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Harri Pälviranta: Battered
Joshua Berger of Plazm interviews Pälviranta, a photographer from
Finland who documents the violence taking place in his former home town.
Pälviranta writes: "By photographing assaults and batteries I
wish show the real faces of street violence in Finland. In contrast to the
stereotypic portrayals of male heroicism and the worn-out attempts at
shocking people I am interested in dealing with the utmost banality
inherent in violence. What I find more unsettling than any single
representation of physical injuries is the everyday nature of street
violence and the laissez-faire attitude towards it in the Finnish
JB: Perhaps we should start at the beginning. Why did you start taking these shots? Was there a personal experience that led you to this subject matter?
HP: There is no personal violence experience behind all this. "Battered" springs from my interests towards violence as a topic. Before Battered I have worked with many other projects dealing with violence; landscapes of war, illegal guns in people's homes, prisons with political prisoners, etc. Most of the work I have done outside Finland. I believe it was late 2005, I was thinking about my practice and I realized that I should really look into my own hometown, Turku, Finland, as well, not just always depict maliciousness somewhere else. Because violence in the end always comes down to personal acts and sufferings, I decided to face the fact eyes open straight ahead. Naturally this is only one viewpoint towards pure "honest" violence. I am a pacifist with journalistic and academic backround, so I guess there is a lot of interpretative ethos behind my work. I enjoyed the challenge also. In the beginning I was not certain whether I would be able to do this at all. It was a subject matter and an approach that really sucked me into it, in good and bad ways.
So, how did you come to discover this type of behavior in your hometown?
As a Finn I have seen this happening throughout my life. First it appeared as a threat of violence at school yards, then it evolved to semi-accepted behavior of testing one's manhood at the city center. When I was considering a new subject matter, I happened to see a few fights and realized that I should try to cover the issue somehow.
I am curious if you have an opinion on why there is such a high rate of this type of violence in Finland. You tie the violence to alcohol in your statement about the work. Are there high instances of other alcohol-related problems?
I believe Finnish society has a seed of violence built into its foundation. Violence, although illegal and unacceptable, is still somehow part of the culture, sometimes it even seems appreciated. Finland's written history is war-centered and general discourse still celebrates the victories of the Finnish Winter War (World War II). Then there is a very high rate of violent crime in Finland, and Finland ranks the third in the amount of guns per capita, after the U.S. and Yemen. The consumption of alcohol isn't as high as in southern Europe. Generally, Finns consume alcohol during the weekends. It is a drink-to-get-drunk type of drinking. Also I believe Finnish society is very work oriented, rationality and achievements are celebrated and emotions are pushed aside or played down. Somehow they burst out during partying. All this leads to the sad equation, to direct violence.
Can you tell me about your process? What's it like when you are going out and looking for a fight?
In the beginning I walked around the town center on my own during the weekend nights, kind of familiarized myself with the night life. Bit by bit I became aware of the locations where majority of these incidents take place. Then I started to approach the battered people, simply asking them if I could take their picture. I also approached the local police administration asking permission to accompany them on their duty during the weekend nights. After three months discussion I was permitted to do this.
One learnes to identify the situations that contain the seed for violence. One also learnes suitable mechanisms for approaching people and photographing them—by trial and error, spending enough time out there. My practice was basic, almost dull, I just hung around the scene and, when I felt it was appropriate, I asked people who had been battered to take their photo, and made the pictures. There was nothing heroic in my practice, quite the opposite. I was often treated like a parasite. Sometimes I felt rather humiliated.
Because of what you are witnessing in your society? It seems if anyone would be humiliated, it would be the subjects. They are in the compromising position, yes?
I felt humiliated because at the time of the photography, I was often viewed as a scavenger, or yellow press type. I was thinking I was doing something worthy and more thoughtful. My intentions were anti-violent, showing something that should not happen. Also I felt ashamed by all of us involved in the situation: me, both parties of the violence, the audience around the battery scene, the whole location, how foreseeable it all was. There is nothing brave in these situations, quite the opposite. These batteries are the most banal performances in our society.
