Cecilia Blomdahl stands in the entrance area of her cabin and pans the camera to reveal a body of water that glitters in the light of the midnight sun. In the distance you can just make out the seven glaciers that make up them can see from her living room. Blomdahl typically begins TikTok with a friendly introduction: “My name is Cecilia and I live on Spitzbergen, an island near the North Pole,” she says with the practiced expression of a long-time innkeeper. She sprinkles little things over the long days of the Arctic, while an electronic track from Kina Beats is playing in the background.
Blomdahl, a self-taught photographer and videographer, has lived on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard for five years. Since her first post in October, she has gained a million followers and 15 million likes on the app, and has delighted viewers with everything from drone footage of the vastness of the tundra to explanatory videos about life in the Arctic.
For viewers who have been in quarantine for a year, Blomdahl’s TikToks offer more than just an escape into a world untouched by COVID-19 (Svalbard is one of the few places where a case has never been reported) or a calming antidote to doomscrolling. They also offer a surprising sense of familiarity and allow us to practically immerse ourselves in the lifestyle of a person who has made the most of their time in an isolated setting not very different from the social isolation we all fell into during the pandemic.
Originally from Sweden, Blomdahl spent part of her youth in Ireland and has since lived around the world while attending school and working in luxury hotels. In 2015 she moved to Svalbard with her then partner to manage the reservations department of a restaurant for just a few months, but she soon fell in love with the island. Due to the lack of a visa requirement, Svalbard – long a center for Arctic exploration, coal mining and research – has attracted an international population of residents sandwiching between several Months and several decades. You are a group of people who may be braver, more independent, and ready for a good challenge than most. When Blomdahl and her partner separated and he moved away, she stayed because of the work-life balance, community, and adventure that the island offered.
Blomdahl now works part-time in a clothing store and lives with her current partner, whom she met on her first job on Svalbard. Because housing is difficult to find, they bought a cabin with no running water outside Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost settlement with 2,368 inhabitants.
(Photo: Courtesy Cecilia Blomdahl)
Although she has had an Instagram profile for years, she focused on building her social media presence after moving to Svalbard. A self-proclaimed techie, Blomdahl took an interest in photography when she picked up a drone in 2017 and was instantly fascinated by the aerial view of the island. “It’s like a live video game,” she says.
She bought a camera, taught herself how to take photos, and posted her first attempts at capturing the northern lights on Instagram. Her work was slowly picking up momentum, but it didn’t really take off until she opened a TikTok account last fall. One of her first posts about what she sees while walking at 3 p.m. during the polar night went viral. “She realized that she had a kind of niche in Svalbard,” says her younger sister Camille. “She took it to the next level with the drones.”
Since then, Blomdahl has caught onlookers’ attention with tours of the tundra, where we admire landmarks like the Aurora Borealis and the Global Seed Vault deep in permafrost, and where we hold over a million seed samples for future generations. It documents seals, reindeer and a population of polar bears that exceeds the human population on Svalbard.
Blomdahl expected most viewers to yearn for this adventurous content, but was initially surprised by how many followers asked about their everyday lives. A quick scroll through a TikTok’s comment section about shipping packages reveals a chorus of feelings like “I can’t imagine living without Amazon Prime!” Many viewers aren’t that interested in snowmobiling or glacier hiking. They want to know if she’s going to the movies or what she’s eating.
So Blomdahl delivers behind the scenes footage. We learn how she wears expedition pants, thermals and a firearm (required in Svalbard as protection from polar bears) to guide her wonderfully fluffy Finnish Lapphund Grim in a snow storm. We escort them to the local supermarket to stock up on groceries at exorbitant prices (an avocado is $ 4). She shows us where to grab a snack (a taco truck) and what color she chose for her latest manicure (orange).
Over the winter, I stumbled across Blomdahl’s profile. At the time, she’d only posted a handful of videos that I immediately scrolled through and sat on the couch in a cramped New York apartment, a world away from indoor dining and outdoor adventures, wondering why I was so intrigued by her work .
Blomdahl believes their videos are popular because they are presented in viewable packages. She spends a lot of time trying to find music that fits the vibe and sticks to a format she established early on: Many videos start with slow-motion natural material and include a montage in the middle. “I want to be a positive corner on the internet,” she says. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people who say that my videos help with their anxiety and that they find it super peaceful to watch.”
She also suspects that her videos are attractive because they are different from what you might expect – she’s just a normal person living in an unusual place. She offers us familiar entry points into an exciting world by showing how she decorates her cabin with fairy lights or prepares her morning cup of coffee. It models the appeal of a self-structured lifestyle.
Do you remember the era of sourdough bread starters? Hut core? Foraging? Homestead? Those hobbies that emerged during the pandemic were about creating meaning through self-reliance when so much was taken away, including routines that provide structure and socialization. When Blomdahl started producing TikTok videos in 2020, they seemed perfectly suited to our new DIY age. She says that doing things herself gives her a sense of achievement – whether it’s racing around on her turbo snowmobile, hiking in the mountains with a shotgun on her back, or fishing in the summer. “That just strengthens me,” she says. “I feel so free and I feel so capable.” By inviting the viewer into this world, Blomdahl makes a meaningful life in an isolated environment seem simple and normalizes a lifestyle that appears extreme to many.
Of course, living in the Arctic comes with some challenges, and I asked Blomdahl about them on a Zoom call. She says she takes vitamin supplements and has a strict sleep schedule to help maintain a sense of normalcy during the polar night, which lasts 24 hours a day for two and a half months. But it also doesn’t hurt that she has had the privilege of choosing this lifestyle, where she sees sacrifices as a worthwhile compromise for the incredible prospect.
For those of us who haven’t had this freedom of choice lately, Blomdahl has some realizations as a person who has lived in relative isolation for several years. Enduring the polar night may not seem like the most relatable experience, but it is a time of year that forces you to actively think about how you spend your time and find meaningful moments. “You focus on different things that you normally wouldn’t do,” she says. Blomdahl has learned to focus on what each extreme season has to offer and to put her luck into little things like starting the day with a cup of coffee.
(Photo: Courtesy Cecilia Blomdahl)
When I was in quarantine last winter, I lit candles and hanging lights in every corner of the apartment. Watching Blomdahl’s videos enabled me to live vicariously through someone who had successfully found the joyful moments I hoped to emulate in my own space. Ultimately, it teaches us to take the time to find joy and adventure in everyday life, be it cooking for a loved one, spending virtual time with friends, or turning your living room into a sacred space.
Perhaps surprisingly, the polar night has become Blomdahl’s favorite season. The extreme circumstances of this dark season create a bond throughout the village that encourages social activities such as art festivals and snowmobiling. It’s not dissimilar to how life, through the unique experience of the pandemic and watching people around us have monumental challenges, may have strengthened relationships among family members, partners, or friends in a COVID pod.
“I would say the whole village, it feels like we’re one because we’re all going through this polar night together,” says Blomdahl. “It’s just so private in a strange way. It’s like our own little universe. ”By sharing this microcosm on TikTok, she welcomes us into this circle and enables us to become an extension of a community that previously seemed like a world far away.
Main Photo: Courtesy of Cecilia Blomdahl