In 1835, Finnish philologist Elias Lönnrot published the Kalevala, which is a compilation of traditional Finnish epic poetry. In Finland, the Kalevala is considered one of the most important works of literature of all times. I guess you can say that the Kalevala is to Finland what the Iliad is for the rest of the world. Today, the exhibition Kainuu opens its doors in Turku.
Five photographers travelled to Kainuu in Northeast Finland, which is the birthplace of the Kalevala, where they explored the mythology through contemporary photography. I called up one of the guys, Aapo, and chatted about the project.
VICE: Hey Aapo! Tell me why you got interested in the Kalevala?
Aapo Huhta: You know Greek mythology, right? The Kalevala is like the Finnish version. It's a collection of stories, from a long time ago. They're like folklore stories, about the beginning of the world and major things like that. Since one man collected the stories the Kainuu area, our project is based around that. These days, things are changing with the countryside and the cities. I mean in Helsinki we have the routine kind of life and on the countryside, life is going backwards in a way. So we wanted to explore that while having these old stories about Finland in mind. But it's not really documentary based work. One part of it is the group experience at the same time as everyone has the freedom to explore the place in their own way.
Photo by Maria Gallen-Kallela.
Is this mythology something that Finnish kids get taught about in school?
Yes. But generally people aren't familiar with them that much anymore. But everybody touch upon these stories at school. I mean I knew about them from school, and now I've learned more about them through this project. What’s happening in this region at the moment?
I think the same thing is happening here as in Sweden, that people are moving away from the countryside. There aren't that many young people living there anymore. Old people are staying there. But there aren't many social services left, unfortunately.
Photo by Helen Korpak.
There are quite a lot of young people in your photo series, though.
Yeah, there are some. Helen is the one who's been exploring young people the most. But then again, young people living in Helsinki have totally different perspectives of the world. People have a complete different reality up north. For instance, international culture is really different to them. Helen did a few close-ups of things related to LA, rap and pop music. Stuff that are really far from them but that's still happening in that region. There's a guy in one of Helen's photos who's dressed in all Southern American clothes. Is that a type of thing that's common in Kainuu?
I think it's more about that people in this area have a similar way of life. I guess I have to ask Helen about that specific photo. But I'd say that it's a reference to the countryside. So it's a reference to the symbolism from the States.
Photo by Aapo Huhta.
Who's the man in the bathtub?
I asked around about different characters that everybody in these villages knew about. I heard about all these old lonely men living in wooden houses without access to social services. I found myself knocking on the door at this man's place. He didn't open so I went to the neighbour's who gave me his phone number. So I gave him a call and he showed me around his whole place. He had built a sauna and this bath thing in a garage-type of place. So I asked him if I could photograph him. To me, that was really Finnish. Maybe because of the sauna, but probably because he was so alone there, as well.
Did you get any ideas of how these people you photographed view their lives? I'm thinking about the photo of the lady in the bed as well.
Generally, all the people I met were really happy to have visitors. I mean it doesn't really happen to them that strangers come to these places and ask about their lives. They were all really friendly. That lady was actually a wife of the man in the bathtub. I drank so many coffees with them! I think they know that their lives are looked upon as rough in a way. Being in social media and things like that isn't something they're used to or know anything about. I mean one guy I met was cutting wood for a fire in the kitchen and had just a completely different lifestyle from what I'm used to. What are your conclusions around the mythology? What remains of the past?
I think you can see this really Scandinavian or Finnish way of living in some of the photos. Have you ever heard about the Talvivaara mine? Photo by Juuso Westerlund.
Yes, I have actually.
In the folklore stories, there's this thing called Sampo, which is like a tool or machine that produces all the goods for the locals. People in the story go mad about it so in the end the locals destroy it because everybody want it. Juuso decided to shoot Talvivaara for the contemporary angle. I mean the Talvivaara mine has loads of environmental issues around it, so it's like it's destroying itself. That's a good example of what we were trying to do. To look at it all from a contemporary perspective. Talvivaara is like Sampo in a way. I've been following the Talvivaara disaster for a long time. Is it located in this region?
Yes. We wanted to avoid a journalistic approach to that, such as taking photos of dead birds by the lake close to Talvivaara. So what Juuso did, was taking beautiful photos of the area around Talvivaara in the winter that are pretty dramatic. Our project is about playing with these old traditions and adapting them into today in way. I'm really happy about Juuso's approach because it allowed us to talk about the issue without underlining or simplifying the topic too much. Also, Helen shot a photo of a 15-year-old girl called Petra. And in the Kalevala story there’s a main character called Aino, who's a young Finnish woman who the old men are trying to get at. So it's all about playing with these traditional stories in contemporary Finland.
I see. Thanks, Aapo!