Generation Geilo: Portrait of a Community

Nestled between two of Norway’s most majestic national parks, the mountain town of Geilo attracts adventurers from all over the world. But its beauty is more than skin-deep: Geilo isn’t just a thriving town, but the civic embodiment of a different mode of being. 

Strained by the seemingly inexorable global trend of populations gravitating from the countryside to the city, Geilo began to pioneer a model of sustainable tourism, one aimed at sustaining not just the precious local ecology, but the local community too. 

Ten years on, the town has successfully transformed its fortunes. Visiting Geilo — and struck by the buoyant, tenacious and diverse community spirit I found there — I began to create this environmental portrait series.

Shot over the period of one year, I set out to document the people who have been instrumental in ensuring that the future of Geilo will be as rich, and rooted, as its past. More in depth reading about the story can be found below these thumbnails. Series was shot on a Phase One IQ250, 80mm LS lens and Profoto lighting & modifiers.

The mountain town of Geilo, in the municipality of Hol Kommune, is nestled between two of Norway’s most outstanding areas of rugged natural beauty: the National Parks of Hardangervidda & Hallingskarvet. Easily accessible by road — or via one of the world’s most stunning railway journeys —with Oslo 150 miles to the east, and Bergen the same distance to the west, Geilo is an idyllic playground for outdoor adventurers. Famed for its winter sports, it also boasts abundant summer activities such as hiking, fishing and mountain biking.

My own introduction to the area was distinctly less athletic. I’d been asked to photograph Geilo’s annual Ice Music Festival in early 2009, but that initial 10-day assignment kindled a passion for the region as I discovered a thriving egalitarian spirit amongst the community. The impression it made was lasting, and I’ve returned to Hol Kommune each year since, initially to continue my work with the Ice Music Festival, then helping Visit Geilo to form a new library of images to promote the region. During these repeat visits, my working friendship with Visit Geilo’s Director of Tourism, Pål Knutsson Medhus, deepened. Over time, an idea for an ambitious photographic project was born, rooted in a shared desire to create an in-depth social document illustrating the vibrant, complex and diverse economy of Geilo and the surrounding kommune.

Born and raised in Hol Kommune, yet well travelled too, Pål was perfectly placed to weigh my ‘outsider’ observations of Geilo, and he leapt on the opportunity to make a formal portrait series detailing the people who have helped shaped this remarkable place. During the summer of 2014 ’Generation Geilo’ was born.

Photography has given me the opportunity to travel extensively, from central China to the USA, and from the remote Arctic wilds of Baffin Island right across Europe. Nowhere though, throughout all these journeys, have I witnessed the concentrated economic diversity and social cohesion found in Geilo, a town of just 2,500 people.

While the rest of the world increasingly crams itself into cities, (from 3% of the population in 1800 to 30% in 1950, and now over 50%) Geilo, and the wider Hol Kommune, are successfully reversing that trend. As cities swell, surrounding rural regions are often left struggling for survival, facing the stark choice of becoming exclusive ‘second home retreats’, or simply becoming run down and abandoned. No so for Geilo. It has embraced its superb local geology and abundant flora & fauna, and transformed itself into a year-round mountain village offering authentic Norwegian experiences.

As well as pioneering sustainable tourism for nearly a decade, all the key economic sectors — primary, secondary and tertiary — are still in place, with quaternary business models firmly established too. With buoyant development in communication infrastructure and easy access to information technology, many of the young who traditionally left for the city are now choosing to stay. Those who do leave are increasingly returning after further education to start families, often continuing long ancestral lines that have grown up surrounded by the same stunning landscape.

Inspired by this, the aim of Generation Geilo was to do something quite traditional: creating an archival snapshot of a community. Celebrating visual changes through spring, summer, autumn and winter, this is an environmental portrait series that chronicles these seasonal transitions in parallel with the people who work through them too, from hill farming, retail and construction, to snow making, ice-rink formation and white-water rafting.

Short of visiting yourself, I hope that the collection not only captures something of this extraordinary place, but also funds your imagination for how our own world outside of Geilo might be transformed in the future too.