Interview: Cancer Survivor Travels to Idyllic Iceland to Explore the Human Condition

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography innocently damaged

Innocently Damaged

In his captivating series, Understanding Human – Iceland, Philadelphia-based fine art photographer Kory Zuccarelli explores the essence of what it means to be human. Using atmospheric Iceland's lush landscape as his backdrop, Zuccarelli tells visual stories inspired by his own personal experiences and the obstacles he has faced.

Each enchanting photograph features a model—sometimes, Zuccarelli himself—elegantly posing in wild nature. Characterized by a rocky coastline, mossy terrain, and everlasting twilight, the series' scenery conveys a moodiness that aptly complements the serious and somber expressions of its subjects. Though each photographic is aesthetically enchanting, the existence of their back stories culminates in a more powerful and poignant study of the human condition.

We had the opportunity to to speak with Kory about his stunning series. Below, he shares a bit about the inspiration, intent, and process behind both the beautiful project and his practice in general.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography a simpler life

A Simpler Life

What first prompted you to pursue photography? 

When I was in high school, I was battling cancer and there wasn't much that I could do. I was restricted from most public places because I had little to no immune system to fight off any of the most basic of colds. I was being homeschooled while living in a new town, so I sort of was living in this bubble, with few interactions outside of the people that surrounded me, consisting of my family and doctors. I had a lot of time on my hands, but the majority of this time was spent feeling the side effects of my medical treatment.

Photography was something that helped me get out of bed and exercise by walking in the backyard and along the trails we have in the back of the property. I didn't know what exactly I was doing yet, but I knew I wanted to learn, so I would take pictures of everything I could in my short reach. I loved showing my photos to the doctors at the hospital and to anyone who was visiting the house. The recognition and praise really helped me in a low point of my life and having a passion that drew excitement for me was a powerful element to incorporate into my limited routine. Once I was able to return to high school, I looked to do anything photo related by working on photography projects in my art classes (our school didn't have the resources for a photography class or club), working as the photographer for our school newspaper, and taking night classes for early college credit at a nearby community college.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography untamed delusions of a broken heart

Untamed Delusions of A Broken Heart

How would you describe your style, and what inspires it? 

My style of photography is focused on storytelling, whether it's derived from personal experiences or experiences I see the characters in my work reacting to in the painterly, colorful, and sometimes dark and surreal worlds I put them inside of. Before I wanted to be a photographer, I thought I was going to pursue a writing career. I loved creative writing assignments in school and would be consistently filling my notebook with scenes in my head, short stories, sketches, or poems as a way to express myself. After studying the medium and understanding more about the art of photography, I realized I could intertwine my passions for creative writing into the work I was creating.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography let loss reveal what was lost

Let Loss Reveal What Was Lost

Where did the idea for your series, Understanding Human – Iceland, originate?

For a few years, I've been shooting a series of fine art portraits called Understanding Human, and this body of work shot in Iceland is an extension of that. The idea around this series revolves around the aspects of what some like to call the human condition; yearning, hardships, seeking guidance, and self-reflection are some of the characteristics I portray in my work for this ongoing series. I believe Understanding Human started as a way for me to view the world beyond of my personal norm in a visual medium and as an opportunity to think outside of the box when it came to executing some of the concepts and ideas I wanted to express in my photographs.

Why did you choose Iceland as a setting for your work?

The idea to take this series abroad to Iceland started as a suggestion by a close group of friends of mine, we call ourselves “Le Fromagi's” (meaning “The Cheesies”), and live all over the United States and Europe. We had all met on a photography retreat in France, hosted by Brooke Shaden. We all had great chemistry and instantly bonded. After our initial trip, we all knew we wanted to come together again for an epic photo adventure. One by one, we started teasing each other with beautiful locations from all around the world on where we might go next, and we all kept getting drawn in by the beauty and diversity of Iceland. So, on the anniversary of our France retreat, all 18 of us came together again and traveled across the countryside in four RVs like a little family. It was simply amazing.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography a crack in reality

A Crack in Reality

What are some of the stories being told throughout this series?

In Iceland, I came prepared with ideas I wanted to explore in my notebook, but the landscapes also provided bundles of inspiration for new stories that I wanted to tell.

We were on the shores of the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, where giant blue and white boulders of ice decorated the black sand beach for miles. Positioned between the crashing waves and the shoreline was an iceberg that caught my eye. I stared at it as the sky grew darker and pellets of ice and rain fell on me. To my right, some of my friends were walking over from shooting one of their concepts, and I noticed my friend Lieke dressed in one of the gowns we brought along with us, buried beneath the layers of coats and sweaters she was wearing. From that moment, this story of a long-lost love grew in my mind.

