Sebastien Van Malleghem’s photographs can tend to have a darkness to them. In recent years, the Belgium photojournalist has documented his country’s prisons and its police force. In Mexico City, he spent time following embalmers, as they juggled dozens of bodies each day. And in Northern France, he followed the work of a group of doctors and educators treating alcohol and drug addicts.
“My documentary projects often overlap, so I’m always shooting something,” he tells TIME. That something often has a dark undertone – and, a few years back, that darkness started taking a toll on the photographer. “My friends started telling me that I was becoming aggressive, so I took a break from everything and booked a ticket for Iceland.”
That was in 2013. One year earlier, Van Malleghem had been selected for the Halsnøy Kloster Artist Residency in Norway. “I was on a small island where nothing happened and where there was nothing to photograph,” he says. “I just started photographing what I thought was beautiful. I just took photos and didn’t think about what I’d do with it. And that made me happy.”
In Iceland, Van Malleghem was looking to rekindle with that feeling. “I just thought that it went against everything I’ve done before,” he says. “Usually, I photograph in closed-off, tense places. In Iceland, I was going to be a wide-open place where nothing happens.”
Since then, Van Malleghem has visited Iceland eight times. He’s also visited Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Each time, he’s let chance encounters drive him, seeing what happens when he works without a plan. The result is a series of images that invite viewers to travel and discover another side of the Scandinavian region, one that is heavily influenced by Van Malleghem’s own experience.
“The North became my own world,” he says. “The people I met remain shadows in my photographs. There’s a certain amount of mystery, of mysticism.”
While the moodiness that has defined his previous work remains, it feels different for Van Malleghem. “This work is intimate,” he says. “When you stay too long doing the same thing, you start to suffocate and you have to find your own way to deal with it.”
And the North, as he calls it, is Van Malleghem’s way to escape that darkness.