Everything Must Go

My parents-in-law ran a smalltown department store for close to 40 years before having to close down last year. These photos document the Kragseth family’s final days as merchants in Nordfjordeid, Norway.

Kala #1. This sale is final

Kala #1. This sale is final

The combined toys and glass- and kitchenware store known as “Kala” would have celebrated its 40th anniversary on the fifth of November last year. Only they had to close down just half a year shy of that landmark occasion. A combination of age, health and economic issues meant that the days leading up to Easter last year were chosen to be the final ones for the store that had been built by my girlfriend’s parents – Mrs. Aud and Mr. Agnar Kragseth – four decades earlier.

Kala #2. The department store. Brand new

Kala #2. The department store. Brand new

Kala #3. Mrs. Aud (left) and Mr. Agnar Kragseth had some of their busiest days ever during the days of the final sale. My girlfriend Linda (centre) moved home for a few weeks to help them out

Kala #3. Mrs. Aud (left) and Mr. Agnar Kragseth had some of their busiest days ever during the days of the final sale. My girlfriend Linda (centre) moved home for a few weeks to help them out

Kala #4. Aud and Agnar met at a gathering for western expats in the Norwegian capital of Oslo in the late 1960s

Kala #4. Aud and Agnar met at a gathering for western expats in the Norwegian capital of Oslo in the early 1970s

Kala #5. Best store in the district, 1989

Kala #5. Best store in the district, 1989

Kala #6. The toy store cleaned out. Only a basket of christmas hats remain

Kala #6. The toy store cleaned out. Only a basket of christmas hats remain

Kala #7. Agnar in the office

Kala #7. Agnar in the office

Kala #8. Cheap toys, pure happiness

Kala #8. Cheap toys, pure happiness

Kala #9. Nordfjordeid is a small town (population 2,772) in western Norway

Kala #9. Nordfjordeid is a small town (population 2,772) in western Norway

Kala #10. The shop – and it's merchants – in their youth. Aud at left

Kala #10. The shop – and its merchants – in their youth. Aud at left, her sister-in-law, Liv, at right

Kala #11. Some 30 years on, the brilliant 70s blouse is replaced by a Transformers hoodie

Kala #11. Some 30 years on, Aud’s brilliant 70s blouse is replaced by a Transformers hoodie

Kala #12. Young Agnar in the store

Kala #12. Young Agnar in the store

Kala #13. Agnar in the store

Kala #13. Agnar in the store

Kala #14. The building period. Health and safety. Total lack thereof

Kala #14. The building period. Health and safety. Total lack thereof

Kala #15. The store, yesteryear

Kala #15. The store, yesteryear

Kala #16. Linda sorting through the farewell flower gifts

Kala #16. Linda sorting through the farewell flower gifts

Kala #17. Empty glassware boxes

Kala #17. Empty glassware boxes

Kala #18. Agnar closing the doors

Kala #18. Agnar closing the doors

Kala #19. Counting crowns

Kala #19. Counting crowns

Kala #20. Stairway to retirement

Kala #20. Stairway to retirement

Kala #21. One last set of locks

Kala #21. One last set of locks

Kala #22. The toast

Kala #22. The toast

Epilogue – The Bears Say Goodbye

The toy store teddybear mascots make one final appearance for a farewell ad in the local paper.

Kala #23

Kala #23

Kala #24

Kala #24

Kala #25

Kala #25

Kala #26. Ad reads "Kala is now closed"

Kala #26. Ad reads “Kala is now closed”

 

At Fjord’s End

Beyond the picture perfect beauty of Hardanger, the backside of the postcard is even more alluring.

Odda #1. The zink smelting plant

Odda #1. The zink smelting plant

The hotel director. Ole Melkeraaen

The hotel manager. Ole Melkeraaen

The sound of Hardanger is very much the a cappella vocal approval of the visiting tourists, going “ooh” and “aah” and “sehr schön” and “ain’t that just lovely.” With hillsides clad in apple blossoms and snow-capped mountains diving into the blue-green waters of the fjord, Hardanger is the epitome of Norwegian romantic nationalism. I once took an English writer for a week long trip around these fjords in my old Ford Fiesta. That trip ended up as a nine page story in KLM’s inflight magazine – under the headline “Fjord Fiesta.” I’ve worked with other seasoned travel writers producing travel stories from this region as well, and more than once have heard them say: “I thought I was blasé, but this..!”

