When a stranger starts hitchhiking around the Faroe Islands, word gets around fast. A cluster of 18 islands in the North Atlantic Ocean between Iceland and Norway, the roughly 540 square mile archipelago is home to about 50,000 people. Called Føroyar in Faroese language, the self-governed country is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark.
In the winter of 2016, Belgian photographer Kevin Faingnaert was led to the secluded islands, which have been inhabited since the 8th century. Eager to work on a project outside Belgium, he got out the map and for the first time, noticed the Faroe Islands. Two days later he was on a plane to the rugged, snow-covered country to see what he could find.
Hitchhiking, says Faingnaert, was easy on the islands. He rarely had to stick his thumb out for more than 10 seconds. Some people picked him up because they had already heard of the Belgian guy hitching rides and taking pictures. Others stopped because of the anomaly he represented: an unknown face in a country that rarely sees tourists outside Torshavn, the capital city. Reportedly, there is a sum of three traffic lights on the Faroe Islands and they’re all in Torshavn.
Faingnaert also frequently traveled by boat. Twice, he took a helicopter, a common and cheap way to island hop. The family of eight— the only family—who lives on Mykines Island, for example, sends the children to school in a helicopter every day. The sea between Mykines and the nearest island is rough, making travel by boat unreliable.
Unlike the fast-moving cities of Belgium surrounded by rolling, fertile, and wooded landscapes, the Faroe Islands are jagged, treeless, and sedate. The rocky soil dictates that they import almost all of their food aside from sheep grazing the land and fish. Fishing is by far the predominant industry and source of export trade.
During the winter, the wind and crashing waves become an unbroken soundtrack. The distinct and intense nature, says Faingnaert, is what captivated him. That, and the stories of the people who have chosen to stay in the nearly abandoned villages perched above the restless sea.
Faingnaert remembers Simun Hanssen. A retired sailor, Hanssen lives on Svínoy Island and spends the days searching for messages in bottles that have washed ashore. He’s found approximately 60; an ocean current running between Canada and Norway delivers them. Most, Hanssen gives to a museum in Toshavn. A select few, with exceptionally moving words and an address, he writes a letter in response or carries the message to the intended recipient in Scandinavia or elsewhere, like a magical interlocutor.
On Sandavágur Beach, a young man named Simún Jacobsen practices his trombone daily. The booming sea acting as the backup band to the melodies he creates.
Tróndur Patursson resides on Streymoy Island. An artist and adventurer, he’s well known on the Faroes. In the mid-1970s Patursson made a transatlantic voyage in a replica of 6th century leather-hulled ship. The stained-glass birds he makes are found all over the island, from town halls to living rooms.
In the month Faingnaert spent on the Faroes, he focused on villages counting 20-30 people, typically located on harder-to-reach islands. He was often told that five years ago there were closer to 120 people in the villages. Then, youth began moving to Torshavn in search of broader opportunities, or studied in Denmark and chose not to return to their isolated hometowns.
Finding people to photograph during the cold, dark days posed a special challenge. “I usually don’t just knock on people’s doors,” explains Faingnaert, but there, where everybody was hibernating inside, “I had no choice.” Almost all invited him in for a cup of coffee and either agreed to sit for a portrait or referred him to somebody that would. Curiously, it was practically always a man who answered the door and agreed to have a portrait made; the women, in general, preferred to not have their picture taken, says Faingnaert.
Despite the spectacular landscape and mesmerizing stories, Faingnaert recalls a loneliness unique to the wintery Faroe Islands. In the evenings, there weren’t people around to socialize, to share a drink or bite to eat. Even the sheep and birds, ubiquitous on the islands, went to sleep.
The villages will continue to decline in population, predicts Faingnaert. Like a grandfather you know won’t be with you forever, says the photographer, his primary intent was to document the villages and the people who inhabit them before they slip into the past.
You can see more of Faingnaert's work on his website.