“Perceptions of Authenticity – Photo Journal of Up Helly Aa 2016”

Up Helly Aa is a traditional New Year festival in Shetland, the northernmost archipelago in the British Isles. Although Up Helly Aa is clearly inspired by Shetland’s strong viking heritage, the exact origins and history of the event are shrouded in mystery and rumour. There are many conflicting opinions about when and why Up Helly Aa was instigated, but it is certainly a central part of life in Shetland, perpetuated with pride and commitment. Participation and organisational roles bring together a geographically dispersed community to celebrate the return of the sun during the darkest and bleakest days of the year.

Up Helly Aa is very much a local event, but since the advent of digital media it has attracted global interest, with many tourists travelling to Lerwick every January to watch the torchlit procession and burning of the Galley. Despite this substantial reach – and its consequent boost for the local economy – there has been very little quantitative Academic research on the subject. While researching such an enigmatic event in a very close community presents obvious inherent challenges, we felt this was an unprecedented opportunity to create work with substantial implications for Scotland’s Heritage and Cultural Festivals sector, and to have fun at the same time.

The plan for this project was relatively straightforward – Niharika Puri (author), Olya Tyukova (photographer) and myself travelled to Shetland for a week. We took photographs to document the event, then Niharika conducted follow up interviews via Skype after we had returned to Edinburgh. We weren’t especially interested in photographing the torchlit procession through Lerwick, or burning the Galley “Lauren Grace”, as these components of the event have been extensively documented; our main priority was to capture preparations for the performances and the subsequent all night party at Clickimin Bowls Hall. This was made possible by Laurence Goudie and his family, who very kindly invited us to participate in aspects of the event that few visitors have the opportunity to experience. Interview transcripts were then analysed and selected photographs interpreted to form the basis of the paper. While Visual Interpretation is an unusual research methodology at Masters level it worked very successfully in this instance, and will hopefully contribute to a more constructive understanding of Up Helly Aa.

Personally I question whether Up Helly Aa can ever be fully understood by outsiders. There are obvious parallels with Beltane, an ancient tradition reinvented for modern times. There is a strong element of Norse mythology celebrating a unique heritage – while Shetland is technically part of the UK, it feels culturally and geographically closer to Scandinavia. Whatever the origins of the festival might be, it is certainly a central and fun part of community life. Like any ceremonial event in any culture, it’s important because people believe it is important. Authentic? Depends on your point of view. Worth a visit? Definitely.

Visual Analysis and Visual Interpretation are powerful and effective research methods. Would documentary photography enable you to do better work? I’m always interested in new projects, whether it’s for academic research or otherwise. Just send me an email to find out more.

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