I was and still am thinking about the position of the people I photographed. I wanted to show the faces of the hurt. I asked all of them if I could photograph them for this project, and even though they all gave their consent, ethically my practice was critical and discordant. It is understandable to think of their position as being compromising or uncomfortable. But at the same time, everything I have photographed is one hundred percent public. I think the shame stands forward here; through pictures we recognize something obtuse and uncomfortable within us.
Maybe as spectators we are tied to a feeling of uncanniness, we wish to see violence and death but at the same time we reject and condemn the source or presenter of it.
Hearing you talk about your process makes me think of you simply as a conduit, a documentarian in more of a photojournalistic sense, telling a story. Do you see your role differently?
In the very beginning, when I was considering this subject matter, I intentionally decided to work within the social documentary tradition, refreshing it with "post" attitude. I studied the classics, Weegee, Enrique Metinides, and crime scene and police photography. I selected a hard flash, and I wanted to combine it with portraiture tradition. I worked with film using a Hasselblad with a Metz (and sometimes also a ring flash) attached. I was after a "Jacob Riis look." I wanted to withdraw from the idea of staged or constructed reality. So I also played around with the conceptualizations and configurations of realism, for example referring to research on performative practices and how we 'produce' reality in certain situations.
I find it very interesting that no-one has questioned the realness of the pictures! I ask how do we recognize the real? I think this takes "Battered" away from pure photojournalism. There is still some bit of photojournalism there, yes. But certainly there's more to it.
This is a very interesting point. I never doubted the "Battered" images were real. They look real to me. But in this era of photography, it is often hard to know. Certainly someone like Jacob Riis treated his images in an editorial manner—which was perhaps meant to amplify their impact, create a cohesion among them and an emotional feeling about them—but there is no doubt they are real. So, when you say you "refresh the work with a post attitude" can you clarify what that means? Do you mean you are processing them all so they have a certain feeling? Are you manipulating the images?
Now you are raising a major question! I am using "post-documentary attitude" as a reference to theoretical classifications and also to art field documentary practices, that is trying to keep classical observation-based photo journalism at arm's lenght, or negotiate with it. In my opinion post attitude in general refers to contemporary theories of documentarism, to writings and conceptualizations such as Rosalind Krauss' and Bill Nichols' among others. Simply put, post-documentary is critical towards itself, it claims that documentary is a diverse practice that is loaded with subjective motives, playfulness and reflective approach. It acknowledges that documentaries are audienced differently depending on the people and their orientations, and that post-documentaries also flirt with public-private delineations (for example Big Brother, docu-soaps or webcams). Post-documentary can also acknowledge its position as reality-making-machinery. My practice is documentary in such way that I am not only depicting or visually showing something, but more like through documentary practice constructing a chosen cohesive reality. I take distance to fictional genres. I bring together real occasions and build a cohesive gallery narrative, a kind of a statement with them. In Battered I am using well tested generic practices–naturalism and press photography–to say something about contemporary city life in Finland. In lived reality it doesn't happen or appear as cohesive, but with photography it can be manifested as such.
At its best, post-documentary is an approach that is self-reflective, it argues against its own practices, it is aware of the underlying structures of the practice.
I have not manipulated the images, there are no tricks whatsoever involved. But certainly I have carefully chosen the techique though, trying to build a cohesive series out of them. But the "post" appears more in the conceptual or theoretical level than in the visual appearence of the pictures.
Have the works been exhibited publicly in Finland? And, if so, what has the response been?
Battered has been exhibited in Finland in solo and in group shows. When it was first exhibited, it caused a discussion in the media. That discussion focused on the informative issues, that there are some 35,000 reported batteries in Finland every year. And Finland is a small country with only 5.3 million inhabitants. In general the response has been positive but certainly there have been critical statements as well. Some have questioned my ethics, some have said this is photojournalistic shit with no art in it. But certainly it caused reactions. For me it has been the most engaging and significant work. It both pleases and troubles me still. I am glad I do not need to do this again, such a hard task it was, physically and mentally even more so.