[slidepress gallery=’JoStraube_MeltdownIceland’]

Hover over the image for navigation and full screen controls


Jo Straube

Meltdown Iceland

play this essay


“The future is no longer what it once was,” an Icelandic friend told me during the early months of 2010. Iceland was severely affected by the global recession after the financial crisis of 2008. Once a highly developed country, Iceland now owes many times their gross national product to foreign countries. The island’s vast monetary and natural resources, spread out among a population of only 320,000, were lost in a haphazard economic gamble spearheaded by a small financial elite. Governmental institutions and the national press failed spectacularly at predicting the impending economic disaster, and were consequently totally unprepared for the financial collapse of 2009.

Debt accumulated by the few is now owed by many. As in many other debt-stricken countries, the taxpayer must pick up the bill. Inflation, tax increases, and rising unemployment have left Icelanders facing an uncertain future.

I spent two months in Iceland last winter, covering the financial crisis and the Icesave referendum. I wanted to explore how the financial crisis affected a population that went from wealthy to poor, and what the long-term consequences could be.



Jo Straube was born in Norway, 1983. After finishing his bachelor’s degree in photojournalism at the Oslo University College this spring, he is now trying to establish a career as a freelance photojournalist. His clients include the Norwegian dailies Dagbladet and Bergens Tidende, and his work has been published in national and international magazines, including The New York Times. He is currently working on independent projects as well as assisting photographer Jonas Bendiksen (Magnum Photos).


Related links

Jo Straube

Project Blog


38 thoughts on “jo straube – meltdown Iceland”

  1. This is what I am talking about–showing the joy. Fabulous shots, great light, color really draws me in, and I almost want to move there. Now you can show me some shots of the not so happy Iceland people. Because no matter what the circumstance there is always life and joy. There has to be, otherwise how could they survive? Would follow to say that shots of abject war and poverty where there is no joy could be the pre-death scene of those in the photos. Hummmm. Where did that come from Lee?

  2. I like the photo series a lot and some of the photos are very powerful, both in form and content (although they can’t really be seperated ofcourse). But for some photos I wonder what their value is eventhough they are beautifully made, to me they seem to have only a decorative value.
    The captions (which aren’t on his personale site), are very informative. The series couldn’t do without. For example the photograph of the bathing people. My first thought was that the rich still have their expensive leisure trips. But in reality it was a free facility which is very popular since people have less money to spent. My favourite shot is the runner which reminded me of the movie “Noi Albinoi” which is situated in Iceland if i’m not mistaken.
    Iceland has always attrackted my girlfriend and me enormously. Despite the financial crisis, we still want to live there someday and because of that, we of course closely watched the news concerning the crisis in Iceland.

  3. Perhaps because I looked at this full-screen on my Apple Cinema screen monitor, the lighting in number seven jumped out at me as well and I wondered if maybe there should have been an “explicit content” warning. Pretty strange.

    Good series, overall. I liked every image and I agree about the Nat Geo feel.

    On a personal level, even though I have never been to Iceland, everything looked very familiar – and very foreign. I felt as if I were to visit Iceland I would, at once, feel right at home, yet isolated – all alone.

    One day, I must go and find out.

  4. fantastic opening picture! :))))….

    immediately, opened me up and how ‘shocking’ (wonderfully so), it was to see such gorgeous color and light….the opening pic, like a great opening in a film, set the tone for me, which was a slightly off-kilter, mad approach to the everyday, but rich with a very scandanavian (even though iceland isn’t scandanavian, per se) sense of humor and pathos….and yea, parts too reminded me of that terrific film Noi Albinoi….

    what i really loved, besides the odd take on much that one might associate with Iceland, is the beautiful and musical use of light…from artificial light (the delerium of whites) to the gorgeous and melancholic natural blues and dark hues…a sensitivity to light means playing with and allowing the range of light to work not only as metaphor but as richness…the movement from white to blue to red to black to yellow to green to blue and black again to white, etc…just so musical :))…and that there’s so much variety (and motifs) in your use of light….just made me smile :))….

    besides #1, really love the hot spring shot (18) and 20 (those tiny red boots against the red doors and the awesome landscape) and the clausterphobia and Lynchian oddity of 7…something is really odd and frightening in that picture ;))….

    and you couldn’t ask for a better photographer to assist for as Jonas has a great sensitivity for light and color, but most importantly, for the lives of people…

    thanks so much and congratulations on your publication..

    terrific stuff..


  5. thank you, wesley and all, for nice comments. i completely aree with you wesley that they need the captions. with the series i try to give a “feeling” to it, and chose the photos that is i think is giving the “right mood”…
    the nature brings a lot of the mood, and i did want to have a focus on the nature as it dominating, not only physically, but also economically with the fish, the geothermal energy etc. so maybe thats why the city images, had to go..
    a lot of photos that i was really happy with was left out as they interupted the feeling of the series, and unfortunately most of the informative ones didn’t have the right mood…
    i’ve been a little worried that i wasn’t able to tell the story as there’s not the obvious harsh poverty issue in iceland.. and the photos aren’t that informative… so i’m very happy for the commments confirming that it kind of works after all..

    thank you

    ps. wesley – its really a good time to move to iceland now – everything is on discount: food, flats, cars… and i follow the iceland weather report regularly, that’s one of the better news sources you can find, as so much of the news is so biased in this tiny community..

