Q&A: Paul Hoi's Psychedelia: Polaroids from Iceland

Paul Hoi is a photographer that moved to the United States at the age of nine. The "absence of a grounded sense of a home" has in turn given Paul an intense desire to explore and interpret the world around him. He is interested in transience and its complicated effects on one's relationship to their revolving surroundings - a relationship simultaneously colored by grief, mystery and wonder.  Experimenting with various digital and analogue processes, he strives to create images stylistically inspired by a cross of psychedelic sci-fi pulp covers and the angst of neon-soaked noir. He currently is residing in Oakland, CA, where he works part-time shifts and side hustles to fund his photo trips.

Over the course of two weeks in 2014, Paul explored Iceland through the legendary Ring Road, which connects, from one quiet settlement to the next, the entirety of the Nordic country.  Traveling alone through the immensely diverse micro-climates and driving late into the night, he woke up each morning in places that looked and felt wholly unrecognizable from the day before. His series is titled, "Psychedelia: Polaroids from Iceland". Connect with Paul on his website!

Paul, give us a brief description of your photography background and career.
 I’m a photographer and illustrator based out of Oakland.  I’m interested in nature and desolate landscapes in my photographs, but less from a documentary angle than the effects the landscapes have on the viewer and photographer. I learned to shoot on a DSLR and picked up my first instant camera last year.

What sparked your interest in traveling to the Ring Road? What made you decide to travel there?
Taking pictures in Iceland is almost cheating - it’s just gut-wrenchingly beautiful everywhere.  There’s a waterfall every ten minutes on the side of the road, and you’ll find life in the most remote parts of the highlands.  And if your budget and time-frame allows, the Ring Road is a great way to get around - it virtually connects every settlement and city throughout the country.  From a personal perspective, I work at a job that requires me to speak and smile to hundreds of people a day.  I knew I wanted to go somewhere remote that’d also allow me to pour my heart into creating something, preferably while frowning.  Scandinavian demeanors in mind, Iceland is a great place to frown as I wished.

You series was shot with all instant film. What made you come to that decision?
The look of Polaroids also work well for a style I’m aspiring toward - a cross between neo-noir and old sci-fi covers.  In a practical sense, instant film can be pricey mistakes, so it's forced me to slow me and become more disciplined with my approach.

How did you plan for this trip logistically? What type of cameras and film did you bring abroad?
I planned  - and hustled very hard - for a few months.  I researched and jotted down places and sights I’d really like to go before marking the locations on a map.  I then thought about the time-frame and budget I had before cutting out the less intriguing places that didn’t seem to be compatible with the rest of the locations.  I knew I wanted to do the Ring Road, so I rented a car.  When my flight got in Keflavik, I picked up my rental car and slept in the parking lot in downtown Reykjavik before hitting the road the next morning.  I slept in it for a week and a half while chasing after the markings on the map, occasionally setting up a tent nearby.  It was a roomy 4x4, so it was pretty comfortable.

Were the weather conditions/climates varied? How did the varying temperatures of the places you visited effect your work?
It was really wet, especially the Western part of the country.  If it’s not raining, it looked like it’d just rained.  If it’s sunny, it could start raining half an hour later.  With the rain and wind, the messiness of condensation, adjustment to development times, changing lenses, stacking filters, loading film, tabs breaking were all little challenges that you just learn to deal with as you go.  And you learn quick if you’re traveling on your own. The changing climates had a pretty big impact on my photographs  I was waking up to a different place every morning, which on its own already blur the days together.  On top of extremely fickle microclimates that seem to change every hour, a day can sometimes feel like many, and I’d get confused about how many days have passed.  I’d sometimes wake up in the morning and look through my Polaroids to confirm that I’d really seen the things that I did the day before, or if I’d just dreamt it.  And of course the Polaroids have their strange, dream-like looks, and so using them to confirm what’d happened the days before became a funny echo-chamber, of sorts.  It wasn’t unpleasant or anything, but not having an immediate sense of reference was really weird.  I wanted to convey that feeling of transience and suspension in my work, which I think the expired Polaroids ended up being perfect for.

Did you always plan for the trip to be a solitary escape? Did you have any close calls with nature or other people over the course of your trip?
Going solo has worked out so far, but it’s not a set thing.  It’s just that going on a shoot and going on a vacation are often two very different things, two distinct choices that you make, and most people want a vacation in the traditional sense.  But I am open to going with some people on future trips, especially folks in the middle of making something. I felt safe in the country.  Being on the road on my own took a few days to get used to, but it was fine.  I did get lost for about half an hour in the lava formations around Krafla during a hike because I fell behind on my schedule and got there a bit late.  I ran out of water and it got dark, but the moonrise got bright enough for me to find my path again.  The moon looked incredible that night with the steaming fissures all around me.  It was so rad.  I won't ever forget that.

Your images leave the viewer with a sense of mystery and surrealism. These places could be anywhere in the world. What did you want the viewer to take away from these images?
Hey, thanks.  I’m less interested in ‘documenting’ Iceland than creating images that could work on their own, so that makes me happy.  That said, I hope some the tensions and dream-like suspension that I felt throughout the trip come through in my pictures.

Tell us about how you capture your images. Did you walk or drive to any specific subjects planned in advance for shooting? Or were the locations presented all spontaneously captured?
Yeah.  I had a map with markings of places and sights that I wanted to shoot.  If I don’t have some fixation on specific places, it’s really easy for me to get off-track, linger around and become exhausted.  I went to a lot of off-roads that interested me along the way, but as far as knowing when and where I needed to be in order to finish my series, preparation was really important.

Anything else you would like to share or elaborate on?
Be respectful to service workers in the tourist industry when you’re traveling.  They put up with abusive idiots on a daily basis, and are still there doing the same thing and answering the same questions long after you leave. A hundred thanks to my friends and family who have been supportive, for having my back.  You all rule.  And thanks to Pryme Mag for having me.