Poto: Gerhard Kassner

Community in Silence

By Anne Haeming

The silent types photographed by Esko Männikkö in the Finnish backcountry live as he does: they hunt, they fish, they are. His series The Female Pike” is thus a self-portrait.

Cap still on his head, padded jacket buttoned up to the top, grey woollen socks pulled over the trouser legs: the man on the narrow wooden bed leans back and takes a drag on his cigarette; his dog is sleeping next to him. Above them on the wall, two calendars, which show what you already suspected in any case: pictures of cold blue snow landscapes. It is winter in central Finland; inside, a scene as if not a word has been spoken for hours.

The Female Pike”

The men in the pictures are usually sitting in front of stoves, their high boots within reach; they are feeding lambs while they smoke or mend fish nets, which for the time being are hanging from the ceiling next to the lamp. These are moments of waiting: to get warm enough to go outside again. To fish, to hunt, to be.

I myself grew up in such a village and still live like that”, says Männikkö. I too hunt and fish and like to drink beer. I’m one of them.” They are variants of self-portraits that Männikkö, a man in his late fifties, who lives in the country near Oulu in central Finland, shows in his work. You see the serenity of the main figures in the pictures: the photographer here is not an outsider, he belongs. He knows the world they live in, the daily life he depicts. And the people he portrays know this.

A Finnish flâneur

His way of working is that of a Finnish flâneur: for The Female Pike”, he says, he simply drove about, and when something interested him he stopped, knocked and asked if he could take a photo; went fishing and hunting with them, was silent with them. Then he drove on, knocked again. He did this for five years. That he named the series after the female pike, he says, was pure nonsense”, without any significance. And yet the presence of this fish is anything but arbitrary: There are simply a lot of pikes”, says Männikkö succinctly. It’s not hard to catch them.” The pike is like a symbol: it is as normal as the everyday life of the guys in his photos. They set off with friends or alone, bring out the nets, then go back to their rooms.

And this inside is unmistakably an echo of the outside: red walls, red armchairs, red bowls, red bedding – the colours in Männikkö’s photographs are their own elements of composition. It is as if the people wanted to set something against the enveloping silence. In Helsinki you see nothing of this”, he says, there, life in the streets is just black and grey”.

Life outdoors

Above all, the pictures are pervaded by a tacit consensus, as in hunting and fishing: a community in silence. It is also reflected in, for example, the series Organized Freedom, on which Männikkö has been working since 1999, or Time Flies. He portrays decay: derelict houses in small towns, rotting tombstones, the absence of people. Everything is still there, as if you were leafing through the photo albums on the tables, as if they had just poured a cup of coffee and stepped into the next room for just a moment.” Although these pictures were taken in the Finnish backcountry, says Männikkö, they are universal: This is happening in Brazil as in Portugal: people are moving from the country to the city”.

He refuses, however, to see his series as political; nor is he an anthropologist. That’s not my job. I just want to make beautiful pictures”, says Männikkö.

That he lives in the middle of nowhere, that life outdoors is imprinted in his pictures, cannot be missed. He simply likes to be in nature, he says, to walk in the forest; his latest series shows dead trees; he combines the pleasant with the useful. I began as a nature photographer. Now I’m returning to my roots”, says Esko Männikkö. And I am and remain a hunter. Now I hunt images.”

Picture credits: © all photographs: Esko Männikkö; Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Nordenhake Berlin / Stockholm
Gallery Pictures: 1. Kuivaniemi, 1991, C-print, 67 x 82 cm, 2. Kuivaniemi, 1991, C-print, 80 x 65 cm, 3. Kuivaniemi, 1994/97, C-print, 55 x 65 cm, 4. Sodankylä, 1995, C-print, 71x 62cm , 5. Kuivaniemi, 1991/2001, C-print, 71 x 60 cm, 6. Savokoski, 1994/97, C-print, 60 x 70 cm.

Photo: private

Eskö Männikkö, born in 1959 in a village in central Finland, lives and works in the countryside near Oulu. His photographs depict the tranquillity in which he grew up, surrounded by forests and lakes. He describes himself as a photographer, and the silence of the landscape is in fact omnipresent in his long-terms series, in the decaying haunted houses of Organized Freedom”, the crumbling tombstones in Time Flies”, and the perseverance of the main figures of The Female Pike”.

Photo: private

Anne Haeming is a freelance journalist. She writes mainly about literature, photography, film, art and the media sector. She has a PhD in post-colonial literature and lives in Berlin.