Fagradalsfjall volcano in southwestern Iceland recently made headlines with its March 19, 2021 eruption. Such an event is guaranteed to keep everyone’s eyes peeled for developments. Locals have even been gathering to witness the eruption up close. Photographers, of course, are also taking the opportunity to document one of the most exciting scenes for landscape photography.
Among them is Reykjavik-based Siggeir Hafsteinsson, graphic designer turned photographer and location scout. He has been dedicated to showcasing what he calls “not-your-usual-Iceland.” The energetic Fagradalsfjall eruption is certainly anything but usual, so it’s easy to see why he couldn’t pass this up.
But first, a little something about Hafsteinsson. The 46-year-old Icelandic creative initially had little interest in photography, only casually taking pictures with an iPhone. But in 2014, he got a Canon 5D and the rest was history.
“That kind of changed everything and when my passion for shooting landscapes took off,” he said. “In short, spending countless hours indoors in front of a computer screen all day wasn’t making me happy anymore. So being in nature with a camera was a natural evolution in my career.”
Not your usual volcano
True to Hafsteinsson’s photography calling, Fagradalsfjall is not your run of the mill volcano. First, it’s a tuya volcano, a type of subglacial volcano that forms when lava erupts through a thick layer of glacier or ice sheet. As a result, this volcano has a unique flat-topped and steep-sided appearance. Tuyas are rare and are typically found only in regions that were covered with glaciers and exhibited active volcanism in the same period.
“The broader Fagradalsfjall volcanic system comprises an area of eruptive fissures (fissure swarm), cones and lava fields in the southern part of the Reykjanes Peninsula,” Hafsteinsson noted.
He added that strong seismic activities began in the area near Fagradalsfjall since late February 2021. It was interpreted as intrusion of magma at a shallow depth. Eventually, this led to the first historic eruption of the volcano last month, in 6,000 years of slumber. It was also the first volcano eruption in the Reykjanes Peninsula in almost 800 years.
Making way to Fagradalsfjall
According to Hafsteinsson, Iceland is typically on the more quiet side of things. So when something exciting happens, local media is guaranteed to flood with news about it. “We had also been experiencing weeks of earthquakes — nearly 40,000 in a one-month period — so the eruption on March 19 was inevitable.” It was only a matter of time that he would be photographing the Fagradalsfjall eruption.
On his first visit, he waited a couple of days after the start of the lava flow to make sure there was a safe and accessible point of entry. He initially planned to head out the Tuesday following the eruption, but gas levels were still dangerous.
“The weather was dicey — blowing snow and ice — but that didn’t stop 5,000 people from visiting the site that same day. I wore the appropriate clothing for the winter weather, and took plenty of food and drink, and most importantly used good judgment on where best to view.”
The following week, he went for a second visit, leaving in the middle of the night so he could arrive at the eruption site by sunrise. “I was only one of few visitors at that time barring our volunteer search and rescue team (ICE-SAR) who have been at the site around the clock ensuring everyone’s safety.”
On relishing and documenting the Fagradalsfjall experience
Of course, I had to ask what he was thinking or feeling as he stood there witnessing the historic event, with or without camera in hand. Hafsteinsson simply said it’s hard to explain when you’re there, but what he said next truly resonated with me.
“The volcano’s primitive energy draws you in and you’re transfixed. Then you begin to think about how powerless you are to Mother Nature. It’s also energizing — sort of like attending a bonfire but so, so much more intense. In some ways, you want to just sit there and observe, but you also want to capture this truly unique moment on the camera.”
Given Hafsteinsson’s devotion to showing the extraordinary side of Iceland, I think it’s interesting to learn what he believes makes a photo or project great. “Idea, perspective and composition,” he simply answered, followed by finding or creating your own style. With this, he said, people will eventually take notice.
“I try to stand out from the rest by going to lesser-known places or getting the shot from the other side. I like to capture a unique moment in that place and enhance that place’s best asset at that time, whether it’s the lighting, colors, textures, mood, etc.”
Photos used with permission