Black Church

“Better weight than wisdom a traveler cannot carry.”

– Havamal, the Sayings of the Vikings

On the southern side of Iceland’s Snæfellsnes peninsula, many travelers have found a tiny black church called the Búðakirkja. Sitting starkly alone in an isolated landscape, the dark structure stands in heroic contrast to the overcast skies and frigid landscape.

Although my Icelandic adventure took place deep in the heart of winter, the western peninsula was unseasonably warm that year – the reason for the absence of snow in this picture.

“It’s global warming,” Snorri, our Icelandic photo guide shook his head, “Next week when we visit the glacier on the southern coast you’ll see how much the climate is shifting here.”

In the months leading up to my trip I’d come across hundreds of images of snowy vistas and ice-encased waterfalls online. In my mind’s eye, I’d imagined this scene countless times, each with a blanket of snow with Búðakirkja standing as a contrasting counterpoint to a wintery overture.

But as the church slowly grew from a small dot on the horizon into the icon which had captured my imagination for months on end, my feelings of intense anticipation were wrapped in a cloak of sadness for the undeniable impact of climate change.

“I’m stunned I’m in Iceland in February and there isn’t any ice,” I whispered.

Snorri, who was driving the small van that I later referred to as the Wonder Mobile, looked over his shoulder from the driver’s seat and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get all the snow you’ve dreamed of and more once we hit the southern coast. I promise!”

As I’m sure you can  see from the photograph above, Búðakirkja will charm the pants off of you no matter the time of day, the weather, or the season. It’s an powerfully humble structure placed in a magical landscape, unlike any other I’ve encountered. 

I could ramble on about the amazing hour or so I spent here. How this was the very first stop of the photo tour and how surprisingly rusty I felt as I tried to remain present enough to focus my camera while simultaneously having an out of body Oh my god, I’m really here with my camera in Iceland experience. I was still getting used to my Fuji mirrorless system and although the menus are remarkably self-evident, I’d yet to develop muscle memory with the cleverly placed knobs and settings. At some point, I just told myself to relax and gave myself permission to take bad pictures just to establish the photographic equivalent of “sea legs”.  Perhaps you’ve felt this way too while on a once in a lifetime trip – not wanting to miss the one chance you’re likely to have in a particular scene.

Don’t give into it!

Pull the camera away from your face. Slow down. Take some delicious time to breathe in the raw beauty of the place you’re so very fortunate to find yourself in. I’ve been on enough photo trips to have witnessed the unfortunate mistake many make, seeing the landscape or wildlife as subjects instead of making the choice to be in your body and fully present as an inhabitant of the wilderness.

The interesting part to me is this shot was a complete afterthought. The leaders of the tour had just invited us to a picnic just outside the short wall surrounding the church. I’d packed up all my gear before plunking myself down on the grass, but as I munched on my sandwich and an orange Fanta fizzed into my nostrils I had a growing sense the Black Church wasn’t quite done with me. 

So I ran back to the van, carried my bag to the wall and rummaged around for my wide angle. As soon as I pulled the viewfinder up to my eye I realized the shot I’d been looking for had finally found me. 

Sometimes it’s like this. Sometimes, not. The more I shoot, the more confidence and agility I have with framing a scene, but I hope that feeling of uncertainty stays right beside me. My favorite photographer, Minor White, once said, “When gifts are given to me through my camera, I accept them graciously.” 

I’ve come to believe it’s all a gift. And perhaps it’s when we expose ourselves through the lens that the gift find a way to touch the sensor. How I love that word sensor. The world gives its gifts so abundantly, offering itself up our senses. Instead of becoming better photographers, we could endeavor to become better sensors.

Photo Credits: Búðakirkja by Susan J. Preston, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland © 2019, all rights reserved
Technical: Fuji XT-2