Stuff

The Bizarre Disappearance of Two Men, and the Hysteria That Followed

We had a chat with Jack Latham about his new book on the infamous "Gudmundor and Geirfinnur" case of 1974.

by Bruno Bayley, Photos: Jack Latham / INSTITUTE
13 October 2016, 11:05pm

Reconstruction of Geirfinnur's death, January 23rd, 1977.

Photographer Jack Latham's new book, Sugar Paper Theories, explores the infamous and still tantalising "Gudmundor and Geirfinnur" case, one of Iceland's most perplexing criminal investigations.

The disappearance of two seemingly unconnected men over the course of ten months in 1974 led to widespread conjecture and fear across the then-young nation, and ultimately to a problematic police investigation that resulted in the confession of a group of six young people to the murders of the missing men. The case touched on issues as diverse as Iceland's folkloric elves and 20th century fears of drugs and counterculture. The real issue, however, was that it turned out that none of those who confessed seemed to have any memory of the events in question.

Today the case seems a textbook example of police coercion, false confession, mass hysteria and scapegoating. Latham's book beautifully touches on the case's many aspects – capturing the island's stunning beauty, the murky archival police evidence, the conspiracies that still swirl around the case and the key figures involved. Alongside the photographic aspects of the book is an account of the case written by Gisli Gudjonsson, a forensic psychologist involved in the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four cases, and an expert on false memory.

I spoke with Latham about the project.

Shortly after his retirement in 1996, chief superintendent Gísli Guðmundsson made a formal declaration that, in 1977, he had been prevented from investigating a possible alibi for Sævar for the night of Guðmundur's disappearance.

VICE: How did you come to be so fascinated by the case? I remember reading a BBC feature on it some time ago and finding it fascinating, but clearly your level of engagement is something altogether different.
Jack Latham: I was doing a lot of research at the time into Icelandic folklore, in particular the stories of huldufolk that kidnap people without a trace. I spent some time talking it over with some of my peers, and a friend pointed me in the direction of the case. The BBC piece was a great resource at the start of the project, and it just developed on from there. All the suspects served sentences, were released about a year later and got on with their lives. Public opinion has shifted dramatically since the 70s – the country is now largely aware of what happened to them during the investigation. At the time of me doing this interview the case still hasn't been reopened.

How long did this project take you to complete?
I first started shooting the work in 2014. Actually, VICE followed me around for the first five days to make an episode of Picture Perfect. In December of 2015 I was awarded the Bar Tur Photobook Award, which enabled me to turn the work into a book, but I continued shooting up until June of 2016.

Disappearance #2

From a photographic point of view, what is it about the case that offers so much? I suppose it opens up so many avenues for your work, from the use of archival imagery to portraiture and landscape?
It's an interesting and challenging thing to photograph. I think right at the start I was met with the problem of "photographing the past". A lot of the landscapes and places have changed so much since the time of the arrests that at times it seemed almost impossible to find certain areas. It was only when I started to think more about memories and how details are often misremembered that I used the case files to structure the narrative. It was this grey area of truth and fiction that I set out to make the work – almost retelling a story, the same way the police told the suspects what had happened. With a foundation of truth, but with blurry details.

How did traditional folklore come into the case and the coverage of it? And how did you go about bringing that into the book? It's a peculiarly Icelandic concern to have around a double missing persons case.
Storytelling in Iceland is used as a method to teach children important lessons: the idea of elves kidnapping you during a snowstorm translates to the fact that blizzards are dangerous. It's this idea of storytelling within the culture of Iceland that I initially found so interesting. This case in particular, where six people were told a story under such strenuous conditions that they eventually believed it, I think it holds a certain reminiscence of folklore.

Conspiracy theorist #3

There are a number of portraits of conspiracy theorists in Sugar Paper Theories – are these people still actively working on the case, or were they more opening up their long-sealed archives to you? And what are some of the conspiracies that persist?
Yes, absolutely [they are still working on it]. They've actually become really good friends of mine at this point. To be honest, their conspiracies are so long and detailed you'd really need to know all of the key players to make any sense of it. Even then, some of it is quite out there! It's a really hard case to summarise, unfortunately. There was a moment while making the book that we thought of not using the term "conspiracy theorists", as it has negative connotations. What they have done is truly incredible. Some have spent decades going through case documents, police reports and eyewitness testimonies, to try to piece together what had happened. One of them mentioned to me – which you can see in the VICE video – that my starting on this case is like walking into the woods, and that once I find myself deep enough I'll never be able to find my way out.

