Battered by restless winds, with more sheep than people, the tiny island Sørburøy off the north coast of Norway is one of the world’s loneliest latitudes. But for the residents —all 35 of them—this remote landscape is nothing short of paradise.
Norwegian photographer Therese Alice Sanne spent a month documenting life here. What she found was a self-sufficient community, determined to survive despite the innumerable odds stacked against it.
Emil and his father Johnny have come from Trondheim to stay on the island during crab season. Johnny grew up on Sørburøy and learned to fish from his father. Now he is teaching his son.
“They are living on the bare minimum of what it takes to sustain a community,” Sanne says. “The combined primary and secondary school, the shop, the wharf and the ferry are all very important to the story.” It is a simple but entirely dependent ecosystem. Take one away and the rest would crumble.
Up until the 1960s, there were 400 people living on the islands of the Froan archipelago. Now there are only 35 and all of them live on Sørburøy. According to Sanne's research and conversations with islanders, this was due to an urbanization trend.
Without relying on televisions or iPads to distract them, the eight children who live on the island—aged between 7 and 15—enjoy the pleasures of the outdoors while the adults rely on fishing and seasonal tourism for income.
“The island has this underlying calmness about it that I haven't experienced anywhere else,” says Sanne. “When you're living so close to nature and so far from everything else it does something to your own sense of reality.”
This wild and wonderfully eccentric community is evocative of Norway’s naturalist heritage, which, Sanne says, is slowly disappearing. “Since the stone-age, Norwegians have been living close to the sea but more and more of us are becoming urbanized,” she says. “These communities are viewed as a curiosity [to outsiders] but they are simply living as Norwegians have done for centuries.”
History hangs heavy on the island, which is another aspect of the story Sanne felt important to show.
“You can see traces of life and how people lived once before. The abandoned houses are a warning of what might happen. [The islanders] are reminded by it every day.” Ghost stories and myths circulate the little hamlet and Sanne herself felt “spooked” on several nights there.
But for all the supernatural murmuring, the practical challenges of the present shout louder. In 2009, Sørburøy's only school was under threat of closure because of too few pupils. The community’s solution was to place an advertisement in a Lithuanian newspaper, seeking a family with at least three children (preferably ten) with the promise of a job at the fish farm and lodging.
400 people applied. The family who won still lives there with their four children; one of many tales of Sørburøy's enterprising spirit.
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