Best known for her self-portraits, the fine art photographer Aino Kannisto speaks of emotions, fantasies and fiction.
Aino, in your artist statement it says that your picture is a fantasy, and fantasy is a means to speak about emotions. Why emotions is an important subject for you ?
Emotions give us important information about ourselves. Emotions give the meaning to life, the nuances, the colours, the scents to it. But it's not always easy to deal with our emotions, to accept them, to understand them, to interpret them accurately, or not to let them get the better of us. It's a brutal business to try and live true to yourself, to try and deal with your painful, overwhelming, ugly emotions.
My emotions require a great deal of attention from me - not other people's attention but my own. Maybe I'm just highly sensitive. I don't want to act out my emotions, that kind of strategy usually leads people behaving badly. I want to deal with my emotions, and making photographs, for me, is one way to effectively do it. And fantasies help us process these emotions that are not always so easy to deal with.
What kind of fantasies do you refer to?
My photographs are constructed by fantasies of my fears, sufferings and what could have happened. I don’t replicate reality as it has happened to me or as I have witnessed it, but I take all the liberties of a fiction writer to create emotionally truthful material.
They are fantasies but not imaginative with unicorns or flying women. It’s very important for me that the style is realistic – that my photographs look real, that they have the power to suggest that this thing really happened.
This subject reminds Horace Walpole's words; “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.” Do you agree with that?
I agree to the full extent with Horace Walpole on that one. And because of that I think it’s essential to foster the ability to simultaneously both think and feel. Forgetting the other is detrimental to our mental health.
So could we say that you are reflecting the tragedy of those who feel, as the character you present in your pictures, is often alone, deep in thoughts, and melancholic..
To say that I am “reflecting the tragedy of those who feel” would be a very touching way to define my art work. Thank you for that.
In this sense, through your photography, are you exploring into ways to find beauty in pain ?
I guess saying it would be an elaborate way to define it. I find that beauty has the ability to sooth pain. Early on I had a realisation that aesthetically pleasing representation provides a vehicle to talk about subject matters that are disturbing and otherwise could very well provoke defensive reactions. I’ve never intended to romanticise suffering, I don’t believe it’s very helpful. Pain is unavoidable and we have to tend to our pain one way or other. I’m still trying to learn ways to comfort myself better - making art has always been a powerful tool for me to do that.
Are you a spiritual person ?
I’m not sure I know what exactly that means. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself in this term.
I believe in trying to become more self-aware: learning to understand better how my actions reflect on other people that I care and my surroundings in general. I believe in kindness (compassion, forgiveness, helpfulness) because, obviously I’ve received enough of it to have learned the value of it.
I believe in love, because I know how it feels to be loved and accepted, and because loving others gives an infinite amount of meaning to my life.
Did that answer your question?
Yes it did, indeed, the best thing on earth is to love and to be loved back, hopefully every people will understand it one day.
"I want to deal with my emotions, and making photographs, for me, is one way to effectively do it. Fantasies help us process these emotions that are not always so easy to deal with. "
Your artist statement includes “The person in the picture is a fictional narrator, in the same way as there are narrators in literature.” Do you have any passage/quote from literature that would describe your fictional character or world?
There’s a line in a U2 song “Stay” describing a person: “dressed up like a car crash /your wheels are turning but you’re upside down”that was inspiring certain characters in my early works. And there’s a Finnish poem describing a woman observing a bee caught in a glass on top of which there’s a postcard preventing it from escaping. I made an image of it.
Sometimes a single line or description from a book or just the overall mood of a story sparks an idea of an image.
Integrating your art with literature, you must love reading, do you also write your own fiction?
I love reading stories, but I don't know how to write them. I used to write a lot as a teenager before photography became my main form of expression, but I never wrote stories, nothing fictional.
"When someone has managed to precisely express a thought, experience or emotion which I completely connect with. It gives me a sense of exhilaration and comfort: There’s someone else out there who knows exactly how it feels – it’s a proof that we’re not alone in the world. "
How do you construct each picture? Are there any specific stories or references that you follow?
When making photographs, I’m after the same feeling that literature gives me. When someone has managed to precisely express a thought, experience or emotion which I completely connect with. It gives me a sense of exhilaration and comfort: there’s someone else out there who knows exactly how it feels – it’s a proof that we’re not alone in the world. It’s cathartic to manage to express something significant in a picture, when at the same time, it seems to be so out of reach of my words. Afterward, when I look at the photograph that I’ve done, if I don’t recognise something meaningful in it, I know it’s not good enough and I throw it away.
