Haunting photographs from a mysterious community in a rural Swedish valley

Three years ago, we featured the work of photographer Maja Daniels on In Sight. At that time, Daniels had been awarded the first grant from the Bob and Diane Fund, a grant established to bring awareness to visual storytelling about Alzheimer’s and dementia. The images were both haunting and poignant. Since then, the Swedish photographer has moved on to other subjects but has kept a hold on both the haunting and the poignant. This time, on In Sight, we are taking a look at her book, “Elf Dalia,” published this year by Mack.

One of the first things you will notice upon opening “Elf Dalia” is there are very few words of description, save for an excerpt about the place you are about to see from a Swedish tourism book from 1926 and a poem called “Myriadmouth” by Andrea Lundgren. On further exploration, you will notice this book is both haunting and mysterious. It is a visual exploration of a unique community of people living in the Swedish valley of Alvdalen. The mysteriousness of the book is wholly appropriate because the community is mysterious. Here’s a description of Alvdalen and of Daniels’s work, provided to In Sight by the book’s publisher:

“Most of the inhabitants of the Swedish valley of Alvdalen still speak Elfdalian, an ancient language with strong links to the Vikings’ Old Norse. How it has managed to persist to this day remains a mystery because the community has never been completely isolated.
In 1668 events in Alvdalen sparked the birth of the Swedish witch-hunts, when 20 women and one man were executed on the basis of testimonies provided by witnesses who were mainly children. The first witch-story involved a girl from Älvdalen called Gertrud who had been reported for walking on water, a story which later spread via a famous illustration, first to Germany and then further afield to Salem, Massachusetts.
In 1935 a man called Tenn Lars Persson (1878 –1938) spoke on national radio in Elfdalian about sorcery and the “Black Book of Magic.” An avid collector of local history, he photographed his community extensively but he also used photography in his astronomy and physics experiments, which included building a telescope and photographing the moon. Between 2001 and 2017 Maja Daniels, a photographer and sociologist with family ties to Alvdalen, began working in the region, inspired by the current generational shift, where negotiations and tensions between modern lifestyles and tradition including the preservation of a strong cultural identity imbued with mysticism represent an important contemporary struggle.”

When Daniels started working in Alvdalen, she was introduced to Tenn Lars Persson’s photographs of the area. In her book, she weaves together archival images from Persson with her own photographs of the daily life of the area’s inhabitants. The result is nonetheless mysterious and, as the book’s publisher says, “In Elf Dalia, Daniels enters into dialogue with Persson in order to reinforce the community’s unique eccentricity and to question when an historical continuity and pride becomes insularity, when rituals of myth and storytelling might evoke a dark spirit.”

“Elf Dalia” (2019) by Maja Daniels is published by Mack. More about the book can be found here.

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