A land of contradictions, Finland occupies a latitude in northern Europe that means winter sunlight is rare. Darkness, snow, and arctic air rule for a large portion of the year, and while we may associate that with gloom, Finns are consistently ranked the happiest people on Earth. Many people’s first thoughts of Finland may be of a stable economy and strong welfare state rather than glamour. But some of the country’s most famous citizens, Kimi Räikkönen and Tommi Mäkinen, are known the world over for their death-defying ability in motorsports and willingness to push the limits.
These apparent contradictions, this happiness in the face of misery, is present throughout Tommi Viitala’s photographs. He chases contrast most of all. He has embraced what he calls “Finnish melancholy” and uses it as his guide when travelling abroad in cities like Tallinn and Budapest. He takes inspiration from the nuances of his home country and attempts to reflect these subtleties in a way that resonates outside its borders.
“Commonplace things can be fascinating” is a simple statement but as true now as it was in 1972, when Finnish author and Moomins creator Tove Jansson wrote it in The Summer Book. Viitala’s photographs foreground commonplace things in Helsinki and beyond. In one example, a couple sit together on a crowded train. The Finnish melancholy Viitala seeks is on full display, the couple’s facial expressions area a little sad but verging on unreadable, and certainly no smiles to be found. Look longer, however, and the intimacy of this moment, in a public space, becomes clear. They lean into each other. They are almost separate from the rest of the passengers. They are on display but showing nothing, and Viitala has found the contrast that so enthralls him.
Throughout his work, contrast appears not only in the people but also the framing of his photographs. A man’s pitch-black silhouette stands out against a glowing orange sign. A ray of sunshine slashes diagonally through a darkened room illuminating its sole occupant. Viitala gives us, in his own words, “exceptions and small glitches to pick up small beautiful details from those moments.”