  6. Very good work, I like the diversity of images and moods, and would actually like to see more, since Island is not exactly an ubiquitous destination for photographic essay.

  7. At last a color essay!
    Gaetano, i agree…smiling…. color is not easy (and before i get shot between the eyes), im not saying B&W is easy…or easier ..of course not…but still that old theory that B&W is instantly more “artistic” still prevails…but then again what do u expect? most people out there still believe in angels, demons, higher powers…go to Transylvania for example and try to tell folks that Dracula is fiction for example..
    (they’re not gonna like it, at least)

  8. I really liked this series. It obviously reminded me of a much shorter trip I took over there, back in 2001. That was our honeymoon and we told ourselves to get back to Iceland 10 year later, which is next year now. I had a gut feeling of tough people helping each other as much as they could.

    I was very impressed by the volcation eruption, being seen as a diversion from the economic situation.

  9. picture 12: very strong political message! very funny.
    I like the opening image too and all the feature is very well done telling the iceland situation. Maybe I’ve would choice the picture 26 as closing image. Because there is a sort of “suspence” but also hope: it’s hard to walk through the fog but it’s better if you are not alone or with somebody you trust.

  10. Nice work Jo!
    also reminded me of NatGeo. photographs.
    btw i love your images from Bangladesh. veru good composition and use of light.
    un saludo

  11. This is wonderful

    The opening photograph is amazing.

    This image, along with 7,15,and 22 remind me very much of the magic reallist paintings of Alex Colville. The compositions are gentle, formal, and whimsical. Your tonal control is extraordinary, especially in 7 and 15. I like the fact that while your tones here are very carefully controlled, there is no obvious manipulations. I also like the fact that you resist the temptation to “correct” every image, #11 for example. One mouse click would make this photograph look like broad daylight, however that would destroy the mood.
    I could go on here, there is much about this work that I very much like. Gotta get to work.

    Bravo Jo, nicely done.

  12. Excellent work Jo.
    An incredibly diverse, well-rounded and superbly executed essay on Iceland. It does work wonders in making it a top class destination for a future trip. Looks awesome and feels homely indeed, even in a strange way (as someone above mentioned).

    Being the first colour essay in a while I dived straight into it, missing opening statements and even captions. I was that happily carried away. And my surprise was even greater when I read afterward that it was all about the financial crisis. Had to read and follow captions the second time round.

    I reckon this says more about me and the way I instantly and subconsciously create explanations, expectations and “rules of engagement”. In a split second!
    I remember the Icelandic collapse, the referendum, the shock, the volcano. Never been to Iceland but I have friends that go regularly, I thought I knew some things about it. And this essay being lovely and so well done, gave me not the remotest clue to link all the above together. Financial crisis in Iceland looks like that? But, what did I expect? Why did I expect to see what I’ve seen before?

    A solid work, Jo, and one that has put me in an unexpectedly complex position. I have to think through it, and through my head too.

  13. Sykt fete bilder jo! Tror du har overbevist meg om å emigrere til Island så snart Norge begynner å gå under..!


  14. @Jo, thank you for your explanation about your selection. Hope to make a series in a few years which will explore a ‘financially recovered’ Iceland.

  15. I generally agree with all the positive things others have written about this essay. Coincidentally, I was emailed a link to some Outdoor Photographer type photos of iceland and that really made yours look good, particularly the land/seascapes which I liked a lot for their natural beauty (both in the common use of the phrase and the fact that no friggin HDR is involved). I’m curious though why you didn’t include anything about the controversy surrounding the Alcoa aluminum smelters. Not that there’s any real controversy, I think everyone agrees that they have/will destroy and poison large tracts of some of the most beautiful wilderness on earth, it’s just that some people care about it while others don’t. Regardless, that whole issue is tied in with the whole financial collapse thing. It strikes me as an odd omission.

    For those of you who mentioned NatGeo, btw, they did do a story on iceland that included a lot about the smelters, but it was apparently before the financial crisis.

  16. dear mw. well i’d love to go into the controversy of the smelter issue, as some people (the same independence party that could be blamed for the worst consequenses of iceland’s mess) seem to think it would save iceland’s economy to build some more of those smelters, while others believe it would be just another “quick fix” for their junkie economy…
    to be honest i’m really worried what will happen to iceland’s precious nature as the power struggle that NG went into in some ways got intensified by the crisis… i can reveale that my first text for Burn was all about the nature and outlook for the future… but i changed it as i don’t think the photos really cover that topic.
    i didn’t mean to omit that, rather the opposite… so when i said in my text that i “wanted to explore how the financial crisis affected a population that went from wealthy to poor, and what the long-term consequences could be”, I should have got the controversy related to the power struggle into the text… but it is SO HARD only to say in a sentence or two… so i was hoping you could read it between the lines… in the captions from no 15 and 26 maybe?
    would have loved to have a reporter from NG with me to write a more complete text..