I do have my own theories about the case but they are kept close to my chest.

The photos in the book break down into distinct groups – the silver prints of archival images, still lives of evidence and materials, the portraits, the landscapes... Was there anything behind that decision beyond distinctly differentiating the archival images from your own? Was the obfuscation that came with the printing process a reflection of your feeling about the investigation itself?
I think the book's design is largely a reflection of the amount of source material I managed to gather while making the work. When Ben and Harry [from publisher HERE Press] sat down with me for the first time I think they were slightly overwhelmed by the scale of research. Fortunately they are both amazingly dedicated and talented guys, and with the help of [editor] Ruby Russell and Gisli, we were able to make sense of it all. We worked with the conspiracy theorists to curate the newspaper clippings. The archival silver prints were taken directly out of the case files. This idea of faded images was something that kept coming up in conversations while making the work.

To us today this case looks like a textbook example of young, marginal people being forced into false confessions without legal representation. But what was the feeling around those people you spoke to? The key suspects still seem surprisingly reticent about much of what happened, less angry than one might expect. And is there a sense of guilt among those involved in pushing them toward their guilty pleas?
I agree – I think there was a certainly feeling of, "Well, these kids will do." It's actually amazing getting to know them. They are all remarkable in their own ways. Erla, who I'm probably closest to out of them all, is a huge inspiration, and while I wouldn't want to speak for them about them feeling angry or embittered, I just hope that if I'm ever faced with a similar situation in my life I can show the same resilience and courage. I spoke to ex-prison guards and police officers who worked on the case. A few of them acted as whistleblowers, speaking out about the mistreatment of the suspects. I think there is a collective feeling of wanting this case re-examined – it's a mark on the history of Iceland's police force.

What was your aim with the book? Is there an aspect of your wanting to warn people about these sorts of situations, or is the project more anchored in an artistic ideal?
For me, Sugar Paper Theories was an attempt of telling a very complicated case about false memories in a way that reflected the notions of memory. Hopefully the book gets people to engage with the subject matter in a way they wouldn't normally think to. The ultimate goal was to make more people outside of Iceland aware of the case, and it seems to be working.

Gísli Guðjónsson

Do you see the case – and the book, by extension – as having a part of its narrative being general demonisation of youth culture or "others"? It seems relevant that these young people were odd by the standards of their elders, one of Polish extraction, rockers or "longhairs" with criminal records for minor crimes. Or do you see it more as being about a microcosm – this tiny island and its fears?
It certainly played a part. But you have to understand that at the time of the case, Iceland was under strict alcohol laws, and for a very small nation I imagine being different was quite the radical thing. The reason the first chapter in the book is about the cultural landscape of what Iceland was like in the 70s is because only there, during that time, with everything going on in the political and judicial systems, could this happen on such a scale.

The book also includes excerpts from the diary of Gudjon, one of the suspects. This was only made public fairly recently, but his entries seem to clearly illustrate his diminishing faith in his own mind, memory and certainty that he was not involved. How did you come to have access to the diary for the book, and how central to the case do you feel this personal account is?
His diaries were only discovered in the past few years and have had huge implications on the case. Gisli was really key to us reading them. They've only been translated into English, and this is one of first times that the diary entries have been made public. Gudjon became a minister when he left prison, and his churches feature throughout the book. This idea of a red leather-bound diary being discovered: that is the thing that has reignited the case and is something quite poetic. The diary entries in the book are the clearest form of memory distrust syndrome Gisli has ever seen. So the implication of coercion and false memories on the case is huge.

You can buy 'Sugar Paper Theories' from HERE Press, here.

See more photos from the book below:

Kristján #6. Reconstruction of Geirfinnur's death, January 23rd, 1977. "Kristján Viðar shows police how they held Geirfinnur". From original police archive.

Ragnar Aðalsteinsson, the lawyer who launched Sævar's appeal in 1996, now representing Erla and Guðjón.

Police artists made a clay portrait of the man seen at the Harbour Shop on the night of Geirfinnur's disappearance. The head was nicknamed Leirfinnur – "leir" being Icelandic for "clay".

Sighting #2