See the Norwegian Town at the Center of a UFO Mania

3 minute read

Hessdalen, a valley in the Norwegian countryside, isn’t in the pristine north or by the magnificent fjords in the west. It’s, in fact, an unremarkable place of scrubby, low-lying hills; a former mining center that has slipped into depression and depopulation. It is unremarkable — except for the strange and unexplained lights.

They appear in the sky, moving slowly, separating and reforming, winking in and out. At other times they shoot down the valley and disappear, or simply switch on for a moment and vanish. I know what you’re thinking — but there’s video footage.

Word of the phenomena didn’t leave this tight-knit, insular community for quite a while. But in December 1981, the lights shone brighter, outsiders took notice, and the press descended.

The town attracted both legit scientists and spectators from across Europe. “Most people are [just] enthusiasts,” Norwegian photographer Ivar Kvaal tells TIME, “but I have also met the oddball fanatic. It’s divided. Most of the villagers are sane and honest.”

Kvaal says that “some of the villagers have hopes of making some money from UFO tourism. They tried to run a small gift shop, but it had to close. Now you can get souvenirs at the local pub, when it’s open.” Mostly, what the town has gotten is ridicule, which made it especially hard for Kvaal to gain people’s trust.

Theories for these occurrences abound: the light comes from ionized gases in the atmosphere, or ball lightning, or decaying radon. The earth itself is acting like a giant battery — which some say could be tapped for clean energy. And, of course, others believe these are aliens.

Kvaal isn’t interested in any of these theories. He’s never seen the lights himself. “I’m interested in how the lights have affected the community and the people,” he says.

This is instead, as Mark Durant writes of the work, “a meditation on the human desire to experience the otherworldly.”

Through a mixture of documentary photos, archival material, still lifes and portraits of believers, Kvaal creates a quiet but suggestive series about, in Durant’s words, “one of those forlorn frontiers where the mysterious and the desperate coincide to produce a new culture of wonder and paranoia.”

One of those frontiers where belief precedes evidence, and where the truth is always just around the corner.

Ivar Kvaal is a photographer based in Oslo.

Myles Little is an associate photo editor at TIME.

Film still from the documentary "The Portal: The Hessdalen Light Phenomenon" (2009). Directed by Terje Toftenes
Film still from the documentary "The Portal: The Hessdalen Light Phenomenon" (2009). Directed by Terje Toftenes
Starscape, Hessdalen. February 2013Ivar Kvaal
Starscape, Hessdalen. September 2013Ivar Kvaal
Abandoned barn in Hessdalen. February 2013Ivar Kvaal
Jan Moen inside Pålsgruva, Hessdalen. Scientists from the University of Bologna think that matter in the ground below Hessdalen could store energy in the same way as a battery. Ivar Kvaal
Boxes of equipment at a science camp in Hessdalen organized by the University College of Østfold, Norway.Ivar Kvaal
A weather-proofed time-lapse camera at Science Camp 2013 in Hessdalen.Ivar Kvaal
UFO spotter Wiebe Postma from the Netherlands. September 2013.Ivar Kvaal
Clipping from Adresseavisen newspaper, December 28, 1982 which reads "TV-crew from the USA in Hessdalen"
Clipping from VG (Verdens Gang) newspaper, March 22, 1983 which reads, "NORWAY PARALYZED by UFO Fears"
Archival image of the phenomenon taken by Roar Wister on, February 18, 1984, at 8:18pm.
Archival image showing two moving lights over Finnsåhøgda, Hessdalen. Photographer unknown.
The official Hessdalen UFO pin, in the hand of the salesman. June 2014.Ivar Kvaal
UFO witness Ingmar Lillevold. September 2012.Ivar Kvaal
An engineer from Italy's National Institute of Astrophysics holds a portable VLF receiver. September 2012.Ivar Kvaal
Ruth Mary Moe, longtime resident of the valley, made these observations of the shape and locations of what she believes was a UFO.Ivar Kvaal
Drawing on a car. June 2012.Ivar Kvaal
Hessdalen, light summer rain. June 2013.Ivar Kvaal
A stream of water running from the mine in Hessdalen. June 2013.Ivar Kvaal

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