The heart of a young woman growing colder as she waits for her one true love to return home, making each passing moment harder for her to keep warm, enduring the elements as the water around her turns into a throne of ice for her to embrace and sit upon. After telling Lieke about the concept, she agreed to pose on the iceberg, but we had to move fast. Not only was the tide coming in, but the temperature was dropping and the sun had almost completely crawled beneath the horizon. Half an hour later, it was dark and the iceberg had been picked up by the tide and brought back out to sea. This was one of those instances where traveling has influenced inspiration that struck me as I explored a new part of the world I was unfamiliar with, helping me produce one of my favorite photographs.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography there she waits on her throne of ice

There She Waits on Her Throne of Ice

Preparing for the trip, I remember sketching out the main idea for another photograph I was looking forward to shooting, Fracturing Conformity. This photograph was shot with the help of Jen Brook (the central model) and Marisa White (the hooded figures), at a point where we all had pulled over to do some shooting on our way to the Eldhraun lava fields.  In this concept, I wanted to highlight how diversity is an important thing to have in a society and that we don't need to be lead by a single point of view our entire lives; that there should be room in this world to grow and evolve.

Similar to this narrative, I shot The Mask is A Lie. This was a self-portrait inspired by a declaration I had written a year prior to myself, about being more honest with myself, stop worrying about the opinions of other people so much and so often, and to remove a facade I had built around myself for others to see.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography fracturing conformity

Fracturing Conformity

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography the mark is the lie

The Mask is the Lie

What role does nature play in this project?

Iceland had been on my bucket list of places to visit for a long time and to have the opportunity to travel there with an amazing group of friends was just icing on the cake. As we explored the country, we would regularly glance at each other and ask if what we were seeing was real. The Icelandic environment is scattered with lava fields, waterfalls, glaciers, and volcanoes; features not commonly found here in the northeast of the United States.

As we drove through the windy countryside, passing by isolated farms and small villages, the nature of the country inspired my friends and myself to create and have fun. The relaxed schedule we had made for ourselves let us take in a deep breath and appreciate the beauty of the landscape surrounding us and the culture of Iceland. This allowed us to really soak in the environment and not stress out about what we were shooting or how much we were creating. Feeling the spongey moss beneath my feet and breathing in the fresh air while thick bulbous clouds rolled overhead helped me to connect with where we were and had a great influence on the work I produced on this trip.

Your photographs have a dreamy, almost surreal feel to them. Did you feel that Iceland's landscape aptly facilitated this aesthetic?

Without a doubt. When I'm creating new images for Understanding Human, I aim to capture the natural beauty of the environment that the characters are interacting with. It's a part of the story, and Iceland fit symbiotically with my aesthetic, providing some of the most beautiful and otherworldly landscapes I've ever seen. There's an abundance of visual pleasures all over the country and I wish I could visit more often. I traveled there near the end of the spring and with the advantage of shooting almost any time of day I wanted. During that time of year, that part of the world only has about 3 dark-hours each day, which I found out also exaggerated the sunsets to last almost double their normal durations compared to back home.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography the prayer of peace

The Prayer of Peace

Did you find shooting in such a rugged environment challenging?

Not particularly! It was a lot of fun and I felt like I was in my element. Most of my work is shot outdoors, so it's more of my preferred environment to work in. We had planned our trip during the warmer season to be more accessible for us to travel around and navigate, though we missed the right time of year to see the northern lights and explore the ice caves. In our RVs, there were some steep hills we crossed and sharp, mountainside turns we had to make, so I do have admiration for my friends who drove. We hiked to waterfalls with photo props and equipment and climbed cliffs to eat birthday cake during the extended twilight hours. And I almost got rammed by a mother sheep while exploring a hillside!

If there was anything to worry about, though, it would be the surprise squalls that would frequently pass by, so having protection for our gear was really our main concern. We also learned that in frigid temperatures, camera/phone battery life is significantly reduced.

You cite your love of adventure as an artistic muse. How has travel influenced your work?

It's always a good idea to come prepared with ideas while traveling, but I never want to let those ideas limit myself from what the environment can sometimes offer up to help tell and express the mood for a story I have in mind. When I'm not shooting personal work, I also work as a traveling photographer, shooting virtual tours for businesses that are integrated into the Google Maps app, through my company, LCP360. This job has allowed me to travel all over the country and I love visiting new areas of my own backyard.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography pause


We can't wait to see more of your beautiful photographs in the future. Do you have any upcoming projects? Are you planning to travel anywhere soon? 

Thank you. I've had a lot of time to plan new ideas and do some creative writing. Soon after my trip to Iceland, I was in a bad accident, involving a driver that was texting and driving. The driver ran me over while I was walking over a crosswalk during a short break I was taking from editing photographs from this trip, which resulted in severe injuries to my leg, ankle, and back that I've spent months now healing and rehabilitating from. This sidetrack has put me on hold more recently, but I'm finally getting back into a place where I can return to more normalcy in my creative process.

The Fromagi's came together again and we traveled to Sedona, Arizona, where I shot a few new images for Understanding Human. I've taken a small step back from releasing new work, but I'm looking forward to working on and sharing new series and individual images later this year. In the meantime, I've been working to have a store on my website prepared to start selling limited edition and special edition prints from the Understanding Human series. There are currently no solid travel plans for me yet, but there is some chatter of an Ohio trip amongst other creative friends I know and some talk about a Portugal trip, too.

understanding human - iceland kory zuccarelli photography

Shot of the group in Iceland

Kory Zuccarelli: Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Behance

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Kory Zuccarelli.

Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.
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