LAURA BÖÖK. WALKING ON RIVERS
by Karl Ketamo


Tell us about your approach to photography. How did it all started? What are your first me mories of your first shots?

Laura Böök (LB): I had some kind of obsession with storytelling and recording things when I was growing up – even as I was experiencing things, I was already narrating them in my head. I’ve always kept a written journal, even if sporadically, and I guess taking photographs started as another kind of diary. (But it was more about making sense of things for myself, all these options to instantly record and share life didn’t exist. How crazy to remember life before Internet!)

As a teenager I took a lot of photographs of my friends, squats where I spent much of my time, long walks across Helsinki and long train journeys across Europe. I mostly wanted to record certain moods and moments. In high school I took some photography courses and started working in the darkroom. The first assignment was to take a series of photographs inspired by a poem. I climbed into an abandoned industrial building with my friend and photographed her on the rooftop. 

After school I did a one year photography course in a town that was so small there wasn't much else to do than work in the darkroom until your head was spinning. The photographs I did there were black-and-white, slightly surrealistic self-portraits – something completely different from what I am photographing now.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘Walking on Rivers’

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

LB: There was no research involved when I first started taking photographs because it was all spontaneous and intuitive, not about working on a project, building a coherent series or even trying to communicate something to others. That spontaneity can be difficult to find now.

Can you tell us a bit about your educational background? What are some of your best memories of your studies and what was your relationship with photography at that time?

LB: I studied a BA in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales (Still called University of Wales, Newport when I started there) and graduated quite recently, in the summer of 2014. The most important change since I started studying is probably that working on a photography project doesn’t mean to simply go and hang around somewhere and wait for things to happen. Even though coincidence is still an important part of my work.

What made you decide to go to Newport? Could you tell a bit about what the focus is upon within your study?

LB: I wanted to study at Newport because it felt like a school where you learn to think about what subjects’ interest you as a photographer and take time to work on personal projects.

There’s a lot of freedom for finding your own voice as a photographer, whether it’s a traditional journalistic approach or a more conceptual one. I would say the focus is on projects that have a documentary base and deal with contemporary society, but also explore new ways to communicate visually and push the boundaries of documentary photography.

Those influences have been important. Another important thing was to start working with people and communities on a more long term base, and realize that making personal connections and working with people comes quite naturally to me.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘Walking on Rivers’

This connection with the people really shows in your images. On ‘Walking on Rivers’ it’s seemingly easy to notice that you get close to the people and they feel comfortable with you.

LB: For me one of the most meaningful parts of working as a photographer has been to be able to spend time with people and share some moments of their lives. There are a lot of moments and conversations that are not there in the photographs but they are just as important.

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

LB: On some days I want to get a consultant to teach me all about self promotion and fancy websites, and on other days I want to close my account on every social media.

The best thing about ”photography in the era of digital and social networking” is that it opens up so many new possibilities. Although a maze Internet provides platform for projects, photographers and audiences.

Hah that sound’s really familiar. It’s probably something that many photographers share. OK, continue with your work. Can you describe your personal research?

LB: The most powerful projects for me are ones that have a very personal aspect but also speak about wider questions in society, contemporary culture or politics. This is also reflected in the research. I try to read a lot about and around the subject, and also see what other photographers or visual artists have worked on related to the theme. But there also needs to be some more personal connection to a story – often the idea for a project starts from a sentence I read or hear, some slightly absurd or poetic detail that gets stuck in my head for a long time, or a personal encounter with someone. Once I’ve started a project, what makes me continue is a curiosity to understand more about the people I'm photographing and their experiences. I’ve also studied sociology and that background influences the kind of subjects I choose. Or maybe the same interests that led me to study sociology also led me to study documentary photography.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘The Freedom Theatre’

For an example I’ve worked on several projects related to migration and experiences of refugees. I visited the first closed detention center for migrants in Finland in 2002 when it first ”opened” and then again a couple of years later, together with a group of migrant activists. In the meantime, the detention center had moved from a former prison to a purpose built facility and the director had learned to speak casually, without flinching, about suicide attempts as a part of reality at the detention center. Those two short visits showed very clearly the institutional violence that is present just under the surface of our calm and

functioning society, and that made a more lasting impact than any academic books about migration. So having a personal connection to a story doesn’t mean that it has to be about me, but it has to start from something that touches me on an emotional and direct level as well as an intellectual level. That’s hopefully what photography can do in general and what makes it powerful.

Like you say some of these realities behind your stories are very dark. Outside your work do you find it difficult to deal with these matters yourself? Do you get emotionally attached to your subjects and do you think that it should or does reflect from your work?

LB: It can be difficult but you can’t ignore the world either. I’m fortunate because I’ve always been surrounded by people who are working on the same issues - whether as photographers, journalists, researchers or activists or any combination of those. Without their knowledge and experience and support most of my projects probably wouldn’t exist or would look very different.
And yes, I do get emotionally attached, but it’s difficult to know if it’s reflected in the work. Maybe other people can answer that better? In general I think it does show if people invest time and effort in a project, or if not. With some of my best photographs I can remember the moment well: what was said, how was the mood. But I haven’t tried to make people forget I am there or have a camera. The portraits are a mix of chance/spontaneity, staging or posing, my ideas of how the portrait should look like and also the idea the person I am photographing has about how to look in front of the camera. Of course there’s also a lot of pictures that need to be left out of the edit because it’s only about the moment or story behind the pictures, but it doesn’t come across in the photograph.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘Walking on Rivers’

What is your relationship towards the camera itself? 