  17. I think Iceland is melting down cause of Ville Valo, (H.I.M. 666 love stories), the dude in the posters of the 1st photo.
    yea, good real life images. gz

  18. would have loved to have a reporter from NG with me…

    I’ve always wanted a Sherpa, mais Chacun à son goût, eh. Actually, I was thinking it would be interesting to see photos of this vast environmental wasteland, maybe something like Edward Burtynsky, but I can’t help noticing that NatGeo didn’t get them either. Is it just not possible to get access to those places?

  19. Excellent essay, Jo. Really appreciate you humorous / dark view.

    Looking thought your blog (wish I could read it !) and think you left out the ‘home run’ image
    from the Burn edit that, to me, sums up things nicely.

    It’s the 4th image on page 1 and I believe it is titled, “drittkaldt”. Excellent !

  20. Ahh, all those “ghost developments” and “boom to bust” evocations remind me of Ireland but with more snow and ice and volcanoes. There was a UK joke that greatly offended our respective nations; “What’s the difference between Ireland and Iceland? One letter and about six months”. We smiled pale faced and with a cold sweat when we heard that. And now, since we will soon be nursing a head spinning budget deficit of 32% of GDP this joke really does seem now to be less of, well, a joke.
    Anyway, excellent photography. Love the humour and positives you seem to find. And we too will put our developers and bankers into urinals and render them yellow and stinking.

  21. Jo, I very much enjoyed the series; you have some wonderful photographs here.

    I also feel that in most cases, you’ve got the balance right between mood and feeling, as you put it above, and information. There are a few images, however, where it seems to me you’ve missed opportunities, and a couple where the balance seems off to me. This is all just opinion and preference, of course, but I’ll try to explain, as I believe more attention could be paid to good captioning on many essays, here on Burn and elsewhere.

    Under the third image, you’ve put enough description for us to understand what’s happening, and you’ve also provided some broader context about the activity within the political, economic and social themes of your essay. For number eight, which is, for me, a purely lyrical image, you’ve given just enough information to understand what we’re looking at; this works well, and there is no need here for more. It could be argued that just the location, or no caption at all, could work equally well.

    In the second of this series, your caption seems to be purely descriptive, even “Icelanders drive their jeeps…”, but I can’t identify vehicles or Icelanders in the picture. Perhaps “…; many Icelanders drove to watch the eruption, happy for the change of subject” might work better, basically taken from your later image of the eruption. For the last image, which would seem to me a great way to conclude the series with a lyrical ‘mood’ shot, you’ve chosen to add information about the fishing industry. Yet when you show fishing trawlers earlier in the series, you treat them more as simple mood shots with only a short description, rather than adding the context at a point where I feel it would fit better and add more.

    I think the same could be said for number 19, where, instead of adding the bit about “more or less sincerity”, which we can see for ourselves and doesn’t add to our understanding, a brief point about the role and current situation of religion or education in Iceland might have been more appropriate. The use of “loom” for the fifth image also seems unnecessary; if they do indeed loom, I’d say the picture should show it. As it is, to use ‘loom’ seems forced; it’s difficult for me to get any sense of their looming from this image, and I get the impression you used it more to suit your story than the picture. As for image 24, is it a nice shot of horses to add feeling, or is there a broader point to it?

    Again, I think it’s a great series of photographs, but I also think your ambition is more here and the information in the captions is therefore important. Certainly I don’t want to say with this that all images, or all series, need informative captions; some are far better off without any. But where we spend so much time getting the pictures right and agonising over their order, the quality of the writing and its contribution to the overall message deserves as much attention.

  22. I’ve just got back from Iceland… what a fantastic land! I was fortunate to have a chance to drive all along the north coast and down to Reykjavik. I was never interested in landscape photography but in Iceland I couldn’t resist, the landscape is overwhelming… Raw, unique and at times I felt as if I was on another planet.

    Anyhow, very nice images Jo! This set of images reminded me of another one published here, Sakhalin by Michael Christopher Brown. Similar approach, both very, very good. Congrats!

    And a warning to potential visitors to Iceland: don’t be fooled by Icelandic economic meltdown, it is still very pricey! Especially in Reykjavik.


  23. Pingback: Burning stories « Rapporter fra Sagaøya

  24. After reading all the comments, I wonder what I missed. There are lots of great photographs, but I didn’t sense a compelling narrative and gradually lost interest. I read the captions, but otherwise these photographs look like a collection of interesting, well done images from a trip to Iceland.

    I like the first photograph. I’d like to see more photographs shot from an insider’s perspective that connect with the title. I don’t get “meltdown” as an impression when looking at these. Why fishing boats? It seems like every Iceland story must have to have one. Why the horses? Aside from the first photograph, where is the tension (putting the captions aside)?

    If your title was “Life is mostly back to usual in Iceland” instead of “Meltdown” then I probably would have gone in with different expectations and liked it more.

  25. Pingback: Top Photography Films - Jo Straube

Comments are closed.