life though. Some of the most bizarre things I saw in Iceland were the freestanding rocks out in the ocean, like at Reynisdrangar Beach, as well as the glacial lagoon with icebergs floating all around, and the canyon we visited at the end of our trip, called Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. Iceland itself is just crazy bizarre in every way.
At the beginning of trip, you spent time in Iceland’s largest city. The images you posted of Reykjavík showed the colorful buildings and its beauty. How would you contrast this area with other cities that you’ve traveled to in the past? When you
were in this city, what did you do on your average day?
Reykjavik was an interesting city, to say the least. It wasn’t like most of the European cities I have visited in the past, as it was much more modern and colorful. There was street art on almost every large wall in the city. The citizens were well-dressed, fair, and impeccably beautiful. Also, there were cats everywhere haha. Even though it was different from most cities I have visited, I felt comfortable. I liked it.
On an average day in Reykjavik, we got up, went to the coffee shop up the road called Reykjavik Roasters, and just explored the city. We stopped into shops and looked at sweaters and talked to the shopkeepers. We ate at a little vegan-vegetarian restaurant called Graen Kostur (I think I butchered that spelling) and explored the gigantic church in the city center. We took pictures. We got excited for all the places we would soon be visiting on our journey. Reykjavik was a good base for us, but I couldn’t have stayed the entire time there. There’s too much to see in the rest of the country.
On Tumblr you posted a series of photos titled “From where I stood“. The series included six images taken downward towards your feet at various places along the trip. This set has received over 3,000 notes on Tumblr and is steadily increasing. The images almost connect the viewer with the areas that you visited. Could you tell us a little about the series and locations featured in them?
It’s now got over 10,000 notes, thank you 😉 Haha No, but it was actually a series that I didn’t originally have planned at all, but it sort of came to me while I was in Iceland. There’s a photographer I studied about in my History of Photography class a few years back that liked to include the very tips of his feet in his images, as a way to say “I was here.” That was my way of documenting the fact that I was there in Iceland, and I guess Tumblr caught on to it 🙂 Thanks internet?
At Skógafoss you wrote about being left breathless by the power of nature. The variance in locations is astounding and the size of these wonders is enough to make a person’s jaw drop. You have photographs with icebergs, giant fields, moss-covered canyons, dark rock caverns, and it’s all on one island. With that said, can you describe some of the scenery you experienced and the powers of nature that you saw?
Oh man. I have thought about this a thousand times since returning from Iceland, and each time I try to put it into words, I am left speechless. Nature, in its purest state, is monumental and powerful. It can be dangerous too, and we saw so much that would have scared a lot of people. Luckily (or maybe unfortunately), I have never been one to shy away from perilous places.
I couldn’t leave the glacial lagoon without standing on an iceberg; I couldn’t leave Reynisdrangar Beach without running past the violent, gigantic waves to shoot in the cave on the other side; I couldn’t visit the canyon without standing on one of those freestanding rocks. I might be crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Iceland provided us with this crazy, strange, beautiful amusement park that is an absolute photographer’s paradise, and we all loved it so much.
“Adventure is Out There” was a photograph that you took at Svartifoss Waterfall. The image features the three of you facing away from the camera and towards the water. Many of your images from Iceland are styled in a similar way. Your close and intimate portraits suddenly changed to something more distant. Your subjects were no longer close and the images seemed to take on their subject’s environment. Was there a particular theme or emotion that you trying to convey through these postures and sudden change in style?
I have a lot of friends who take photos in a similar way— Lizzy, for example. I think it’s a way to connect humanity with nature. For her, it’s a way to show that we as humans are so small in comparison to the world, and yet we each have worth and importance. I wish to share a similar sentiment, but I think for me, it’s also a way to show that humans are so fascinated by the natural world, and we can blend so seamlessly
We were created from the dust of the earth, and we are a part of this world. We can either learn to love and appreciate it, or we can go on with life focusing on ourselves and our own interests. For me, I choose the former. Life is beautiful, nature is powerful, and I want to spend my life appreciating the fact that it is here for us to experience it. These photos I take of people (and myself) looking out onto the world are my way of showing how important it is to appreciate life and all its wonders.
In this image (above) you thanked Vanguard Photo USA for contributing
supplies for your trip. These included tripods and other equipment. What were some of the unique challenges to taking photographs in such a raw environment? In the past you’ve posted funny out-takes where you’ve tripped or otherwise had to retake a photograph. Do you feel that you were better ready for this adventure?
Haha I had completely forgotten about the photo I posted once where I tripped right in the middle of taking a photo…man now I can’t
stop laughing haha.
Anyways, *wipes tears away*, as I said, Iceland was actually one of the
easiest places to take photos I have ever visited.
The reason I say that is because, a) there was absolutely no one around for miles in many places we visited. It made it easy to just focus in on the photographic process, without worrying about people seeing you, judging you, etc.
The other reason it was easy was because b), duh, it’s Iceland—anywhere you pointed your camera is a gorgeous shot haha. I mean really the only thing that was a struggle for me was taking photos that I felt captured the essence and beauty of those locations. I didn’t want the concepts or the outfits or the poses to clash with the natural beauty I saw, and I wanted my photos to complement it, not distract from it.
