Light collector

Text: 
Risto Lindstedt
Photo: 
Kaisa Rautaheimo

Hannu Lindroos defines himself as a press photographer who works with available light, trying to collect all the droplets of light. He also prefers movement rather than people staring at the camera.

There was something strange about Hannu. It was not an over-powering or awkward characteristic and only strange because I didn’t recognise it. It puzzled me for years, even though I didn’t notice it every time we did a story together. And even when Hannu did snap, it was like a flash, over in the bat of an eyelid.

Hannu and journalist Ville Blåfield were on assignment in Viipuri. Some people tried to rob them in the Torkkeli park, tried being the operative word. It would have been easy to identify one of the assailants for days afterwards. His face was adorned with a red circle, delivered by a blow from a 300mm lens.

When I heard the story from Viipuri, I knew that I had read a similar story somewhere and Hannu’s “strangeness” stopped bothering me. The man is clearly the alter ego of Jussi Koskela, a character from Väinö Linna’s book Under the North Star. Not that he is a sullen bad-tempered character, although by no means is he a chatterbox either. And neither is he pathologically mean. In fact, Hannu is the opposite; he’s the one who brings the fresh pods of peas and strawberries from the market to the editorial office. On assignment you have to be alert to make sure the expenses are divided equally. Hannu has a fast draw on his wallet.

Hannu and Jussi share a strong need to protect their personal inviolability. Jussi is fictional but the characteristics given to him by Väinö Linna are true to life. In the book some men who have been fighting in the village also want to attack Jussi, who just happens to be passing by. He takes out a stake from a fence and knocks out the first two assailants, muttering “I… don’t do anything… to anyone. But nobody is going to touch me.”

That phrase would fit well in Hannu’s mouth.

Two promotions

In the Vallila district of Helsinki in the 1950s, Pertti Salolainen (now a member of parliament) was considered as a promising swimmer in the Helsinki Workers’ Swimming Club.

The talents of Hannu Lindroos were still a little unclear. Yes he played ice hockey “but badly, so it was best to move to the other side of the rink boards”. The decision showed good awareness. In 2004 Lindroos was knighted as the honorary photographer of Finland’s winning ice hockey team.

His father Mauno was a pattern maker, a career Hannu also considered although he was no handyman. He had friends as set designers and then there was the alternative of working in a photography lab. Hannu’s uncle had given him a camera with a 50mm lens and he had taken some pictures, which he calls “those bridge-in-the-middle-of-reeds type of art images”.

In 1965 Hannu started work in the Lehtikuva photo agency’s lab, developing films. In just a few months he had developed his whole future. “Lehtikuva had Finland’s best photographers like Pentti Koskinen, Ville Laitila and even Kalle Kultala for a while before he went freelance. The printers were also good and it was a good opportunity to learn all the basic things related to photography,” he says.

Hannu’s enthusiasm grew among the developer fumes. He was rolling films from large reels into 36 frame cartridges for the photographers whose job it really was, and in return they let him borrow cameras for the evenings and nights. He photographed a lot.

After completing his national service as an artilleryman and returning to civilian life, Hannu was promoted as a press photographer in September 1968. Editor-in-chief Teo Mertanen offered him a job on the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. It was a major promotion and Hannu has stuck to his press photographer title throughout the years despite some attempts to change it. Off-duty, an equally important promotion was his becoming Taata, grandfather, after his daughter gave birth to a girl. 

Giving up is not an option

The press photographer spent 12 years covering news. The subject matter widened and the assignments lengthened when Helsingin Sanomat established its Sunday pages in the early 1970s. “We were travelling around Finland and 300km north of Helsinki already started feeling exotic, but only in the beginning,” he remembers. Soon Finland became something familiar and then it was the turn of the rest of the world.

Hannu came to Suomen Kuvalehti magazine in 1978. The magazine was expanding rapidly and its editorial team in full flow, but nobody had to move as fast as Hannu Lindroos. During his busiest year he spent 220 days on the road. It was in those years that the foundation was laid for the concept “Hannu”.

This concept embodies fast reactions, survival even under difficult circumstances and an assurance about the quality of the images. It was a time when the editorial team reacted quickly to international disasters and political upheavals. The threshold for immediate departure to cover an international story was much lower. “Nowadays there has to be at least 10,000 bodies before they even consider reacting,” says Hannu.

