Home can be an elusive concept, especially when home means two island states with a combined population smaller than that of D.C.’s Ward 8. For photographer Benjamin Rasmussen, whose work is on view at Anacostia’s Gallery at Vivid Solutions, home means some of the least accessible places on Earth.
Rasmussen grew up at the westernmost edge of the Philippines archipelago: Balabac, an island that divides the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, a hidden place home to fishers and farmers and, for a time, the Moro National Liberation Front. His father’s family hails from a similarly remote place: the Faroe Islands, a Danish protectorate that sits halfway between Iceland and Norway, an archipelago whose Viking-descended inhabitants assemble in the summer for the grindadráp, a ritual slaughter of pilot whales. Easily the most urban place Rasmussen ever hung his hat during his formative years was rural Wyoming, where he met his wife.
Rasmussen now lives and works in Denver, but it’s his experiences in the wild that he taps for “Home,” an exhibit that plays up the exoticism of each of these places while also nesting them in the comfortable framework of nostalgia. Rasmussen’s principal effect in “Home” is depicting how life in the Faroe Islands is different from, say, Vienna, Va. One example is a breathtaking 2011 photo of Kvívík—a Faroe village nestled in a valley against an inlet sea, a hamlet whose thatched grass roofs and colorful four-square homes are as dramatic as they are inviting. “The Oldest Village,” the piece is titled. It’s romantic, but also pat: It could just as easily be a shot for National Geographic.
Elsewhere in the show, Rasmussen gives us signs of life to drive home that this is his lived experience, including photos of an Easter-egg toss in Meriden, Wyo., and another of village kids horsing around in Balabac. Candid moments make these photographs feel remote, like memories captured in snapshots—but they are presented at a scale that undoes their intimacy. That’s the real struggle in this exhibit: The large prints promise tactile detail and signal authorial remove, whereas “home” is a construct made of memory, nostalgia, and longing. He’s giving us the Faroe Islands and Balabac and rural Wyoming, unfiltered. Home is anything but unfiltered.
To say that Rasmussen’s work is impersonal doesn’t quite get it right, though. He works to be personal about place, sometimes in a hamfisted way, such as with the projection of his uncle’s Super 8 home movies that accompanies the show. But in exposing his memories of the past through the clinical modern vocabulary of large-scale color prints, Rasmussen’s work says to the viewer, “This close, but no closer.”