Jaakko Heikkilä: Silent Talks

Texts by Andreas Vowinckel

            Ritva Röminger-Czako

© 2011 Kehrer Verlag, ISBN 978-3-86828-197-2

The beginning of the text by Ritva Röminger-Czako:

The artistic interest of Finnish photographer Jaakko Heikkilä (born 1956) is focused on minorities and people who have been torn from their roots, and on their cultural identity and collective memories. Since the 1990s the artist has traveled several parts of the world with his panoramic camera in order to photograph various minorities that exist in the shadow of dominant cultures even though often, seemingly, they live “right in the middle of things.”


Jaakko Heikkilä originates from Northern Finland. He was born and raised in the town of Kemi. His  path to becoming a photographer was convoluted, as his first completed degree at the university in Oulu was in engineering. Science fascinated the young graduate engineer and so, following his studies, he worked as a researcher for a number of years (1984-1989).

However, photography was also a very early interest for Jaakko Heikkilä. He purchased his first camera on commencing his studies; his primary photographic subjects were people and nature, and along the way he based himself on the strong traditions of Finnish nature photography as well as of documentary photography. However, mere documentation was not enough for Jaakko Heikkilä. From the start, it was his objective to record what lay deeper beneath the surface.

During his studies Jaakko Heikkilä spent much time at his grandmother’s, in the village of Kukkola, on the Tornio river, close to the famous rapids of Kukkolankoski, where men with big landing nets stand and catch salmon and whitefish. There, an intensive search for his own opportunities for expression began. Jaakko Heikkilä learned much in terms of technique during this time and began to develop his photos himself, in a darkroom provided by his grandmother – an old wardrobe.

From 1985, alongside his research work Jaakko Heikkilä undertook photo reportages for Finland’s biggest daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, among others. Photography was becoming more and more of a draw for him. Crucial to his further development was the founding of the Nordic photography center in Oulu in 1987: a very active and sophisticated center from the start, its exhibition projects were international.

The final prompt for a career change came from his recovery from a serious illness in winter 1987. Jaakko Heikkilä decided to quit his research work and devote himself entirely to photography. The second major decision was to move to Kukkola, the home region of both his parents. This decision was courageous as, generally – in the hope of better exhibition and sales opportunities – Finnish artists try to settle in Helsinki, the country’s foremost art center. However, both Jaakko Heikkilä and his colleague and friend Esko Männikkö have proved that, these days, a place of residence in the Nordic periphery no longer poses an obstacle for an international career.

Focusing on home

It was obvious at the beginning to deal with immediate surroundings – to investigate personal, local and regional identity. Jaakko Heikkilä rediscovered the area’s rich dialect, which he had learned as a child, and he found his roots.

The early photo series “Meän maa” (“Our Country,” 1990-91) and “Kirkas nöyryys“ (“Bright Humility,” 1992-1995) feature the people on the Tornio river, their lives and their habitat. The Tornio river has demarcated the border between Finland and Sweden since 1809. Many Laestadians live on both sides of the river (Laestadianism is a conservative, pietistic revival movement within the Lutheran church, named for its founder Lars Levi Laestadius, 1800-1861).

On the other side of the river in Sweden –“in our country” – lives a linguistic minority that speaks an ancient Finnish language. On the Finnish side, this language exists as a dialect. The inhabitants’ life in the Tornio river valley is shaped by religion and by the cycle of the nature that surrounds them: “It’s good for a man to have god. Whether it’s a star up in the sky or the brightness of the spring.”

The two Tornio river series created an important basis for the artist’s further work. Bright Humility, in particular, represented an intensive and significant phase. He began to work with the panoramic camera – a decisive step.

Now Jaakko Heikkilä began to conduct “kitchen-table interviews” with his protagonists. This is a method he enjoys using to this day, whenever he has the opportunity. He was prompted to do this by the people from his home area, who enjoy telling stories. These stories are a major part of the work of Jaakko Heikkilä: “Taking a photo doesn’t just mean me going along and taking a good photo;  a photo comes into being through living and experiencing, as we sit together and tell stories.” Back then  Jaakko Heikkilä also started taking close-up shots of his protagonists, as this seemed natural to him. Besides the large-format close-up portraits, the series shows the people on the Tornio river at their various occupations both indoors and outdoors: laboring, idling and praying.

The beginning of the text by Andreas Vowinckel:

Methods and content in the photographic oeuvre of Jaakko Heikkilä


An encounter with the photographic oeuvre of Jaakko Heikkilä will very swiftly divert the viewer’s attention to two motivic aspects which for him play a central role: one of these is man and the other is the landscape, nature, that surrounds him. Both are thoroughly in correspondence with the classical canon and a long tradition in the iconography of the creative arts, from the earliest beginnings in painting through to contemporary photography. Yet – or precisely therefore – the photographic works of the Finnish photo artist surprise and challenge the viewer.

