Maja Daniels: The River Valley Vernacular

THE RIVER VALLEY VERNACULAR

The isolated valley of Älvdalen (‘River Valley’), in Dalarna, semi-north Sweden, is not stereotypically Scandinavian. Both landscape and lifestyle seem to have more in common with a 1950s vision of the United States, where hillbilly meets rock-androll.

The community has come to be seen as a mystical and odd place. Not only is it the birthplace of the Swedish witch hunt that took place in the 16th century but, significantly, the community has also managed to preserve a unique language variety; Älvdalska (Elfdalian) – an ancient language with strong links to Old Norse; the language once spoken by the Vikings.

None of Älvdalen’s neighbouring villages have a similar language or accent and they are all unable to understand the vernacular. Scientists believe that the language has survived because of the community’s long-term isolation, but how it has managed to persist to this day remains an unsolved mystery.

Some 3,000 people in Älvdalen speak Älvdalska but only about 45 of these are teenagers. Today, the community of Älvdalen is dealing with the threat of the extinction of their language in an unusual way. Knowing that the key to revitalization is to encourage a new generation of speakers, local authorities in Älvdalen give grants of 6,000 krona (about £600) to young school-leavers of 15 and 16 years old, if they show that they can speak the language.

The community is facing the challenge of how to manage to get its younger generations – teenagers who are often preoccupied with being normal and fitting in – to get interested in local tradition and history. This local initiative of offering grants provide an interesting modern twist of how to preserve tradition in a changing social climate. Globalization and urbanization affect Älvdalen youth, who despite a love for their hometown, struggle with the scant opportunities on offer.

My project focuses on the relationship between generations as a small community negotiates the tensions between modern lifestyles and tradition. But, how could I go about photographing something so abstract as a language? People I met saw Älvdalska as part of their unique identity. The act of speaking play into a larger context of being and of living. The language became my entry point rather than the visual focus as I documented the lives of the young people who had received the local grant and hence been entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the vernacular alive.

This project is also a very personal engagement since Älvdalen has been, and still is, a big part of my life. Important moments of my youth were spent there since my grandparents are both born, and live in Älvdalen. They speak Elfdalian although due to the social stigma that haunted the language for years, they never taught my father nor me and my brothers how to speak it. We also have a log cabin next to the Älvdalen River that has – after having spent the last nine years living abroad – come to signify the notion of my Swedish home.

With this series I also embark on the intimate and introspective challenge to investigate the notion of home.

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MAJA DANIELS studied journalism, photography and sociology. Her work focuses on social documentary and portraiture with an emphasis on human relations in a western, contemporary environment. By using sociology as a frame of research and approach to her photographic work, she finds it a successful combination when trying to focus on the interaction between man and society.

Her work was included in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2011 and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She participated in the 2012 Joop Swart Masterclass organised by World Press Photo and she won second prize in the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards. She was also selected as one of the 2012 and 2011 Magenta Foundations Flash Forward Emerging Photographers and shortlisted for the 2010 PhotoVisura Grant for an outstanding personal photography project. She has exhibited in Paris, London, New York and Bilbao.

Dividing her time between long-term personal projects and commercial work, she is regularly commissioned by the weekly and monthly press. She also collaborates with social scientists in academic projects.

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Watch a video interview with Maja here.