You work as a photographer in London but you come from the north of Finland. Where does your interest in photography come from? Is it a family passion or just your own thing?
I have always been passionate about the arts but I studied politics and warfare strategy at university before getting into photography – I really wanted to work in conflict management and possibly for the United Nations. I think it was during that time I realised I might want to be more creative, and ended up in film school. I started photography quite late, about 5 years ago so it’s been a slow road to discovering my passion and not something that came through my family.
Do you remember your first steps in this art form? Tell us about your artistic evolution through the different media you experienced before discovering photography as your personal and most suitable vocabulary
Yes, I studied film and cinematography in particular. It was in film school that I picked up a proper stills camera for the first time and tried photography. However it wasn’t until a bit later that I really started to pursue it seriously. My current book Some Kind of Heavenly Fire was meant to be a film, and the images I took at first were intended as a storyboard for the film – it was through this that I realised photography was what I was most passionate about.
Can you tell us about the surrealistic light and landscape of your motherland? Do you believe these elements contribute to your sensitivity to colours and lights?
Yes, absolutely. It is dark so much of the year that you really appreciate light when you see it, and in Finland the light is extraordinary. It changes the landscape constantly throughout the year and nothing ever looks the same.
As regards your first and intriguing monograph Some Kind of Heavently Fire, in the work’s introduction we read: “[…] otherwordly stories emanate from these ancient Northern woodlands and have been circulating amongst the people there for many years”. Then another interesting point follows: “[…] she combines her own photography with family archive and newspaper cuttings to pass on the essence of the bewildering stories relayed to her throughout her youth”. Tell us about this research, that started with your father’s stories. How did you go about?
Like I mentioned above, I set out to make a film first and foremost. In so doing, I came upon grandfather’s book about UFO sightings in my hometown in the 1960’s and 70’s. But as I was photographing stills for the storyboard and doing research at the time, the project began to take on its own life through the images. Because the story is so tightly knit with my own family history, it felt natural to add imagery from family albums to my book, to show a little bit of what life looked like at that time.
Why are you so interested in the photographic and narrative heritage of your homeland?
After spending many years away from Finland, I felt the need to reconnect to the country where I come from and this story seemed perfect for it. I think the hardship of the 1960’s and 70’s combined with the paranormal experiences of people was a very strong story. It is also something I felt really emotionally involved with because it changed the area where I am from forever.
What do you seek to share in presenting such fascinating and evocative photographs? Do you want to preserve the memory of something you really care about and which otherwise would be lost?
In many ways the things I photographed are already lost; some of the places are no more and some of the trees have been cut down. The story was definitely about my looking at the place where I grew up through a nostalgic lens and about preserving the area whilst I still could in an inspired way.
Something mysterious and magical emerges in each shot – a mysterious sensation that both attracts and repels. Did you experience these unusual emotions through your photographic lens?
I, myself, was in control of the things I shot. So it was more than that – it was me imagining once more the familiar places through the narrative of the story I wanted to tell. I added some of the childlike wonder of how I would have seen these places when I was younger.
The series Landscapes seems to have something in common with the previous one. The whiteness of a silent landscape is suddenly cut by a cloud of colour, a fairy atmosphere emanates from the tree trunks in a wood. And the same way with the course of a stream – ordinary at first sight – takes on a elemental quality. What can you tell us about this?
Above all I love colour, and can’t seem to get enough of it, so it is strongly present in all my work. I like to photograph places I know well – real places – making them appear unreal. I want my shots to provide some sort of escapism to whoever is viewing them.
Your way of working holds together multiple research phases that cover different artistic fields,as if you were a photojournalist. Do you have any advice for our readers who have a story to tell but are not so familiar with the available communication channels to come up with a finished product?
I think with any story, when you are beginning a project it’s hard to tell what the best way to go about it is. So, take your time and write down the narrative. What is the project about and what do you really want to say? I approach my projects almost like writing a film, a chapter at a time – I need to have a beginning, a middle and an end – and I do make a lot of notes about the project. So being organised and writing things down is important, even if it’s just short notes. And once I have everything organised I see where the gaps are and think of how best to fix them. But this is by no means the right way for everyone, I would say experimenting with different strategies and doing what feels right is the best way to do anything.
One last thing. Which artists do you consider your sources of inspiration?
I love the work of Tove Jansson, the painter Henri Rousseauand Larry Sultan. Among today’s photographers I am particularly drawn to the work of Sian Davey’s and the portraits Imogen Forte.
Thank you very much, Maria!
Interview by Costanza Francesconi
Images © Maria Lax