Artist - Scientist

Text: 
Tanja Aitamurto
Photo: 
Kaapo Kamu

Harri Pälviranta does not photograph or document but rather makes photographs. He uses them to force us to confront violence.

Harri Pälviranta has two sides: Pälviranta the scientist and Pälviranta the artist. Let's start with the scientist. Scientist Pälviranta is working on his doctoral thesis at the Aalto University School of Art and Design.

"I'm proud that I have studied at university and that I am interested in societal issues. The notion that photographers are stupid used to disturb me," he says in his light-filled work room in the Vallila district of Helsinki.

Pälviranta, 39, does his best to disprove the notion. Without noticing it – perhaps – he is talking science. For example, this is how he answers when I ask him to introduce himself: "I am a photographic artist and researcher who uses documentary grammar in his works and moves around the concept of verisimilitude, but not in a photojournalistic sense," he says, with a hint of the Tampere accent in his voice.

Then there is the other side of Pälviranta, the photographic artist who leaves the books and theories in his work room and heads into the night to take pictures. Then it's not a question of talking science but about photographing the Finnish culture of violence. These are the images that Pälviranta is known for. His series Battered shows fights and other acts of night-time violence in Finland. Another series about gun culture shows Finnish school killers, among others.

Images that force you to look

The Battered series features bleeding people in the middle of fight and holding their battered faces. To get his pictures, Pälviranta accompanied the police photographing violent night-time scenes. Is he one of those heroic photographers who risk their own safety for their work?

"I didn't feel like a hero when photographing Battered. The opposite. It was a humbling experience and made me think a lot about what is exploitation. What is right and wrong, and what right do I have to do something like this?"

Pälviranta has been taking pictures of situations that most people turn away from or hurry past as quickly as possible.

But Pälviranta forces you to look with his images. Just like Battered, his series on Finnish gun culture makes you look at a school killer eye to eye. He has photographed overgrown and snow-covered shooting ranges, and men with their guns. His latest, most arresting part of the series consists of three portraits: the school killers Matti Saari and Pekka-Eric Auvinen, and a man both familiar and unknown – Pälviranta himself. The photos have been constructed from more than a thousand news snippets about school shootings. Let's rewind a little to understand what Pälviranta's face is doing among the school shooters.

Photographing violence started to fascinate Pälviranta already in the 1990s when he was studying political science. He photographed the different dimensions of violence from weapons to the radars of the Finnish Defence Forces. He photographed prison cells with his monorail camera in different parts of the world: Russia, Israel and Germany. "The prisons were beautiful and charming. The corridors were full of different kinds of torture cells where different philosophies of torture had been practiced," he says.

As fascinating as the prison photography was, it raised a doubt in him whether this was a sustainable and enjoyable way to make photographic art.

"It was that male bravado typical to photographers: difficult and exciting. But after the adventures I would return to the safe haven of Finland where this kind of history is not supposed to exist. It's easy to look at evil somewhere else, but what about here?"

Pälviranta opened the door of his home on Linnankatu in the city of Turku and saw the nightly violence, the battered people. Photographing Battered taught him about violence, the difference between night and day.

"Finland's bright everyday life is a culture of rationality, whereas the night is the culture of emotion. During the day the emotions are strictly controlled and then in the dark the pressure valve is opened. That's when people smash each other in the face." This pattern is also repeated beyond the nightly fights outside the bars. Pälviranta gives an example from ice hockey. When the Finnish ice hockey player Pasi Marjamäki fought on the ice with his American colleague, a local newspaper quoted him as saying: "If I hadn't gone along with this, I would have been chicken."

School killer Pälviranta

Let's return to the school killers. "I could be one of them," says PaÅNlviranta, startlingly. In the news the school killers are described as people who like their own company, who are slightly reclusive.

"A few years ago I still fitted into this school killer category: I spent a lot of time alone, I liked being on the computer, I was interested in violence and I had never lived together with a woman," Pälviranta explains. Since then he has put some distance between himself and these characteristics, and currently lives with his partner and child. The school killers have been described as having problems both at school and in life in general. Pälviranta also didn't have it easy in his twenties.

"As a 20-year-old I could have fallen into an existential depression and become completely marginalised. It felt like I had been forced into this human role. I encountered the world thinking, this is a difficult place to be. In that sense I understand the actions of the school killers, although I don't accept them of course."

He wanted to study political science at university but failed to get through the entrance exams two years running. Luckily he had a hobby: photography. He spent the years of unemployment in the darkroom. Small things pushed him forwards, however. On his third attempt he was accepted at the University of Tampere. Then he took a student loan for 10,800 finnmarks (about 1800 euros), jumped on the train to Helsinki and went to buy a Hasselblad. Pälviranta took his next step forward when backpacking in New Zealand.

"I sat under a 900-year-old tree and wrote in my notebook that in ten year's time I will be a photographic artist."

He returned from New Zealand and after six months went to Turku to study art photography.

Societal essays, in images

Pälviranta's work takes sides, intelligently, without judging. Maybe his images could change the world, reduce violence?

"I would like to say that my images don't have an objective. But the objective is the same as with authors, politicians or civil society activists: I want to participate in the public debate because I see what is wrong and going badly. If I was an author, I could be an essayist and write pamphlet-like essays. With photography it's possible to produce similar socially critical argumentation."

Pälviranta is concerned about the debate regarding support for the arts. It pits two arguments against each other; one that says art should be practiced according to conditions determined by the market, while the other sees art having a value in itself.

"In each era there are religions that define speech. Sometimes it's the Cold War, sometimes capitalism. The economy is that religion now and economic talk is used to justify everything." There is strong streak of the idealist in Pälviranta.

"I dream of a world where it's not necessary to be constantly suffering from the pressure to perform. So it wouldn't be necessary to force oneself to work." Pälviranta is living out his utopia. He says that that he sprints from Torkkelinmäki in Helsinki to work at Arabianranta at the School of Art and Design at six in the morning because he is so excited about what he is doing.

"I'm completely privileged. The state is paying for what I do. From the perspective of the economic discourse I am useless, I don't produce value for anyone." Pälviranta's images have received international recognition and are on show around the world. He is a productive artist. "I just do," he explains his success. He also uses time to meet people and to create contacts. "Finding the people is the thing. I don't have any Finnish patrons who would help. I'm a do-it-yourself man." Pälviranta dreams about a museum exhibition abroad, in a major city of the arts.

"If I could bring together three or four projects about violence, for example at Brooklyn Museum or a similar place." Let's return once more to Pälviranta the scientist. He wants to define how photography is discussed and written about, including in this story. Because he does not photograph or document, but rather makes photographs. He wants to emphasize the process of photography.

"It would be strange to argue that the image is created when the button is pressed. There is always a huge amount of production in photojournalism. There is the organising and the post-production, the years of work beforehand."

Few people understand this process and that's why the demanding nature of photography is underrated. Like one of Pälviranta's relatives, who wondered why he had to study four years just to learn to press a button.