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Second from left: Iveta Vaivode

Iveta Vaivode’s Letter from Helsinki 0

Iveta Vaivode

With her series “Klēpis” / “The Lap”, the Latvian photographer Iveta Vaivode was chosen as the winner of the 2013 C/O Berlin talent contest. The same photo series has also progressed to the finals level for two photography awards: the Sony World Photography Awards 2014, the winner to be announced on April 30 in London; and the Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2014 (for which Alnis Stakle from Latvia is also a finalist) – the winner of the Leica Award will be announced on May 27 and receive not only a Leica camera worth ten thousand euros, but also a monetary prize in the same amount.

Dear Iveta,

They don't sell postcards here, so in place of a Christmas card, I'm sending you a kiss.

This is the start of a letter that I received just two days ago, from my Finnish classmate in Tanzania. No pictures of zebras or hippopotamuses, just white card-stock with a red lipstick kiss on it. Clean and laconic... like classic Scandinavian design, but also – considered and deep. Without any superfluous details or sentences. And of course, melancholic. That's exactly how I experience Finland.

For more than six months now, my life takes place between two cities – Riga and Helsinki. In one, I continue to be a mother to my four-year-old son and work as a dependable photographer and lecturer; in the other, I have become a student myself, trying to forget everything that I've known up to now, and learning to look at life from a new perspective.

But how did I come to take up studies in the Master of Photography program at Aalto University in Finland?

I really like snow, especially in those pictures where the sky has become the darkest plane in the image. Nevertheless, from all of the seasons, winter – with all of its harshness and unbearably plodding duration – is the one I like the least. Winter makes people slow and melancholy. In winter, people want to hole-up in the caves of their multi-storied apartment buildings, and just simply endure the cold somehow. I also do that, as do most Finns. That's why I can understand the mentality of all northern cultures. All of those monochromatic photographs, romanticized landscapes with a small and lonely figure in the center, or simply forlorn views of nowhere.

Helsinki neighbourhood. Photo: Serkan Taycan

“What would you like to learn here?” was what I was asked by Professor Jyrki Parantainen during my admissions interview. Squarely looking at him, I truthfully answered: “Nothing, but school would give me the time and space to think. In addition, I think I simply fit in here.”

Abandoning the rationales that photography cannot be academically studied in Latvia, the proximity of Helsinki to Riga, and the fact that higher education is state-financed in Finland, my main reason for choosing to study at Aalto University was what is called the “Helsinki School” of photography, or TAIK. While studying in England, I would sometimes look at the TAIK webpage and gaze with wonder at the colorful works therein – they corresponded to my understanding of conceptual photography at the time. Even though the works differed from one another in terms of content, they all had some sort of unifying trait. Perfectly executed, visually enjoyable and, one could even say – beautiful images with, more or less, poeticized features. Such photographs look contemporary (in the sense of being “current”), and wonderfully fit into the tasteful interiors of both public and private spaces. Helsinki School photography is intrinsically marketable, and this feature, I believe, has been the driving force behind the popularity of photography in Finnish society (currently, three different cities in Finland offer studies in photography, and several state-funded photo books are published every year; not to mention all of the stipends, awards and numerous galleries that deal exclusively with photography).

Helsinki neighbourhood. Photo: Serkan Taycan

I was truly interested in how such a modest-sized country could, in just a dozen or so years, make Finnish photography into a brand that is known throughout the world. Of course, a significant role in this success story has been played by Timothy Persons, curator and founder of the TAIK gallery, who arrived in Helsinki in the 1980s; Persons finally taught the untalkative Finns, who had practically just emerged from the forests, how to present their art correctly. Having a masterful way with words and quite knowledgeable of the art market, Persons packaged Finnish photography in a shiny Diasec wrapper and made it a desirable commodity for the people who attended the largest art fairs (Paris Photo, Art Basel, etc.). Persons is still a professor at Aalto University, and alongside his teaching duties, keeps a careful eye on every student so that, perhaps, one day he might approach one (much like a fairy godmother) and make that student famous. Truth be told, such a commercialization of photography has since received a rather mixed sentiment in the eyes of both students and society, and even though the TAIK gallery still belongs to Aalto University, the photographers represented there decidedly do not reflect the variety and wide scope of interests that can be found in the works of the students in the University's Photography Department. You might not see pronounced photo-journalism or commercial photography within the department, but you will see everything from documentary stories and videos, to self-published books and installations. What is paramount is the idea itself, and the medium or technical interpretation are only then adapted to fit the concept.

