Simo Väisänen is a Finnish self-taught photographer. He is mostly interested in people, places and details. His love for old Finnish black and white movies, Italian neorealism and Akira Kurosawa's and Sergei Eisenstein's productions have partly influenced his photographic style. His street and documentary style photographs speak to the viewer very directly and sometimes leave room for questions and wonder. For this interview Simo shared with us some photos from two of his series, "The Fins" and "Almost photography". In Simo´s own words, "Finland is The Most Kick-Ass-Country in the world". And he has the photos to prove it.
Tell us a bit about yourself, where were you born, where do you live now, how did you become interested in photography?
I was born and raised in Kuopio, Finland in the middle of the beautiful Finnish Lake district. After my studies in Oulu, Helsinki and Jyväskylä Universities I got a position in Mikkeli, which is also surrounded by big lakes. Both Kuopio and Mikkeli are situated in Central Finland. My interest in photography started as a school boy. Me and my kid brother once got an Agfamatic 100 Sensor camera for Christmas. We really put that camera through its paces and the images we took were pure expressionism. Later, during my studies in Oulu I bought a second hand East German miracle called Praktica Super TL with a 50 mm lens. I used that mainly to take photos of my family and friends. After that photography has been an essential part of me.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
”Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing” - Harriet Braiker, American psychologist and writer. As a Special Education Teacher and Teacher of the Deaf I couldn’t agree more.
Where do you find your inspiration? And do you have a favourite place to shoot?
I believe I could say my passion for photography is my constant source of inspiration. I usually shoot for a theme and try to visit somewhere new to get out of my comfort zone. Favourite place to shoot? Could say anywhere. But I could travel to the end of the world and feel frustrated if the light and the environment didn’t inspire me.
Do you think place matters? Do you try to show a sense of place in your photos?
Any place is good enough If I find the place interesting and inspirational enough. To me a sense of place is a feeling or perception I hold. That’s why my photographs differ from all others.
In general, what do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
Photography is almost always associated with a reproduction of reality. To me photography is making known my thoughts or feelings. The reality of the world we live in becomes the reality of how I use my visual language or how I feel about a specific idea or subject. Daido Moriyama once said ”Photography is the expression of our desires”. That’s how it is.
Light is photography. Photography is painting with light. If the light is uninspiring or dull I just don’t shoot.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
My love for old Finnish B&W movies, Italian neorealism and Akira Kurosawa’s and Sergei Eisenstein’s production partly explain why I photograph as I do. And if you don’t understand Daido Moriyama or Junichiro Tanizaki you don’t know me.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
The first book I would like to recommend to all photographers is Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. It is a wise and evocative essay on Japanese culture. ’We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.’ Junichiro Tanizaki Daido Moriyama has made a radical impact on the photographic world both in Japan and in the West. His earlier works are probably sold out now. There are, however, paperbacks and compilation books widely available of his recent work. Of course Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith and their books are essential stuff every photographer should know. When it comes to Finnish photographers I highly recommend professor Antero Takala’s Kaamos. Landscapes of Darkness. The book is a journey to the light of the kaamos in Lapland – the polar light and the winter darkness period.
Another Finn that has inspired my creativity is Pentti Sammallahti. Sammallahti is one of the internationally most prominent Finnish photographers and a multiple prize-winner in his home country. In 2004 Henri Cartier-Bresson, ranked Sammallahti among his 100 favourite photographers for his Foundation’s inaugural exhibition in Paris. In Sammallahti’s Staden / Kaupunki / La Ville/ The City Finnish poet and author Bert Carpelan and Pentti Sammallahti depict their birthplace Helsinki with nostalgia. In this lovely book poems become pictures, the pictures poems.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
There’s a tool for every task. When I hit the streets I want to be as inconspicuous as possible and use wide angle primes. Getting close to the subject has never been a problem to me. My The Finns Series is a proof of that. When I don’t have to worry about being noticed a 24-70 f2.8 zoom is my tool of choice. I jumped on the mirrorless wagon very early on. Currently I use Nikon mirrorless cameras and lenses. The future is absolutely mirrorless. I’m a Nikon Z Creator.
You have shared with us a story about the Finnish circus. What gave you the idea of doing a photo series on the circus?*
I’ve always loved circus. It all begun when me and my kid brother hadn’t even started school yet. Our Mum took us to a circus which had come to our home town Kuopio in Finland. It really took me back to my childhood memories when our daughter was old enough to be taken to circus. It was then I realised I must start recording the present that one day will be the past to my daughter.
The circus is a place of colour and light. How come you chose to use black and white for your photo essay? Especially since your photos in your Instagram gallery are otherwise often colourful. How do you decide what should be presented in black and white and what in colour?
If you look closely you’ll notice that only 62 of my 309 images in my Instagram gallery so far are colour images. That alone proves I’m a B&W guy. As you said circus is a place of colour and light. The light, however, is never constant and therefore you must start using high ISO values. That leads to colour noise. I shoot B&W for all classic reasons. It’s a creative choice. When you shoot for black and white, you challenge yourself to remove the distraction of colour. These include colour casts and differences in colour temperature (ambient light sources), as well as specific colourful elements that are strong, which may reside in the background or take away from your story. I even set my camera for B&W. That results in B&W photos on my LCD and in my viewfinder and allows me to better see lighting, shape and form. I reserve colour mainly for travels, family snapshots and random weddings and funerals. The light must really be something special if I otherwise start shooting in colour. Of course I recognise a good colour photograph when I see one.
When you go out on the streets, do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
I’ve always thought that the world is full of images just waiting for us to come and get them. When I hit the streets my main target is people, but I won’t spit on any other potential good image either. The more you shoot the luckier you get. And the luckier you get the better images you get.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
Music has always been a part of me. My register in a male choir was Second Tenor but unfortunately I had to leave the choir because of my work. I just couldn’t find time enough for evening rehearsals or weekend courses far away from my home town. However, I haven’t forgotten singing completely. When the house is empty I turn into an operatic tenor. Otherwise I sing in the shower to my family’s delight. Believe you understand.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
First and foremost photography is something that makes me feel happy. I couldn’t imagine life without it. When I see a good final image on my computer screen or as a print, the emotion is often physical. In addition to this very personal side I want to expose my work in public. All artists need publicity. If my images make people feel even a tiny bit the way I felt when I made the image, I’m happy.
I don’t actually believe in photo exhibitions. I really hope I could publish a book at least in five years. Exhibitions come and go. Photo books last forever.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
I constantly add images to my old photo series. Don’t know for sure yet but I’d like to devote next winter to winter images of Finland in black and white. That would also involve going to the woods. I used to be a nature photographer before mirrorless cameras so that won’t be a problem for me.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…”
When I am not out photographing I like to spend time with my family, listen to my favourite music or read books. Sometimes I have to forget music and books completely because of editing my images. But as I said before, post-processing can be devastating, it can be revelatory, it can actually be great fun."
All photos © Simo Väisänen
Simo also has a Youtube channel, where you can see a slide show of his series B&W Street Photography - What Are the Finns Like?