The first time I visited Iceland was in the spring of 2016. Like many who have been there, I was completely blown away by its wild beauty. I was certain that I would return someday, but seeing the influx of geotags and the explosion of international tourism made me question my desire to visit again. I wanted to make sure that the next time I went, I was going to do something different, something that would give me more insight into the country itself, that would combine multiple perspectives … Two years after my initial visit, I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a man called the Volcano Pilot.
I was scrolling through Instagram when I found him. His given name is Haraldur Diego, and he is a pilot and photographer from Iceland. It didn’t take me long to realize that he would become my motivation to return to the country. I emailed him to pitch the idea of documenting his life for two weeks, and he replied promptly but, as expected, was on guard. I couldn’t blame him. When a complete stranger from another country emails you and essentially asks to stalk you for two weeks, you have the right to be suspicious.
After emailing back and forth for a while, we reached an understanding, and he agreed to the project. He only had one condition: no assholes. As he said it, “Life’s too short to spend it with people who don’t treat you well.”
Suddenly, the idea had turned into a 10-day trip scheduled for February.
To prepare for this project, Haraldur and I had multiple meetings over Skype to discuss specifics and, also, to get to know each other a bit more. Although it’s easier to say this after the fact, I could genuinely tell from our first interaction that he was an extremely kind and easy-going man. It was clear that he cared a lot about the treatment of others and ensuring that everyone was on the same page.
As I soon learned, Haraldur Diego is 45 years old and resides in Reykjavik. He lives in a home with his partner Gunnur, his daughter, his two sons, and — last but not least — his well-trusted assistant/dog Skuggi. His biggest joy and greatest passion come from flying high over Iceland and showing people the country from above. He achieves this through an initiative he helped found, called AOPA, which is comprised of pilots and mechanics from various backgrounds. The members of AOPA share a common space — as well as planes — and work together to help everyone practice what they love the most: flying. But aside from planes, Haraldur’s second love is photography — though his favorite thing to do is link pilots and photographers together to create different depictions of Iceland’s stunning landscapes.
So, it was no surprise that I wasn’t the only one who wanted to meet him. Many amazing photographers and artists have reached out to Haraldur to experience his stunning perspective of Iceland — and that list of names includes photographers that I’ve admired and looked up to for a long time. Learning this made me realize how small the sub-communities of photography can be.
My aim with this project was to showcase stories that pass us by on a daily basis. I wanted to remind people why their everyday routine is interesting, at least to others who might not be so used to it. When I reached out to Haraldur, he couldn’t understand why I would want to make this project about him. Although I can understand the feeling that the stories we live day in and day out are nothing special, I wanted to show him that his story was incredible to me. And I wanted to help him tell that story louder. In my eyes, this is the only way we can learn and facilitate understanding across borders. And it’s how Haraldur gifted me the most important lesson from my stay in Iceland — the importance of perspective.
When flying, you are able to view things from above. But there’s another view. Haraldur explained this to me before we even took off, but I didn’t understand it fully until we were up in the air. When you’re flying, you are able to see everything as a whole, causing you to feel small and humbled by the scale of it all. And I’m not the only person who’s experienced this — Haraldur said it’s how most people he flies with feel as well. It’s difficult to put this into words, but it’s as if someone is reminding you how insignificant and how significant you are at the same time. Seeing this reaction is one of Haraldur’s favorite aspects of flying with new passengers. It’s also why he rarely flies alone anymore. He sees this perspective as something that needs to be shared, and also as a reminder of how beautiful his homeland truly is. It helps him remember why Iceland is a place that he should never take for granted.
Although I initially thought I was going to Iceland to tell the story of Haraldur, I quickly realized that it had much more to do with how humans can share and learn from one other. We can all pick out small gems from one another’s lives and learn to pay attention to the elements in our own lives that so often pass us by because we’ve deemed them commonplace.
Haraldur inspired me more than I could ever explain.
But what I’m most grateful for is that he is someone I can now call my friend.