But this. This – as in the picture perfect postcard Hardanger – only exist between May and September. There are other sides to Hardanger as well. There is an end of the fjord. And Sørfjorden – the Southern Fjord – infamously known as the fjord that God forgot – ends in Odda.

Odda #2. By night

Odda #2. By night

The Johnny Cash of Utne. Øyvind Terjesen

The Johnny Cash of Utne. Øyvind Terjesen

Here, in this small industrial town built around a smelting plant now closed, two friends since childhood have spent most of the day in the kitchen. One of them – the hotel manager – is just off night watch and has chosen cooking over sleep. The other put on the roast even before going to bed from the party the night before (drunk slow roast – now that’s lovely). The table is set with white linens and the best dining wares. Several bottles of Amarone are breathing nicely, the fish soup starter has been simmering for hours and all is ready for one hell of a nice dinner. Oh, and I’m invited. Only that I don’t know. Not that it’s supposed to be a secret in any way, but my friend and colleague – the director of the fjordside mischief TV-series “Fjorden Cowboys” – just sort of forgot to mention it.

So there you have it. A short hour prior to the best meal I’ll have in quite a while, I’m sitting at a roadside tavern – under a confederate flag, no less – eating a roadside hamburger and spoiling my appetite. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. After all, the reason why I’m in Odda this March weekend, is to embrace the sudden and make a series of portraits based on chance meetings. I started the day talking to a guy feeding birds along the wharf. His name was Sigfred.

Feeding birds. Sigfred

Feeding birds. Sigfred

– So, Sigfred, how do you spend your days?
– From three minutes past two till five o’clock I listen to the radio. Other than that I feed the ducks.

Simple as that. Yet not simple at all. Sigfred told me he used to work at the zink plant, that’s the other giant smelting plant in the small town of Odda. And this goes for most of the people I meet this weekend. Most all of them are in some way connected to either the industry, the agriculture or both. Odda – the smelting plant town – and the fjords are in themselves a melting pot of both old farm culture and industrial identity, my friend Hildegunn Wærness tells me. And this blend of cultures has created some very tough and strong willed men and women – some of whom Hildegunn decided would make for great TV.

The result – the hit TV show “Fjorden Cowboys” – explores and celebrates Norwegian macho culture through the exploits of two entrepreneuring buddies who wear hats, love dynamite, talk trash and drink hard cider straight from the jerry can.

The cowboys. Leif Einar Lothe and Joar Førde enjoying cigarettes and dynamite

The cowboys. Leif Einar Lothe and Joar Førde enjoying cigarettes and dynamite

Last summer, I took a commision from the TV channel who was to air this show, to produce a set of promotional photos. This turned out to be one of the most fun jobs I did through all of 2013, but I was also left with a feeling that there were way more interesting people this end of the fjord than just the two main characters and their entourage.

Nightlife. Øyvind Paulsen (at left), Svein Takla and Marianne Solheim

Nightlife. Øyvind Paulsen (at left), Svein Takla and Marianne Solheim

Pool hall boys. Mohammed Abdinasir Salen (at left), Shakir Adan Mohammed and Mowlid Mohammed

Pool hall boys. Mohammed Abdinasir Salen (at left), Shakir Adan Mohammed and Mowlid Mohammed

The Rocker. Anne Spilde

The Rocker. Anne Spilde

For over half a year I had this urge to go back and make a portrait series from Odda and Sørfjorden, to explore the landscape beyond the picture perfect postcard. To meet with people that might have chosen to live a life slightly deviating from the norm of conformity – and make no mistake – I do mean that as a compliment.

The ferry

The ferry

The blues musician. Bill Booth

The blues musician. Bill Booth

The bartender. André Kabaya

The bartender. André Kabaya

So there we were – the director and me – on an adventure in the dark winter fjords – hoping to meet interesting people, to photograph them and maybe enjoy a drink in their company. And that we surely did. To such an extent that one of us incidentally failed to mention to the other that we had a dinner invitation.

For that I was mad for about five minutes. Then I remembered a quote from one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut: “Curious travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” Not that I’m religious, even less than the man with the guitar who earlier that day had sung to us: “I’m not religious – but I believe when I have to” – but as a reminder to embrace the sudden and unexpected, these words of Vonnegut are themselves good travel companions.

So off to dinner we went, me not quite as hungry as I would’ve liked to be, still expecting it to be brilliant. It was.

Strangely, drunkenly, Twin Peaks-ishly brilliant. Just as the end of the fjord itself.