If there are stories or references they are not conscious. I wouldn’t be able to write a storyline or provide the viewer with conscious references. I have ideas of pictures where the starting point is the person, a particular garment or gesture and I’m on a lookout for the surrounding that would complete the image. It’s almost like having some kind of mental catalogue of characters in the back of my mind. For some images the starting point has definitely been the place itself, a room, a view – I fall in love with the place and desperately try to come up with the right setting for it in order not to spoil but to complete what was magical in that view in the first place.
Your artwork requires you to get in front of the camera, and act these fictional characters. Is your life anywhere near your fiction?
Emotionally, inwardly, I would say, yes. But my images are definitely not reconstructed situations from my life. For example, I haven’t been gestating a child, I haven’t been sexually assaulted, I haven’t been dead even though my pictures could very well suggest such events having occurred. For me creating such images has more to do with dealing with the cultural fears and the sense of vulnerability one cannot escape as being a human and a woman in western society.
Do you find it difficult sometimes to get in the mood then?
Interesting question. I think I have sometimes difficulties to consciously create a mood. Certain moods seem to be seeping out of me and into the pictures despite my wanting to create something more optimistic and upbeat. So, I guess it’s more like I have difficulties getting the mood out of me.
Who are your influencers?
It’s hard to define who are my so called influencers but I can easily confess my early love affairs: The works of Sally Mann, Francesca Woodman, Diane Arbus, Nan Golding, Ulla Jokisalo – their art work has inspired me, proven to me time and again that it´s possible to express the ravishing beauty and the piercing melancholy of life as we experience it. And a little later Cindy Sherman and Sophie Calle, whose works took me a longer to learn to truly appreciate.
Now that I look at my list I’m going to congratulate myself for the all female panel!
Women empower.. What is your favourite artwork from one of the names above ?
Probably some picture from Sally Mann or Francesca Woodman. There’s such lightness, such immediacy in both of their work I can only dream of.
But maybe I would still pick “This photograph is my proof" from Duane Michals. In the picture there is this text: “This photograph is my proof. There was that afternoon, when things were still good between us, and she embraced me, and we were happy. It did happen, she did love me. Look, see for yourself.”
We know that this work is completely constructed but we don’t think of it because of the documentary style: the snap shot aesthetics, the diary entry style written piece of text on it. It’s permanent, light fixed onto a piece of paper so that we are always able go back to looking at it, unlike dreams and memories that are constantly trying to escape from us.
What’s your own favourite picture you have ever taken ?
The image seems to me to be depicting exactly the emotional landscape I was experiencing at a certain period in my life when I was utterly incapable of expressing it and suffering from that locked-in feeling.
That’s what makes it such a special image to me.
Your photography style is highly cinematographic, do you follow certain rules to reach to that aesthetic ?
I wouldn’t call them rules, it’s more compulsive guidelines, a guess. I think I just instinctively rejected photographic means such as short depth-of-field creating blurry areas in the picture or blurry movements created by long shutter speeds. I’ve wanted my pictures to appear like looking though a window to another world, intangible but real looking like a projection on a film screen.
I’m rigidly exposing the images correctly because underexposure creates lame colours and overexposure burns the details from highlight areas. Other than that it’s instinctive how I create the style. I just do as I please until I’m satisfied with the result. Colours and the quality of light are very important for me. I try to create pictures so vivid you could almost sense the smell of them.
Does Finland have a role in your photography?
I was born, raised and educated in Finland so I suppose I’m a product of Finnish culture to some extent. It’s hard for me to analyse how much Finland has a role in my photography. I’m not, for example, consciously drawing from distinctively Finnish aesthetics. Finnish mythology or history doesn’t play a conscious role in my imagery. I don’t have a strong national identity – I suppose I identify myself more as a human in the world than as a Finn.
And before we finish, besides dreaming, what keeps you going ?
The possibility to express myself though photography. My wonderful, exhausting, always loving and lovable extended family: my spouse, my step-children, my big flock of nieces and nephews, my sisters and wacko set of parents. A few true friends and an excellent therapist. All the wonderful books in the world to read. Antidepressants.