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Husband and Wife Team Photograph the Solitude of Sweden’s Wild Landscapes

Husband-and-wife photography team Erlend and Orsolya Haarberg are perfectly comfortable with silence. So comfortable, in fact that they would go weeks at a time without seeing another human being while hiking, camping, and photographing in the magical and mystical landscape of Swedish Laponia. And they liked it that way.

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Tangled strands of the Rapa River flow below the slopes of Sarek National Park, one of six reserves that make up Sweden’s Laponian Area World Heritage site. Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

On assignment for National Geographic in the largest wilderness area in Europe, the Haarbergs were the perfect people to make the magical and mystical images that appear in the October issue of the magazine.

“Its very nice to work as a team because we support each other on these trips, and it’s always nicer to travel in two than alone,” said Orsolya in a recent interview.

“And as our approach to nature photography is quite different, we are not competing at all. We are just trying to make a body of work that works together.”

See how Orsolya and Erlend hike with all their equipment, plus more imagery from Laponia in the video above.

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The Siberian jay is a year-round resident of Stora Sjöfallet National Park, where the birds are known to hikers and foresters as fearless campsite companions, always on the watch for scraps of food. Photograph by Erlend Haarberg
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Footprints of a glacier can be seen from above Muddus National Park, where peaty string fens form in glacier-dug lowlands when the frozen ground melts in spring. Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

The Laponian World Heritage site is located just above the Arctic Circle and is one of the largest wilderness areas in Europe. The site encompasses four national parks and two nature reserves and is jointly managed by Sweden and its native Sami people.

To capture its glory throughout the year, the Haarbergs made several trips over various seasons—very rarely encountering other people in the park. And if they did see another hiker they often purposely went out of their way to avoid them, not wanting to disturb the mental peace they say they’re able to achieve through their solitude.

“After a while you’re just getting this calmness, and then you don’t need anyone to disturb the balance you manage to obtain during this trip,” said Orsolya. “We feel really comfortable alone.”

It also helps that as husband and wife, they are used to spending long, quiet periods of time together. Although, as Orsolya said, even that can be a challenge when the weather is bad and they can’t leave the tent for extended periods of time. “I can’t stay more than a day in the tent without getting a backache, so we need to find balance on these days and also keep our motivation to be out there.”

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A forest-fringed lake mirrors the sky in Muddus National Park. Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg
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Only the indigenous Sami people may legally hunt moose in Laponia. As a result, the animals grow larger there than in other regions of Sweden. Photograph by Erlend Haarberg

Because they traveled in all seasons, they had to be comfortable with rain, as well as extreme cold. But ironically, they said that traveling in the winter was easier than in the summer, as they could pull their gear on sleds instead of hauling everything on their backs.

And that gear included tents and camping equipment, photographic equipment, clothes for various weather conditions, and, of course, enough food to last up to five weeks.

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A female rock ptarmigan yawns in a snow-covered landscape, Sarek National Park. Photograph by Erlend Haarberg
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The Unna Tuvva and the Stuor Tuvva lakes, photographed from the mountain Vietovare. Veiled in melting snow and ice, Laponia warms in the summer, inviting city dwellers to venture above the Arctic Circle. Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

“It was a real adventure to do this,” said Orsolya. “You are dependent that your equipment works on these trips, and you need a lot of luck. You can’t be sick. You can’t fall on the mountaintop. You can’t fall into the river. Which happened.”

(She laughed when telling me about slipping on a rock during a river crossing made while carrying 77 pounds of gear and four weeks worth of photos. Luckily, her cameras survived.)

I asked how they were able to work while carrying such heavy loads, and Orsolya told me that they usually sacrifice food for photo gear while packing. They exist on a basic diet of oatmeal, crackers and cheese, chocolate, nuts, and instant outdoor meals for dinners.

“It becomes really boring after a while, we lose a lot of weight on these trips,” she said.

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River, string bogs, and pine trees are seen from above in autumn in the Muddus National Park. Photograph by Erlend Haarberg
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An autumn storm sweeps dramatically into the Rapa Valley, spotlighting Mount Nammatj. Like much of Laponia’s landscape, the peak has been sculpted by glaciers. Photograph by Orsolya Haarberg

But their sacrifice and physical labor is worth it, as the images they bring back are almost surreal in their beauty. They appear almost as paintings—awash in color, rivers branching out like arteries across a vast horizon, sun streaming golden light on silent rock. It’s difficult to imagine the splendor and serenity of such a place—especially as it’s somewhere that most people will never, ever go.

“We have returned many times because it is a difficult area to work [in]; you just need to spend a lot of time so that it will show you those hidden secrets that you want to capture in images,” said Orsolya.

“There are not many areas that are still so untouched and wide as Swedish Laponia. You really slow down on these trips. You just get in such a special mood there.”




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