Tavern staff. Hans Martin Bleie and Halldor Kråkevik

Tavern staff. Hans Martin Bleie and Halldor Kråkevik

After The Boom, Slight Anxiety

When big oil spends less, an area built on oil services feels unease.

Ølen. The rig "West Alpha" as seen from a souvenir shop. The story of Norwegian oil is often referred to as a fairy tale

Ølen. The rig “West Alpha” as seen from a souvenir shop. The story of Norwegian oil is often referred to as a fairy tale

They call it “the billion mile.” Along a short stretch of road between Ølen and Vats in western Norway, in a municipality with a population less than 10,000, you find several major businesses, some with revenues well into the billions of NOK.

Ølen #2. Rigs are repaired, money is made. Usually

Ølen #2. Rigs are repaired, money is made. Usually

Most companies are connected to the oil service industry, making the entire community vulnerable to changes in the business cycles of the petroleum industry at large. In boom years, outside workers flock to the area in such numbers that one oil consultant firm even had to establish its own construction company to build housing for their new employees. That’s good for the local economy, obviously, with the town bar (smalltown bars are always good business barometers) reporting most nights as good nights. But that was then.

Ølen #3. Local bars are good business barometers. Tonight the houe band plays to an empty room

Ølen #3. Local bars are good business barometers. Tonight the house band plays to an empty room

A few weeks ago a journalist from the Norwegian Business Daily and I visited the area to see how lacking investments from the oil industries affect the community at large.

We visited the bar in question and that night the house band played to a room empty but us. Walking through the main street we saw a few closed down stores, a bunch of cats, but no people except for one kid doing car repairs, wishing to leave the place behind.

Ølen #4. Behind the shipyard temporary housing units reach far into the hills

Ølen #4. Behind the shipyard temporary housing units reach far into the hills

This is not recession as such. Norway has yet to take a hit anywhere as large as the rest of the world. But when the oil price remains steady for the third year in a row while costs increase ten per cent annually, big oil spends less on new investments. The local rig repair company, which at one time filled the hills above the yard with temporary housing units to accommodate foreign workers, is now lacking orders and has had to temporarily lay off a fifth of its employees.

So not a recession. More of a post-boom-hangover. Still, in a small place, you tend to notice things like that.

Ølen #5. Roadside car repair

Ølen #5. Roadside car repair

Ølen #6

Ølen #6

Ølen #7

Ølen #7

Vats. Scrapping decommissioned rigs

Vats. Scrapping decommissioned rigs

Vats #2

Vats #2

Vats #3

Vats #3

The story as it appeared in the Norwegian Business Daily (Dagens Næringsliv)

The story as it appeared in the Norwegian Business Daily (Dagens Næringsliv)

The story as it appeared in the Norwegian Business Daily (Dagens Næringsliv)

The story as it appeared in the Norwegian Business Daily (Dagens Næringsliv)

A Tale of Three Cities

It was the beginning of times, it was the end of times, and somewhere in between a rabbit stole the mayor’s parking space.

City One: Oil City, Ontario

Oil City, Ontario

Oil City, Ontario

Oil Springs, Ontario. America's first oil well

Oil Springs, Ontario. America’s first oil well

Or rather, the trio of adjacent towns: Oil Spring, Oil City and Petrolia. The first American oil rush took place here from 1858 and onwards, after an asphalt producer set out to dig a water well but found free oil instead, sparking what was to become the oil industry.

Population:
Oil Springs – 704
Oil City – 2930
Petrolia – 5528

City Two: Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan

Flint, Michigan. The gospel

Flint, Michigan. The gospel

Flint was the center of the Michigan lumber industry. Lumber money funded the establishment of a carriage-making industry. Horse carriages gave way to automobiles. Flint became the birthplace of General Motors and a major player in the nascent auto industry. At its height GM employed 80,000 workers. Then the industry collapsed. NPR describes Flint as ground zero for the decline of American manufacturing. For the past decades Flint has suffered from disinvestment, deindustrialization, depopulation, urban decay and high rates of crime. FBI recently ranked Flint the most violent city per capita in America for the third consecutive year. According to FBI’s statistics, Flint had more than 2,774 violent crimes in 2012. They included 63 murders, 108 rapes, 673 robberies and 1,930 aggravated assaults.

Population: 102,434 (down from 200,000 in 1960)

City Three: Sarnia, Ontario

Sarnia, Ontario

Sarnia, Ontario

Back across the border to Canada, midways between Flint and Oil City, in the city of Sarnia, a rabbit sat on the mayor’s parking space on a summer evening.

Population: 72,366

This is America part three. Read part two here, part one here.