Tonje Bøe Birkeland

Photographer and traveler
Tonje is a photographer who has not let the camera out of her hands since childhood. She created a series of photos
"CHARACTERS", in which women's fate is intertwined with different historical eras and natural phenomena.

Tonje's childhood, 1987.
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— Growing up I had a desire to create, and this desire manifested itself as photographs very early on. I used to pick up my mum's Nikon, point the lens towards something, focus, and shoot. I got my own waterproof, analogue, disposable cameras at the age of eight, and just after I got an underwater camera. People, making portraits on travels, was my first interest, so the underwater camera became a bit limiting. When I was thirteen I got my first SLR: a 35 mm Minolta.
THE CHARACTERS came about ten years ago: in part due to my relationship with nature – inherited almost as part of my genes from early childhood – and in part due to the polar explorers who were instrumental in defining Norway as a nation (albeit with a problematic consequence: nationalism).

— When did the idea of working in the art sphere come to you?
— You also organize lectures and artist talks, and you graduated from Bergen Academy of Art & Design, Practical Pedagogical Studies. Do you have thoughts about teaching students in the art sphere in future?
— I enjoy teaching; new perspectives start with young minds.
When I started working with THE CHARACTERS as an art student 10 years ago, I felt quite alone in terms of my concept and ideas. Among professors and artists that taught me at Bergen Academy of Art & Design, some really invested time in understanding my concepts and ideas and gave me valuable, priceless feedback. On that note, I´d like to thank my main tutor Heli Rekula.
At the moment I am very invested in THE CHARACTERS, but I do like to give back in terms of being that tutor to someone myself. I do tutorials, shorter courses and artist talks. I have been teaching young kids and students on BA level. For the time being short-term teaching is what makes the most sense; it is simply inspiring and at the same time I can keep on with my travels – exhibitions as well as expeditions.

The objective of "THE CHARACTERS" is to encapsulate an entire artistic practice. Since 2008 I have, through The Characters, given women a position within landscape while exploring the authenticity of history. On expeditions, female explorers are staged in Unknown Territory. Materials have been gathered from before, during and after their journeys, yielding stories and installations, with photography in large formats portraying Characters # I – V. The romantic motives of the male wanderer have been well-documented and well-portrayed in art history. In my project, the characters are female. The heroine moves in pristine territory: in front of her looms grand exploration; beneath her, history is formed. However, despite grand vistas and sublime experiences, expeditions come at a price, both in the past and today. The Characters demand physical presence as well as sensitivity for storytelling. Each project leads closer to the objective of a gallery of personas of female heroines from the past, who, through narrative, fantasy and photography, can fill a void in our history and reveal contemporary society's challenges: globalized colonization on the one hand and the loss of the great adventure on the other.
Through "THE CHARACTERS", I travel in the present, while investigating the past. I search in books and online for the partly hidden and forgotten history of women travelers. Travels, adventures and storytelling are as much my passions as photography. So are old, found objects. They inspire me.
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