Roses grew on snow

Vassilis Triantis

2017 - 2021


“They have to sell and leave, they can't go on like this any more”, Eiríkur, my husband, said one evening some 5 years ago after hanging up the phone with his parents. Gústi, his father, was suffering from all kinds of ailments, yet for as long as I have known him, he woke up every morning at the crack of dawn and spent his day growing roses until dinner time.

Icelandic greenhouses represent a farming tradition of almost 2 centuries. Already in 1850 geothermal energy was used to heat soil for growing potatoes, with the first known geothermal greenhouses being built in 1924. Due to the use of geothermal energy for heating, electricity and soil disinfection, Icelandic greenhouses have a low environmental footprint. And while agriculture contributes 4.41% of the national GDP, only 1.2% goes back to agriculture, leading a long tradition of sustainable farming in Iceland to financial starvation. This is reflected in the story of the Sælands.

Ásta and Gústi started their life in Laugarás in 1967. They lived in Laugarás, next to the greenhouses that Ásta’s parents built in the 1940s and for 53 years they have been growing roses and what not in a land that, to many, would seem barren. But due to their old age and the minimal profit, they need to sell and move away. For all this time, they continued on the farming tradition of their family, that went on for 4 generations.

Through photographing the last steps of the Sælands in Laugarás and the use of archival material, I wanted to create a small arc of Icelandic tradition. An arc that speaks of commitment, and the respectful relationship between man and the land he inhabits.

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  • Eiríkur's finger pricked by a rose thorn while at work. "I worked a lot there. I felt it was my obligation...This built a kind of work ethic in me that you always had to work, work, work. The way my father worked... And you carry this on to your adulthood."

  • Rock formation in the vicinity of Laugarás. Icelandic tradition has it that the Huldufólk (the hidden people), live in such rocks and they should be left untouched, or there would be vengeance. In this way, Huldufólk represented the respect that man should pay towards nature and the way that the two should live side by side.

  • Ásta on the lap of her nanny in Laugarás around 1949. Ásta's parents were the first to settle in the area and build greenhouses. One could say that Laugarás exists because of the Sælands. For 75 years the family has been living there working always with greenhouses.

  • The family's greenhouses.

  • By building the first greenhouses the Sælands transformed a barren land into a fertile garden. They have started with vegetables and slowly they moved to growing flowers as imported vegetables made the local produce unprofitable. Slowly the area attracted more people and by now 100 people more or less live there.

  • 1962; The family planting potatoes outside. Already in 1850 geothermal energy was used to heat soil for growing potatoes. Aqueducts carried warm water from hot springs into farming ground for this purpose. The Sælands drew hot water and steam from the nearby hot spring to heat the soil and the greenhouses but also to disinfect, by using techniques that were in place since the 1850s.

  • Flower beds within the greenhouses. Chrysanthemums were used to decorate bouquets of roses.

  • Gústi overlooking the rose farm, a few days before leaving Laugarás and moving to the nearby town of Selfoss. In the last years, his body could not take any longer the toil of the hard work that the greenhouses demanded. He has had several operations that forced him to stop and move away.

  • Gústaf, the grandson of Gústi and Ásta, working in the greenhouses, picking up roses. He is the last generation of Sælands to have worked in the greenhouses.

  • Hand gloves that were used to pick up and handle roses.

  • Flower scissors on the table where bouquets were made. The table is marked in order to make the flower cutting easier according to length and size of the bouquet.

  • Unused roses laying on the floor at the end of the working day.

  • The lights from the greenhouses in Laugarás shine on the clouds above during a winter night. Every time we would drive to Laugarás from Reykjavik, I would see the lights and I knew we were close to arriving. I always associated that view with an end of a journey and the warmth of the family's house. For me the sight was like a lighthouse that signified safety and warmth.

  • Ásta at home. "I never thought we would move away, but it was good to stop. We were tired. It was too much..."

  • Gústi in the greenhouses. "I liked working with roses the most. The more you gave them, the more they gave you back."

  • Deserted greenhouses in Laugarás. Many people have started greenhouses in Laugarás after the Sælands, but also quit farming and let their greenhouses to crumble as the amount of work needed was disproportional to the income that farming could provide. The government's support to farming is diminished year after year and is redirected to tourism. At the same time the costs of imported vegetables is increasing, while the environmental footprint of imported food to Iceland by far surpasses the footprint of greenhouse farming. The future of the greenhouses in Iceland is becoming more and more uncertain, and does not attract the younger generations as much.

  • All things come to an end.

  • Ásta and Gústi around the time of their marriage. Soon after marriage they moved to Laugarás next to Ásta's parents and started their own greenhouses. "Our fathers were both gardeners. We were born into this life. This is what we were used to doing. We never thought of doing something else."