A very new book with many beautiful pictures and a colourful text made by photographer Jeroen Toirkens and writer Petra Sjouwerman, with a historical epilogue by Diederik Veerman, was recently published in the Netherlands. It tells about a trip made following the so-called ‘Barents Road’ on the Barents Region, to the area that has been described as Europe’s last wilderness. It is in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Just like the Barents Sea the Barents region was named in 1993 after the sixteenth century Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz. It was done at the initiative of the Norwegian minister for foreign affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg, who wanted by this way to improve collaboration between these four northern countries in the fields of culture, education, environment and indigenous peoples.
Here is an interview made with one of the authors – Jeroen Toirkens
R.L.:Jeroen, how did you get this idea to write a book about Willem Barentsz?
J.T.: An idea first came from my friend Diederik Veerman. He used to study in Groningen. I met him in 2006 or around this time. I was there with Anna Prakhova, she is from the Kola Saami people. It was the first time when we met and made a good connection. Now he works in Den Haag for the Museon.
Around two and half years ago Diederik came to me with an idea to make a new project about Willem Barentsz. He had heard that that time in Harlingen, Friesland started to rebuilt his ship. http://www.dewillembarentsz.nl/pagina/Home/1/
Diederik had made a plan to work on this subject and we discussed it together. We discovered that in 2013 there was a celebration of the Netherlands and Russian Friendship Year. Then we heard about “The Barents road” – a road from North Norway all the way from Norway, Sweden, and Finland to Murmansk. We all liked this idea to follow this road along the way, to meet people and landscape, environment and make photographs. In this way to tell a story about this region and people along the Barents’ road, within the context of the historical story of the Barentsz’s expedition to Nova Zembla in 1596. That was the main idea.
Later, when we arrived to that area it appeared that almost nobody there knows about this Barents road. It was just an idea of the Swedish tourist organization. They made a website about the Barents road, and nobody in the neighbourhood ever heard about it. Of course, people know that they live in the Barents Region, which is in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russian, all the way to the Nenets area.
R.L.: Yes, along the Barents Sea.
J.T.: Along the Barents Sea. I had heard about it before, because I have been to the Nenets area, and I have been to the Saami on the Kola Peninsula. I knew that there was collaboration between these Northern countries. We found this idea to travel, following his route, great because Barentsz, of course, is a Dutch historical figure. Everybody knows about his adventures. We planned to focus on the area and people, within an area from the viewpoint of a historical diary from 1598 made by Gerrit de Veer. That it is what we actually did: we made a plan and got money from the celebration of the Netherlands-Russia 400 years Friendship Year to do this trip and to make out of this trip an exhibition in Moscow. That was last September in 2013. http://www.nlrf2013.nl/agenda/solitude-in-the-wake-of-willem-barentsz/
So, the starting point was the Barents road and people who live there, combined to the historical diary and the outcome would be an exhibition. Later on I talked to my publisher and he asked me (because of my book Nomad) if I have some new plans. I told him about this Barentsz’s project and he said that maybe it is a good idea to make a book about this project. That is sort of the way how this idea was developed.
There are many pictures of people in your book. What did they tell you about this historical person Willem Barentsz?
J.T.: We asked, of course, many people about Willem Barentsz. Mostly people know him be-cause of the Barents Sea which has his name. Most people do not know that he was Dutch. There were a couple of people who really knew a lot about him and historical facts. Like that he wintered on Nova Zembla and he made a very revolutionary map. That sort of things… At the same time, to be honest, most people do not know that much about him. We also asked people what they know about the Barents road. Nobody heard about this road. But we also went to Kirkenes and to Vardø in Norway. Vardø is a place where most of his expeditions mostly started. It was the last harbour before they went to the Arctic Sea. We knew that there is a little statue of Willem Barentsz there. We were looking for it the whole day and asked lots of people about this statue of Willem Barentsz.
Nobody knew. We made many nice pictures and talked to people. After a long day we came back to our hotel, where we asked on the reception about this statue. The answer was that it is just around the corner. It was quite near to our hotel. This monument is very short, around 1,20 m and it is looking over the sea. In my book you will find this picture.
Monument for Willem Barentsz in Vardø. Barentsz visited Vardø several times during his expeditions in search of the North East Passage. In 1596 his ship was trapped in the ice near Nova Zembla and Barentsz and his crew was forced to spend the winter on the island. Barentsz died during the return journey and was buried at sea, the very sea that now bears his name.
R.L.: Do you think that your book could start now to travel following this “Barents road”?
J.T.: Yes, I think so, because we actually made good contacts with Arktikum and with Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland. In Arktikum they wanted to exhibit our work. But unfortunately this was cancelled. I think our exhibition should fit very well into area over the Arctic there. Originally our idea was to make this exhibition travelling along the road we took. We had already this exhibition in Moscow, but still not in the Barents region.