Björn Steinbekk

The fisherman´s wife

Video & photography Björn Steinbekk
TextBjörn Steinbekk
Location 65°08'56.0"N 13°41'12.2"W

Sometimes it is said that raising one child takes a whole village. During the 19th century and early 20th century, this was by all accounts the reality in Iceland. Especially in the villages and towns around the country where fishing was the primary industry and fishermen went out to sea in all kinds of weather and conditions. Sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks, and sometimes, after the arrival of the processing vessels, a month or more at a time.

Yes, being a fisherman was not a family-friendly job in the past, and some might argue it still is. There are countless stories of fishermen who have missed out on events in their children's lives because their job kept them away, or a grumpy captain didn't want to go ashore on a Tuesday because the superstition was such, even though the ship could not take hold one more ton of cod or capelin. 

All of us in Iceland who came of age during the second half of the last century have this image of the Icelandic fisherman. A rough-looking male with a giant ink cluster of something on his forearm that once was a good idea for a tattoo in some basement in Bremerhaven or Grimsby, but the salty North Atlantic Ocean has almost washed off during all the windy and wet encounters off the coast of Iceland. 

This is the same fisherman who came home early in the morning after a long tour, gave his kids a kiss when he met them when leaving for school, and possibly had a moment with his wife, between the sheets and the mattress, before heading back out on the ocean that evening, after eating a rack of lamb with browned potatoes, green beans, red cabbage, and brown gravy, and if he knew a smuggler or two, one strong Elephant beer was opened during dinner, to soften him up while the ship made it‘s way to the fishing grounds. 

  Fortunately, times have changed. Tribal tattoos and then half sleeves are now on fishermen's arms and it is frowned upon if someone goes out on the deck to smoke

Today, fishermen off the coast of Iceland receive snaps, DMS, and Facebook messages while waiting for on the captain, who uses modern technology and frequencies to decide how to scoop up hundreds of tons of capelin or after wrapping up the last catch, they head up to the living room were they call their wives or girlfriends on Facetime while waiting for the captain to get light on the third sensor on the fishing net which is hopefully, full of cod, haddock or perch, which is what the CEO wanted them to fish, based on the quota status and current market price.

On land and in the town and villages, the fisherman's wives have thrown away deep-frying potts and aprons. They are working and have their own carrier‘s,  like Agnes, an employee at the pharmacy in Neskaupstaður with ambitions to study more when Júlía, Elísa, and Móa get a little older. Yes, Agnes Björk Sæberg is the wife of a fisherman, but not necessarily a fisherman's wife. She is the one that keeps the household at Marbakki in Neskaupstadur, together while her husband, Jóhann Óli Ólafsson, chases capelin and herring on board Beitir NK 123. 


Even though the times are different, especially after the arrival of mobile phones and the internet, and the ships and facilities aboard have been modernized, most fishermen admit their guilt towards their families due to their job and the absence they endure. This feeling is always more tangible when Jóhann has nothing to do onboard, and his mind drifts home. 


At the same time, hundreds of nautical miles away, under the Nipa mountain that shapes Nordfjord from the north, it is serenity and love that is on Agnes's mind because when you get to know her, you know that in her and Jóhann's marriage, the glass is always half full or more.