Northern soul: How Iceland's eco-village could teach us all how to live more self-sufficiently

An isolated community in the south-west of Iceland, Solheimar was founded 80 years ago as the world's first eco-village. It is sustainable, it is self-sufficient – and it's also tackling prejudice. For the majority of residents have mental-health issues – and they could teach the rest of us a thing or two about how to live

Simon Usborne
Sunday 18 August 2013 00:27

Iceland, 50 miles east of Reykjavik, lies an isolated village where a large number of residents have mental-health problems. Yet Solheimar is also a sustainable, self-sufficient community – a sanctuary, a farm, a home. This potential paradox drew the focus of Mariann Fercsik, a London-based photographer. If people whom modern society expects to be dependent can thrive independently, what might they teach the rest of us?

"I wanted to see how these people lived," Fercsik says. "I went there not knowing what to expect but thinking, if they can live a fully sustainable life like this, then why can't we? What I found touched me deeply and I left wondering who had the learning difficulties, them or us."

Solheimar, or "home of the sun", has existed quietly in south-west Iceland for more than 80 years, a community decades ahead of its time and, by some accounts, the world's first true eco-village. Founded in 1930 by Sesselja Sigmundsdottir, a pioneering teacher with a passion for nature, organic farming and the welfare of disabled people, it has grown slowly since to house 100 residents, who also include the unemployed and the formerly imprisoned.

Sigmundsdottir, who died in 1974 but remains a well-known figure in Iceland, noted in 1928 her plans for a new kind of community, with "a large farm with many animals, a stream, k a waterfall, and hot springs" as well as workshops for producing textiles, books and furniture. A co-operative idyll without doors.

Fercsik, who is 32 and grew up in Budapest, heard about Solheimar several years ago from a friend who worked with disabled people in Scotland, and had been on exchange in Iceland. Intrigued, the photographer vowed one day to go there, in the meantime returning to Hungary to document a disappearing rural village with very different fortunes, where just 10 people still lived.

Last summer, Fercsik finally had the opportunity to visit Solheimar for three weeks, first getting to know its residents, befriending many, and then photographing them and their unusual surroundings. She became closest to Jola, a 63-year-old hippie from Poland. "She'd come from a wealthy background and moved to Iceland with her husband," says Fercsik. "They'd had a farm but divorced, and Jola suffered with physical disability and alcoholism. In Solheimar, she changed her lifestyle and was happy again."

Fercsik's own stay at Solheimar was not without its challenges. While the community is far from closed to outsiders, and welcomes tourists and volunteers, its leaders were wary of the photographer's intentions. She in turn wondered about the emotional isolation of some residents, who had little awareness of a world beyond the greenhouses and fields around the village, and the role of the church at its heart.

Fercsik left satisfied, however, that any flaws were tempered by the good achieved within and without a community that has close ties to Iceland's government and its broader approach to disabled people, and has survived recent economic eruptions in Reykjavik. Such protection of comparable services for disabled people has been less sure elsewhere, not least in Britain.

Photographs of Solheimar might, Fercsik hopes, put faces to statistics and raise awareness of the challenges in many communities like it. Naturally, tackling prejudice is key. "I took a photo of a guy who was carrying two balls," she recalls. "He was called Leifur and I needed to find a way to get him to sign a release form for permission to use his photos. I approached him and thought, I'm going to have problems here, but when I asked he nodded, and said he could do it. We sat down and he wrote clearly, and included his email address and Facebook account, his date of birth. He understood exactly what the release was for. I left thinking, this is not a mentally disabled person. The encounter taught me as much about Leifur and the place as it did myself and what we all think about other people."

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