ColourMyPast is a collection of historical photographs of the Sámi people. Per Ivar Somby, author (“People Under the Northern Lights”) and IT specialist, created this Instagram account to share this little-known and misinterpreted part of history. The Sámi, indigenous Europeans, have a rich heritage and originally inhabited the Sápmi Northern European region, a territory that includes portions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Pursuing his interest in his own roots, Somby learned how to colourize historical black and white images. ColourMyPast has almost 9,000 followers, and Somby hosts events in his hometown in Norway to show the Sámi culture in color. Through social media Somby has helped others connect to their ancestry. He has highlighted both the beauty of Sámi culture and the struggles that the marginalized group has faced. Learn more about Somby, ColourMyPast, and Sámi culture in our interview.
Where does your interest in Sápmi history come from?
Sápmi’s history is also my history. As a Sámi, I have always been
interested in my family’s history, and that include also the story of
What captivates you the most about the culture?
It’s actually the fact that the culture has survived through harsh
suppression for over 100 years, but still has managed to keep language
and traditional cultural life, art, and music alive.
Why did you start collecting antique photos and colourizing them?
I have been familiar with old anthropologic photos of Sámi people from
the 19th century since I was a child, and also been told that some of
these people were my ancestors. When I re-discovered many of these
images on the Internet a few years back, I felt that I wanted to know
more about my ancestors, and get some kind of connectivity with them.
As gray and ghostly figures I did not get to know them as they
possibly were, so when I discovered a colourized photo of Abraham
Lincoln on a site, a photo that was so well presented in colors that
it looked like a colour photo, I decided that I wanted to face my
great grandfather in the same way.
What are the most exciting experiences that you have had as you
research and work with history?
I share my colorized photos in Facebook groups and Instagram, and
meet an engagement from other Sámi people that feel a proudness that
has been uncommon in Sámi communities because of the suppression we
have encountered as the eldest European native people.
Together we learn more about our story through the last centuries, by
sharing stories, photos, and find common ancestors.
Why did you decide to create your book “People Under the Northern Lights”?
At first I made local photo exhibitions with another enthusiast. We
met a high engagement among both Sámi people and other local people,
that to me was a little surprising. They wanted to see more, and many
had not managed to come to these exhibits.
So I decided to take these photos from the exhibits, colour up some
more from this sequence from this particular photographer – Sophus
Tromholt, through the years 1882 to 1883 – and publish it in a book for
all to see. And it also meant something to me personally, as many of
the people presented in this book, are my ancestors.
What is the colourizing process like? How do you convert images from black and white to colour?
If possible, I do research on museum sites on traditional clothing. Then I adjust the gray tones in the photo to fix the errors in the camera’s orthocromatic style. Then I add the colours. I guess them all, but have some leading clues. After coloring, I adjust the photo’s toning, white balance and contrasts, in general.
You mentioned one photographer whose images you colorize (Sophus Tromholt). Are there any other notable photographers who photographed the Sámi people?
Many anthropologists that did racial biologic studies took photographs. Though their actions are not considered good work today, their photos are often very well done. I mention here the French anthropologist Prince Roland Bonaparte and his photographer G. Roche (1884), and the Italian anthropologists Paolo Mantegazza and Stephan Sommier (1879-1885). A woman, Lotten von Düben photographed in Sweden, the Sami people there, while her husband Gustav did research on the Sami people (1868-1872).
Other photographers in Norway, like Anders Beer Wilse, Knud Knudsen, Johan Erik Wickstrøm and Lars Larsen Ingulfsvand are among the ones I find interesting.
What do you want the world to know about Sapmi culture?
They need to know that we exist, that native people exist in Europe,
and that we, as a white people also have met the same type of racism
and suppression that coloured people has experienced through European
colonialism around the world through the last centuries.
Where can people purchase your book “People Under the Northern Lights”?
Learn more at Instagram.com/colourmypast