The studios in Aalto's Department of Photography are arranged according to a so-called “plan of study” that each student, along with a professor, sets up for himself. In my opinion, this is a successful model of study because it serves the interests and schedule of each individual student. Admittedly, this is also the reason that I can spend half of my time in Riga, and the other half in Helsinki. Of course, there are mandatory courses, but these are not many, and if I happen to miss a lecture, I can make it up by reading additional materials or writing a whole essay on the subject. A large part of the coursework takes place with the aid of master classes. A master class lasts for one to three weeks, and within that time span the students must finish a practical assignment. I'll write about two master classes that I took and that, I believe, best characterize the educational processes of the school, as well as the Finns themselves.

From the master class Into the Deep Forest. Photo: Terēza Trautmannova

The title of the master class, “Into the Deep Forest”, already tipped me off that the lectures would be taking place in an unusual environment. For this class, we were put into a group of twelve people and then headed off to one of Finland's most beautiful national parks; wearing rubber rain boots and waterproof outerwear, we were expected to finally find our link to nature – somewhere under the branches of a tree. After endlessly long hikes in the forest – which would sometimes continue on into the night – we would spend the evenings warming up in a sauna. The women would go first, then the men. When the sauna had to be prepared (which included chopping firewood, stoking the fire and hauling water), only a couple of women volunteered for these, in my opinion, manly duties. I watched with great amazement as my friend (the same one who sent the kiss from Tanzania) deftly chopped the firewood. On top of that, she chopped up not only the firewood needed for that evening, but also for the next one (so that the men wouldn't have to exert themselves when it was their turn). Meanwhile, the men – with unforced ease, and while one of them strummed a guitar – prepared a vegetarian supper for us. Of course, this gender equality that is so ubiquitous in Scandinavia sometimes comes with side-effects, as I found out later. My Brazilian acquaintance shared with me his experiences and thoughts about Finnish girls being too independent – he was disillusioned by the fact that Finnish girls don't think that physical closeness implies that you are having a relationship – or that it will lead to “something more serious”. Nevertheless, the themes of relationships, especially those with strangers, can be used as an inspirational source for a work of art.

In the first meeting of the master class led by Finnish artist Hannele Rantala, she couldn't even manage to deliver her first sentence before she started to cry. But don't think that these were tears of disappointment, or due to some personal tragedy. These were emotion-filled tears of joy – at the prospect that we will be spending the next two weeks together. Taking into account that the title of the class, “Stranger in Paradise”, was also an apt description of Rantala's personal approach to art, we all fell into a state of deep self-analysis and reflection. Over these two weeks we gladly shared our secrets and wounds, and plotted out chronological tables of our lives, while our individual meetings with Rantala turned into sessions of emotional cleansing and discovery. I must admit that Rantala's master class was my fourth in a row in which I was subjected to all sorts of self-analysis, and I felt tired and drained. Nevertheless, when I had reached the point when I thought that I wasn't able to dig any deeper into my artistic motivations, but the lives of my classmates seemed to emulate the early works of Larry Clark, I suddenly felt release. And this release manifested itself in the three-minute-long video in which I attempted to render what I had seen over these two weeks. Now, as I think back on the classes I've taken at Aalto University, it's not hard to understand why there are so few socially relevant works in the Helsinki School, or TAIK. Perhaps the professors at my school are active defenders of the romantic ideas of Theophile Gautier – “art for art's sake”. Or maybe, the reason is to be found in the Finnish people's own contradictory ability to be both socially restricted and ready to publicly display the most intimate nuances of their lives.

The famous Kaurismeki bar in Helsinki – where my classmates and I usually end up on late nights.

At times I admire this fearlessness to be honest and true, and even if I don't become a better photographer from my time spent in Finland, I will definitely learn to not be ashamed of picking up from the street a chair that someone has thrown out; or, to simply admit to the fact that I may not be perfect, and that there may be a lot of things that I can't manage, but I still try.