LB: For me personally or the work I am doing at the moment, the camera, format or film vs digital question doesn’t feel like the most important thing. If anything, the strategy is that there is no complicated strategy – all or nearly all of the Walking on Rivers series is photographed using the same 50 mm lens. Of course I can appreciate other people’s work where the format or camera is an important part. And of course film is nice, but I’m not as fussed about it as some other photographers.

Tell us about your latest project ‘Walking on Rivers’?

LB: My latest project is called ‘Walking on Rivers’. I’ve been photographing for nearly two years now in a small town in Northern Finland called Pudasjärvi, focusing on six Congolese families who have resettled there after spending fifteen years in refugee camps.

Pudasjärvi is a shrinking town. Nearly half of the population has moved out since the 1960’s, and the town now has around 8500 residents.
Unlike most small towns in Finland, Pudasjärvi has an open attitude to immigration and at some point the local council set a goal that in 2018, one of ten residents would have an immigrant background – quite a high number in Finland. However, during the time I've worked on the project, three of the Congolese families I’ve photographed have already moved away to bigger cities.

I’m from Helsinki and I didn’t have any relation to Pudasjärvi before the project. I had never heard of the town until I visited on an assignment (for daily newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet where I worked in summer 2012.) There was, and is, a lot of discussion going on about migration policies and about racism in the Finnish society. Many people still have the idea that to be Finnish, to belong here, you need to be white and have grandparents born in Finland, but that’s being challenged more and more.

This ongoing debate was one motivation to start the project, but the photography also gave an opportunity to explore small-town life and how it’s changing.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘Walking on Rivers’ 

Do you see this as more as a story of Finland or do you see connections to a broader theme?

LB: There are definitely connections: to the situation in Europe in general, other stories about migration, other small places that struggle with being somehow left behind in an urbanized society. And maybe more universal human themes about home, where it can be found, whether it’s just in one place.

At the same time it was an important starting point that it’s a story about Finland and I hadn’t seen it photographed before.

Do you have further development plans for the project? Are you still continuing with it and where would like to go with it?

LB: When I started the project I thought the story would be interesting mainly in Finland. It has been a surprise, but a very positive one, that until now the project has been shown more outside Finland, at a few festivals and group exhibitions. Now I am living in Finland again and working on getting the series exhibited also there.

From the beginning I thought it’s a story that works best as a book and that’s still what I am hoping and working on. I have also been recording interviews with different people I’ve photographed and I would like to include more direct comments and experiences from them.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘Walking on Rivers’

How about influences - Can you name some artists that have influences in someway?

LB: It’s difficult to name one influence but I’ll mention a few photographers or projects that have inspired me. I’m very inspired by the work of Susan Meiselas, and the respect and long term commitment she has for her subjects. She is raising important questions about the ethics of documentarism and representation, and also about how to expand documentary storytelling.

I like Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s book ‘Ghetto’, and how they have used the same set of questions as a starting point to examine different kinds of closed or gated communities around the world. There is a matter-of-factness to both the text and images that keeps a cool distance but also cuts straight to the core.

Another favourite, completely opposite in style, is Alessanda Sanguinetti’s ‘The Adventures of Guille and Belinda’. It’s a very intimate, playful, beautiful project about two cousins, their immediate surroundings and imaginary worlds. I saw the work in an exhibition over ten years ago and went back to the series many times. In those photographs Guille and Belinda are around 10 or 12 years old. I didn’t know until recently that Sanguinetti was still photographing them now that they are adults, and coming across the more recent photographs felt almost like reconnecting with old friends.

What are some of the latest show’s you’ve seen that really had an impact on you?

LB: I still have some kind of obsession with storytelling and I have been thinking a lot about how to tell stories through photography, or why to use photography, and whether still images can ever be as powerful as film or literature. So the shows that have been most inspiring recently have been focusing on new forms of narrative photography. During a visit to Amsterdam I saw the Stedelijk Museum’s exhibition ‘On the Move: Storytelling in Contemporary Photography and Graphic Design’, which included both old and new favourites.

Last week I went on a small gallery tour in Helsinki and saw (a) life by Mari Mäkiö, a show that’s currently in photographic gallery Hippolyte.  The exhibition creates a fictional life story of a man who had died alone and left behind a box of photographs that the photographer somehow came across. What made
it interesting is that the photographer collaborated with people including fiction writers and private detectives to build up the narrative. I think there was only one photograph taken by Mäkiö herself (a picture of the shoe box containing the archival photos) but the whole exhibition is about the role photography plays in our culture, to create memories and identities.


© Laura Böök from the series ‘The Freedom Theatre’

What do your plans for the future consist of? Is there already a new project that you are working on? 

LB: Besides being busy with editing and going further with Walking on Rivers I’ve been working on another long term project documenting a theatre school in Palestine, and I’m going back soon for a few weeks – maybe to continue with that project, or maybe something else. I have some other plans and projects underway that will hopefully be more clear in the next few months. Meanwhile I’m trying to stay inspired, read a lot, and slowly coming up with ideas for a new long-term project. I love the sea even more than I love photography so the next project I have in mind is about different islands ”at the edge of the world”, both in Finland and far away, and different ideas about paradise.


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LINKS 
Laura Böök 
Noorderlicht 
Finland