Jaakko Heikkilä in Kukkolankoski

Born in Lappish Kemi in Northern Finland, where he also grew up, Jaakko Heikkilä’s life path led him after his studies in Oulu back to his parents’ home town on the edge of the Arctic Circle, to Kukkola. The locality is situated on the boundary river between Finland and Sweden. Here in Kukkolankoski on the river Tornio childhood memories came alive and stories spanning generations were told by the people who lived on both sides of the river, who, like Jaakko Heikkilä himself today, continue to live off fishing and salmon-catching on the river with its dramatically swift flow. The people and their stories, the landscape and nature awaken his interest, indeed his need to explore, to observe and photographically document life on both sides, near and far, of the river. Independently of its present role as a border, the river has an entirely different and much more important significance beyond the historical events and political constellations: it was and is the lifeline for the people who have settled there since time immemorial. The river joins and separates simultaneously; this shapes their lives – in the constant alternation of the seasons in the extreme north under the summer’s eternal sun, which does not set, and in the winter’s enduring nocturnal dusk, which encloses the people in a permanent shadowy existence with no daylight and allows them only a limited number of habitats during the long, cold winter. From early times they settled on both sides of the river unless, like the Sami population, they moved about as nomads in the northern uplands of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The river, the strong current, life on the other side, near and far, personal and foreign, communities and solitude in and with nature, an eternal cycle; these determine their seeing, thinking, feeling, and doing.

Photography as a challenge to seeing

Jaakko Heikkilä reached for the camera at an early age. But what purpose does this, and hence photography, have? What is the effect of this technical means of illustrating a real three-dimensional world which, in cut-out, is projected analogically or digitally by means of light trails or millions of pixels onto a two-dimensional surface, transformed and thereby rendered visible? And what is contained and expressed by such an image, which owes its existence to his vision and to his choice of a certain motif that he selects in order to take it into focus and, using the shutter, to capture it on the surface? Indeed, what is it about for him, as he does not live off assignments as a professional photographer and work for them but, assigned by himself from his own motivation, researches and investigates the practical possibilities presented to him as he manipulates photographic technique and thereby deals with the medium of reproduction as an artistic means of expression and design? Jaakko Heikkilä answers these questions for himself with a succession of photo projects that he has created in the course of the past twenty years.

In one of his first photo projects, “Meän maa – Our Country” at the end of the eighties, beginning of the nineties he documents, from a restrained distance, the everyday life of people from his surroundings, their daily work, their celebrations, life at home and outdoors. He shows them individually and in the community, but not in the style of single likenesses as portraits, group portraits or documentation of special events and their rituals. Precisely a comparison with the works of other Finnish photo artists such as Veli Granö, Esko Männikkö, Pekka Turunen or Henrik Duncker, who likewise in their earlier groups of work dealt creatively with the everyday world, will show up his way of dealing with the camera, a way which is as spontaneous as it is unobtrusive, more an observation than a conscious documentary. His almost casually recorded situations, in which man and nature, people in the landscape, their residing in exterior and interior spaces are not portrayed in a staged manner, but look natural and at ease, as though a matter of course, therefore convey, compared with the example works of their other photo artists with their vivid, conceptually arranged, formally and aesthetically designed photographs, something completely different: a general mood, a certain atmosphere. This mood fixes the gaze of the viewer, who is drawn evocatively into the photographically captured world of the life-images.

The viewer’s gaze, his seeing, does not get snagged on details but perceives, conditioned also by a latent fuzziness of the illustrated subject, something that is integral.  Although, essentially, photography conveys a specific content of what is illustrated and every photographically recorded illustration falls under the category of an autonomous image, as manipulated by Jaakko Heikkilä, this aspect acquires yet another dimension. The illustrated scenes from everyday life appear mostly on two planes. The plots or events play out in the foreground; the spaces in which something happens and the landscapes form, as stages, the background. Even if these are not unusual principles of form, they thus give the individual illustrations a structure that oscillates between a lively vivid closeness of what is happening and a cool distance of the spaces in which the people move. Regarded photographically, they form a closed-off homogenous world devoid of content-related information that would meet the external viewer a little halfway or address him and include him in the discourse. This constellation cannot only be described by reference to the atmospheric in the illustrated subject’s interior relationship, however. Rather, it renders visible an essential criterion in Jaakko Heikkilä’s understanding of and dealing with the photographic medium. For him, photography fulfils a different function than merely documenting a happening, people and landscapes. The constellation of the two independent planes objectifies the relationship between internal and external. This tendency is amplified further through the formats and the truncated image details, which form-wise lend them the character of autonomous image objects. They thereby embody a breach between the reality planes of the interior world of the illustrated subject, and the exterior world of the image object and of its recipient, the viewer.