Peter Holliday journeys through the Sápmi landscape to uncover ancient reindeer herding routes
“While it is never quite clear to us where such a trail begins or ends, it nonetheless grants us a way to engage with those who have trodden it before us as well as those tasked with keeping it open after we are gone.”
- Joey Levenson
- 7 March 2023
One of the greater powers of photography is its ability to tell (or re-tell) narratives of our world in just a single image. Peter Holliday, a Scottish-born and Helsinki-based photographer, has perfected such a skill. His ongoing series A Path in the Snow didn’t just captivate us for its breath-taking realism and dazzling landscapes, but also for its inspiration from the legacy of Mikel Utsi, a Sámi man from Swedish Lapland who emigrated to Scotland with his reindeer in 1952. A Path in the Snow takes place along the same ancient reindeer herding routes Utsi himself travelled through, in the company of Mikel’s living relatives. “Mikel is actually known in Scotland as the person who re-introduced reindeer to the Highlands, where they still roam today,” Peter tells It’s Nice That. “This particular history constitutes the character of a landscape I identify as home.”
Peter stresses that the project isn’t “an outsider’s fetishisation of a vanishing culture", but rather hopes to not romanticise the pastoral views of the northern feels without first acknowledging Sápmi as a landscape that has historically “been a contested space” in the indigenous cultures of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Interestingly, Peter found Mikel’s entire life was defined by the crossing of these horizons, something which Peter hoped to emulate in his photographic journey. It was during a stay in the Glenmore Forest with his father that Peter first came across the story of Mikel, and his synthesis between Scotland and Finland. “I desired to know why a Sámi reindeer herder had left his native homeland for my own country, bringing his reindeer all the way with him,” he explains.
In 2020, he travelled to the parish of Karesuando, where Mikel was born at the Swedish-Frontier in the upper Tornio Valley. “When I first travelled to Karesuando, I was welcomed by Mikel’s nephew Nils Henrik Wasara, who I contacted online prior to my visit,” the photographer says. “After introducing me to his perspective of the landscape he recognises as home, he invited me to go reindeer herding with him in the Scandinavian Mountains. His contribution to the project has been essential and I cannot thank him enough for being so willing to share his indigenous understanding of the Swedish Arctic with me. Without the hospitality of Nils, my awareness of this landscape would not be what it is.”
As Peter’s journeys evolved through the shifting landscapes of Tornio Valley, he became immersed even deeper in to the project. Each image capture became a moment of personal reflection within the long-stretch of the physical journey. “Moving by foot during my sojourns across blockfields, rivers, fens, palsa mires, birch forests and upland tundras, it is not uncommon for my journeys in the Nordic wilderness to last weeks and take me hundreds of kilometres,” Peter says.
Taking aesthetic cues from photographer Ellisif Wessel, Peter approached the project with a research-based documentarian style in order to authentically portray the landscapes and their stories without dressing them up. “Since I am entering Sápmi as an outsider, it is important for me to understand how the horizon of the Scandinavian Arctic is perceived from a modern indigenous perspective,” he explains. “This is why the images and motifs of the poet Paulus Utsi [Mikel’s brother] were also such an invaluable reference to the project.”
As Peter continues ahead on A Path in the Snow, he hopes his pictures will “inspire new ways of inhabiting an understanding of the land to which the universal horizon of being human is situated.” It is, in essence, an attempt to return to truly ecological ways of thinking and a pivot away from the clichés of the pastoral or the picturesque. “Indeed, it is when we venture beyond the horizon of the commonplace without forgetting the memory of our origins that we begin to dwell in the future. In the words of the Sámi poet Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, ‘I leave to arrive, go away to be closer’.”
Peter Holliday: A Path in the Snow. Reindeer in Duoibal, above Kilpisjärvi. Sweden, 2020 (Copyright © Peter Holliday, 2020)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.