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Jon Gustafsson, filmmaker and photographer, Iceland Is A Work Of Art

The other night I had dinner with a group of people, some were friends and some I was meeting for the first time. They came from different parts of the world and all were world travelers. At some point the conversation turned to Eyjafjallajökull – as conversations in Iceland tend to do. The topic was ‘Where were you when Eyjafjallajökull erupted?’. Everyone had a story. The eruption disrupted flights all over the world. People were stranded in foreign places. Trains were full. Rental cars were sold out. Middle aged business people hitched rides on Europe’s highways. While some slept in airports others were taken in by strangers. Some met strangers and fell in love. At some point the conversation turned to me. What was I doing when Eyjafjallajökull erupted? Like everyone else I had a story to tell.

By pure chance I was flying over the south coast with two guys I hardly knew. They worked for a helicopter company. The river Markarfljót had flooded. It dug through the highway close to Seljalandsfoss. Their helicopter had been parked by Skógarfoss, thirty kilometers further east, so they couldn’t drive there to pick it up. They had to hire a small plane to get there and at the last minute they called me and asked me if I wanted to come along. As a filmmaker I had expressed an interest in location scouting from the air and now they had an empty seat. Something was happening but no one knew exactly what. Eyjafjallajökull was covered in clouds but the glacier was clearly melting. Once we got the helicopter up in the air the pilot, Reynir, suggested we try to see what was going on. He flew us into Þórsmörk valley where he found a small opening in the clouds. As we made our way through that small opening we were the first to see the magnificent and horrifying black plumes of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The eruption was bigger than any of us had imagined. We only had a couple of minutes because the hole in the clouds was closing and then we would have been in trouble. I had two cameras with me so I asked my fellow passenger, Sigurður, to take one of them and just keep shooting. We captured the first video and photos of the eruption.

When we landed in the nearby town of Hvolsvöllur the authorities had shut down the airspace. No one was allowed to fly near the volcano. Soon aviation authorities banned all flights over Europe. Our images soon became hot property. Every broadcaster and every newspaper wanted them. They also wanted more. The only problem was that the airspace was closed. Reynir had an idea. The two of us stayed at a nearby farm that night.

We woke up at 5am and made our way to the local police station – which now had become the center of the universe. We found the local Chief of Police and made him a proposal; “Now that you are responsible for the world’s reaction to the eruption, don’t you need to see it? We can take you there.” He was the only person who could give us permission to fly. He said yes and he got to see the volcano. We got more photos and more news footage. The media was insatiable so we kept going.

In other words, I spent the first three days of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption hanging out of a thirty year old Bell helicopter, flying as close as we could, looking into the mouth of the volcano. If you saw the eruption on the news during those days, chances are the footage and photos were mine. Towards the end of the third day, as I was hanging out of the helicopter, staring into what could as well be the flaming gates of Hell, it suddenly hit me like a kick to the stomach. What on earth was I doing. My first child was supposed to be born in two months. I wanted to meet her. As soon as we landed I hired a friend of mine to shoot the next day.

After a day on the ground I was back in the air and this time we were able to land two kilometers from the mouth of the volcano. Chunks of lava, each the size of a vehicle, were spewing out of the crater. It was magnificent. My passion for aerial photography was born and there was no turning back. Iceland is a living piece of art.

Jon Gustafsson

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