Vemödalen: The Fear That Everything Has Already Been Done

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a web series of invented words with the self-described mission to “fill all the holes left in the language and give them each a name.” If it sounds poetic, that’s because it is. The videos produced by author, designer and “video guy” John Koening are narrated with somber poetry that aims to “capture the aches, demons, vibes, joys and urges that roam the wilderness of the psychological interior.” One recent entry into The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is especially relevant to photographers and videographers. Vemödalen: The fear that everything has already been done.

The author gives a more detailed definition of the word in the video's description:

vemödalen - n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.

The video is constructed of 465 independently photographed images, captured by different photographers on different days. The striking thing about the video is that the images, shown in quick succession, are nearly identical to one another. When presented in such a form, it is hard to deny the author’s premise: that little of what we photograph is actually original.

While they may have chosen easy subjects to construct the video, the point still holds true for much of what we do. As photographers, we must face the fact that there are thousands of us out there doing similar, if not identical, things with our cameras. If we ever believe that we have taken a truly original photograph, then it is likely that we just haven’t looked hard enough to find a similar one. But for many photographers, this concept of striving to produce original imagery is fundamental to their approach to photography. Is it naïve of them? Is this directive for “true originality” misguided? The conclusion of the video’s author seems to be “yes” — but not in a bad way. Rather than despair in our inability to achieve originality, the author seems to say that we should embrace our similarity to our fellow humans and accept our work to be unoriginal contributions to a still-beautiful collective product of humanity.

The skeptic that I am, I always take such poetic monologues that play on emotions with an edge of suspicion. Often a rational or philosophical truth can be obscured by romanticized language. Nevertheless, the question tackled in this video is one that we should think about and draw our own conclusions on, as it is a question that many of us routinely face as photographers today.

You can follow the ongoing project on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows website.

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AL T's picture

The video loses a bit of power because of how they rotated the images. You lose a bit of the composition and framing, which can make a photo more unique.

Jonathan Ferland-Valois's picture

That's very true. I think this is in big part because we all live in the same world, we have access to the same, or to very similar, subjects to photograph. But I think there are solutions to that. One can find things that no one else ever saw. But that's extremely difficult. One could also use compositing to produce images that don't exist in real life, making an image of a reality that only exists in one person's imagination (but granted, a lot of what we imagine has already been imagined too).

Kristoffer Sandven's picture

Interesting thoughts, for sure. The thoughts and visions we once thought were unique, are also someone else's. It has probably always been this way - but today I can have access to the images and thoughts of a photographer or writer in Indonesia, or Argentina or Greenland. And they might all say the same thing. Does that really matter? The important thing for me is the process. The process of doing, learning, creating - and what it does for me as a person. Is the result important?

On another note: I don't see where he came up with that word - Vemödalen ;)
In Scandinavian languages, Dalen means "The valley". And "Vemö" is not a word, but resembles a name for an island (ö meaning island). "Ve" means "woe" and "Vemodig" means melancholic in Norwegian - which works with the term he's invented. Would be interesting to see the reasoning behind the words he come up with.

Philip Vukelich's picture

That's really interesting. Some of the other words seem to have some kind of root meanings to them that match (somewhat) his definitions. The linguistics behind it would be interesting to know for sure. Thanks for your contribution to the analysis of the word!

Frank King's picture

This is a very interesting concept and I think the ideas behind this video are best explained in a ted talk by Kirby Ferguson.( ) I would love to see more about movement in art on Fstoppers.