He had no special strategy for survival. The objective was to get the photos. “This meant that we worked according to the needs of the assignment and never gave up. It would have been a waste of time to go somewhere and just come back with pictures of the sunset.” 

Sometimes even candlelight was enough. In 1993 Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Congress of People’s Deputies and its Supreme Soviet. The Russian parliament viewed this action as illegal and occupied Moscow’s White House. Hannu and journalist Risto Repo also remained in the besieged building. 

Vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi led the besieged parliament and was at centre of the world’s attention in a country sliding towards civil war. Although Hannu was already in the same building with Rutskoi, taking his picture was by no means a formality.

Under the cover of darkness, Hannu slipped through a hole in the iron fence and the cordon outside the building, bought several cartons of cigarettes and bottles of cognac, bribed his way back into the dark building and found a way through the cellars back to the upper floors. When Repo smelled the smoke of a much-awaited Marlboro, he exclaimed “Hannu damn it” in the dark corridor.

The cigarette and cognac played their part in finally getting Hannu into Rutskoi’s room, where he photographed the newly proclaimed president and his two sons in candlelight.

Many kinds of literacy

The almost mystical trademark of Hannu’s pictures is their “eye contact”. Mystical because it is not a case of good luck as when shooting with a motor drive, but capturing the moment with an instinct that works in a matter of seconds. The dramatic curve of his pictures often comes from the telling gaze of their protagonists. 

“It’s about the ability to read faces,” says Hannu. “When you have been watching a lot of faces through a small hole, you know when there is going to be a sideways movement or when the eyes look up. Then you don’t need to struggle any more. That’s it.”

The ability to read faces is related to the ability to read movement, which Hannu has been practicing when photographing sports, especially ice hockey. He has covered the ice hockey world championships 15 times, the Olympics five times and the Izvestija tournament six times.

When Finland won the world championship on 1995 Hannu had already been adopted into the team. As the champions were slowly parading in their convertibles through the cheering crowds in the Helsinki city centre, Hannu was there smirking on the back seat of one car, although not quite in eye contact mode.

Hooked on the Soviet Union

Despite his travels around the world, or perhaps precisely because of that, Hannu still speaks stubbornly about the necessity for domestic reportage. And if the editorial brainstorming is not working, Hannu likes to suggest a reportage with the title “Mallorca, an island of contrasts”. 

So far he has not made it to Mallorca for work reasons, but has travelled all the more often to Russia. So often that he has been hooked, even without knowing the reason. Hannu still speaks (deliberately) about the Soviet Union and his workroom is a veritable museum of Soviet traditions. There are other memorabilia from his travels, but it is his collection of Lenin busts and Soviet lapel pins that provides the visually dominant attraction. “Russia is really such an unbelievable place, a fun playground where it’s easy and homely to take pictures,” he says.

He doesn’t talk about the good old days, but then he doesn’t exactly sing the praises of the current good times either. Firstly, he believes that journalists are losing the ability to read pictures. “It’s not enough to understand if the photo is the right or wrong way up.” 

Secondly, he is annoyed by the trend where journalists going on assignment are given a pretty pocket camera and told to “take some snaps” while they are on location. “It undervalues both the journalist’s and the photographer’s jobs. Neither job gets done properly. We’ve seen that over and again.”

He has also witnessed how “reportage stories are being planned in advance. Simply having a meeting is enough to kill a photo.” 

To kill those photos that “are already boring. There is no moment, no reason, why the subject has been plonked next to a pine tree. They could have been standing there all night.”

Experience passed on

Hannu has received many prizes but his selection as the 2007 magazine photographer of the year in Finland had particular circumstances. He had just returned to work after getting a heart transplant. 

This meant leaving the disaster assignments behind and also strengthened his new role as the voice of experience. When his younger colleague Kaisa Rautaheimo was departing to Haiti, Hannu made sure that the equipment was appropriate and gave a brisk overview about what she could and what she absolutely should not do in a disaster area. When she was still away with her journalist colleague, Hannu was concerned that they should have the opportunity to talk about all the disturbing things they had witnessed.

I suggested to Hannu that we make one farewell journey to the Russian steppes in honour of the future memory of our joint working history, to see what we could make out of the fact that nothing happens. 

“Absolutely,” says Hannu. “When are we going?”