Category: Photography

Existential Train Journeys

… A glimpse into the Russian soul

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Monotonous landscapes. Crossword puzzles and trashy Harlequin novels. Endless black tea and discarded bowls of pre-cooked noodles.

Train travelling in Russia takes its time, the carriages drifting slowly across the never ending tundras like afternoon cumulus. Along the way we stop in small, cheerless towns with names one rarely remembers, where the local people scrape a shabby income from selling homemade dumplings and other foods to passengers on the platforms.

For most Russians, journeying by train remains the only affordable option.

People are polite but not overly social—somewhat jarring for the foreigner hoping to prod the occasional social interaction, perhaps over a pocket-size bottle of vodka and some zakuska. Only a rare few engage in conversations with fellow passengers whilst the majority of the wagon prefers to be left alone in their private worlds, a mental substitute for actual personal space. Weary babushkas take to their shaded bunks.

As I wake from a short night’s sleep, the new sun reaching at the horizon, it occurs to me that the Russian soul is a romantic one. Some passengers spend their time day-dreaming, while others either huddle over crossword puzzles and women’s magazines, or abandon their kiosk wares entirely to stare pensively out across the passing landscapes imagining perhaps alternative realities in some parallel dimensions.

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“Untrue Finns” Exhibition in Murmansk

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The cultural festival of “Barents Bird” was organised in Murmansk, northern Russia in April 2016. I was invited to participate in the festival program and bring my exhibition the Untrue Finns to the northern city of Murmansk. I was both honoured and delighted to participate in this buzzing international event that brought together artists, including musicians, painters and photographers. As Murmansk is reachable by train, I decided to take the “scenic route” by travelling by train first from Helsinki to Saint Petersburg and later on via the coasts of the White Sea all the way to the Nordic port city of Murmansk. (I’ll post some travel shots in a later blog post).

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My exhibition, the Untrue Finns, is about people and their personal connection to Finland. I shot portraits of people from various immigrant backgrounds, who live in Finland and paired each portrait with a landscape that somehow describes the person’s relation to Finland. Nevertheless, the exhibition was also about criticising the stereotypical image of a Finnish identity. I wanted to portray the diversity and complexity of a personal identity also taking into consideration the fact that there seem to be instances who feel self-righteously in the position of defining who is a Finn and who is not. The arbitrary and unfair separation between the “true” or “real” and “untrue” or “unreal”. Hence, the name untrue Finns, which is a reference to the original English name of the populist right-wing party Finns (Perussuomalaiset in Finnish) formerly known as the True Finns.

I had two days to get everything ready for the exhibition – including getting the prints done and plan how to put up my work. The exhibition was organised in the local cultural palace DK Kirova, an old spacious, beautiful building situated right in the centre of the city. I received plenty of help with practical matters from the staff of the Finnish consulate in Murmansk, who had also promoted the event in the local media alongside with the festival organisation.

As the opening of the exhibition drew closer, my heart started racing faster – I was curious and a bit nervous to see what kind of a reaction my somewhat controversial thematics would trigger in the local audience. I was more than happy to see that the local audience was enthusiastic and that my thematics and work raised both interest and questions.

Here are some shots from the opening. All photo credits go to Maksim Malyutin of the Zebra crew.

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The former prison of Konnunsuo is now a reception centre

The former prison of Konnunsuo is a home to hundreds of asylum seekers. The reception centre of Joutseno is placed in the facilities of  an old prison, originally built in the early 1920s. The people living there spend their time waiting waiting to be given a decision on their asylum application, waiting to be deported back to their country, waiting to be deported back to another country of the European Union.  Days go on one after another and the asylum application period seems almost like a never-ending process.

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The Joutseno Reception Centre, built in the old Konnunsuo Prison, is home to hundreds of asylum seekers. The people living there spend their time waiting to be given a decision on their asylum application, waiting to be deported back to their country, waiting to be deported back to another country of the European Union. Photographing Joutseno, I wanted to portray the thick atmosphere of anticipation, of time spent waiting in an in-between-like place, a sort of purgatory. Long, restless days follow each other tediously, and the asylum application period seems like a never-ending process.

There is also a small wing that was later on transformed into an aliens’ detention centre. This small centre hosts around 10-30 aliens [sic], awaiting deportation to either a third country of the European Union (these people would be referred to in EU jargon as “Dublin cases” as per the Dublin Convention), or back to their countries of origin. Controversially, the Detention Centre was originally planned to host families and children, contrary to that which human rights’ groups and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture have petitioned. Groups such as Amnesty International, amongst many others, have consistently campaigned against the detainment especially of minors and people in more vulnerable status for immigration purposes.

In fact, in their annual report CPT stated that any kind of detention on the grounds of immigration issues should not exceed 96 hours, concluding that anything above that usually results in severe mental health issues. This is the case especially amongst torture victims and others who already face problems concerning mental health. I believe that detention on immigration grounds is a very questionable procedure altogether. The tricky part of it that one never knows how long they will be detained; some end up staying just days, others wait for several months.

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Finland, receiving maybe the highest number of migrants in its history in 2015, is facing a new kind of challenge, similar to other countries of the European Union. Due to its northern geographic position it has never had to deal with issues concerning a vastly increasing amount of asylum seekers at once (as opposed to countries in Southern Europe such as Greece, Italy and Malta, who have been left mostly alone in dealing with immigration issues, despite very weak institutional backup and increasing financial crises). Unaccustomed to this level of immigration, there was a big public debate about what to do about the challenge. Some politicians were even talking about re-evaluating the principles of the Schengen Agreement, that is, the freedom of movement within the European Union.

As the amounts of incoming asylum seekers grows higher, so grows the need for more housing. New reception centres were opened in various places such as old factory buildings, closed schools and hospitals. In Joutseno, it was decided to extend the facility’s capacity in order to host more asylum seekers. The Finnish Red Cross offered its assistance and built about six tents, each of which could host about 20 or so people.

During our visit I went to see these tents and met some of the people staying in them. It’s not so bad, I thought to myself, having experienced a humanitarian crisis in Greece during my time there in 2010 and yes, I had seen a lot worse. I have seen entire families living in parks, detention centres being packed with double or triple their capacities and have witnessed an unspeakable amount of human suffering and homelessness.

In Joutseno these are mostly young men, sharing these big tents together, each having a bed to sleep on and the heating was working well. The asylum seekers are offered warm meals every day and they can go grocery shopping in case they rather cook their own food. There are classes of Finnish language offered too, so what seems to be the problem here?

Pro forma, there are no severe problems. The Finnish authorities seem to be dealing with these issues rather professionally, ensuring that people get equal treatment no matter where they came from. But from an outsider’s point of view I see a big problem in the whole asylum process in Finland.

First of all it is a fact of human nature that people want to work – and they want to learn the local language – so they can function in the society. So why are we closing people in to a centre 20 kilometres from the nearest town, with no connection to the local population for months, if not years, without proper work?  The prison of Konnunsuo was originally built as far away from residential ares as possible, as it was a prison. Now the people who stay there are in a completely opposite situation – they would want to integrate in the society, and would probably like to meet Finnish people in order to practice the language and maybe go to a work place for an internship to get an idea of how working life looks in the northern hemisphere.

However, due to Finnish policy, asylum seekers are not allowed to work for the first year or so. (I’m sure there are well-founded reasons for that, mostly to combat grey economy, it seems). But isn’t it a little counterproductive to first make people wait for months or even years for their decision, and then if they are admitted asylum put them through the integration process? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to let people interact with locals and have access to employment, where they would learn at least some Finnish and also feel that they are a useful part of the society?