For a week you traveled on Ring Road (also known as Route 1) around Iceland. It circles the entire island and connects many of the places that you visited during your trip. The road is notoriously small and unpaved in certain patches. Many of nights that week you spent camping. What was the average day like during this time? What was it like sleeping in wild and open Iceland at night?
Traveling around the Ring Road was definitely a defining experience on our journey through Iceland. We drove along Fjords and across volcanic landscapes, through snowy mountain passes and beside gigantic waterfalls. We spent those few days driving as much as we could, seeing as much as we could, until we got too tired to go any further. Then, we would find a suitable place to camp for the night, and we would pitch our
Now, honestly, I’m not the world’s best camper. If I’m cold, I get grumpy, and I don’t like sleeping on the hard ground if I don’t have to. I don’t like bugs and I don’t like large wild animals coming too close for comfort in the middle of the night. The times I’ve camped in the past haven’t always been ideal, and so to say I was worried about camping in the middle of nowhere in freezing Iceland would be an understatement.
However, to my surprise, I actually came to like camping while I was there, a lot more than I had in the past. We always found relatively soft ground to sleep on, our tent was warm and we all had enough blankets to keep us from freezing, and apparently in Iceland, there are no wild and dangerous animals to worry about. It was probably my best camping experience up until that point in my life, for sure.
Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to take these camping experiences and apply them. I’ll be better at camping from now on, I promise 😉
On Instagram you posted an image where you stood on the side of a mountain. You wrote about being struck with a sudden clarity of your life. In that moment you understood why things happened and why others didn’t. After returning home, how do you think these moments of clarity have affected you? How do you feel that traveling to Iceland has changed you both artistically and as a person?
My honest belief is that everything does happen for a reason. Now, I’m not sure how much I believe in destiny, but I do believe that we do not end up on certain paths by mistake. As I was standing on that mountain, I was reflecting on the experiences in my life that had brought me to that point. I have been through some difficult times and
nasty heartbreaks, but I believe those experiences led me to that moment,
to that feeling of peace and understanding.
Iceland changed me in many ways. I am still the same person I have always been of course, but it gave me a new outlook on life, a new appreciation for the beauty of the world, and of course, it strengthened my friendships. Everything is always changing these days, but I will always have those moments on my travels to look back on, and remember the way I felt. I know now that whatever happens in the future, whatever gut-wrenching trials I have to go through, it will always lead me to where I’m supposed to be.
Many people complain about the difficulties associated with traveling while simultaneously having a deep desire for visiting faraway places. Common struggles to hear about included budgeting, making time, and having a fear of going to a brand new place. If you had to give advice about overcoming these difficulties, what would say? In your own travels, what struggles do you face and how do you overcome them?
Traveling isn’t easy. I mean, if you’re a millionaire, maybe it is—but not when you’re a young adult just out of college. (Or give or take a few years). There are many things I have had to give up in order to travel as much as I have in the past year or so.
I’ve never really had fears about going to new places, so I can’t speak for that one in particular, but I have faced the challenge of budgeting and making time for travel. I rarely have a lot of money in my bank account — often I make a good sum of money from a client gig or something, and then I immediately spend it on a plane ticket. But, luckily, I have always had enough to get by.
It’s important to make sure you budget your travel wisely, as we tried to do on our Icelandic journey. It doesn’t always work out exactly like you have planned, but it’s important to budget as much as you can. I would hate to be stuck in some foreign country without money :O I also firmly believe that people should make travel a priority, if they can.
Everybody needs to get away from the stresses of everyday life once in a while, and we can all benefit so much from seeing new places and experiencing new ways of life. Even if it’s small road trips or day trips, it’s always a great idea to get away as often as you are able to—even if it’s just for the day.
On the Kickstarter campaign, Rob Woodcox, Elizibeth Gadd, and you ventured out to “be an example to others that artists can truly thrive and create anything they can dream”. Since returning do you feel that you’ve accomplished this goal? On a personal level, do you feel more satisfied as a freelance artist by having gone on this journey?
I personally think we accomplished this goal above and beyond our expectations. I hope that we were able to show people that nothing is out of reach if you truly want it, as Iceland was a dream of each of ours. We wanted to travel to a foreign country, one that was unfamiliar to all of us, and we wanted to create new work and new personal series’—and I can say without question that we each did just that. Everybody can live their dreams if they truly desire to do so, and sometimes all it takes is a first step in the right direction.
Personally, I feel more fulfilled and satisfied with myself as an artist than I have in years following this journey. I have proven to myself that I can make big things happen, and that I can live the life I desire to. Iceland truly was the journey of a lifetime, and I will never forget the memories I made there.
Thank you Whitney for documenting such an amazing adventure and taking us along with you. Viewing your work is always a pleasure and I appreciate your time and wisdom. I look forward to where you go in the future and wish you safe travels wherever that may be.
Thank you Eric 🙂
If you are looking to view more of Whitney’s journey to Iceland, the links to her websites are posted below: