Interview With Juha Arvid Helminen
Nietzsche said that madness is rare in individuals, but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule. This is the exact philosophy that could describe in an appropriate way Juha Arvid Helminen photography. Since 2008 the Finnish photographer has been investigating, in the photo series “Invisible Empire”, how people’s personal identity can be obfuscated in the name of their authority, religion, traditions. The monochromatic photographs reveals black clothed figures with their faces completely bandaged standing against black backgrounds. Most of the time Helminen’s costuming takes inspiration from historic moments when uniforms allowed individuals to commit atrocities. The carefully composed imagery enhance curiosity and meditation on the literal and metaphorical dark side of humanity.
How did you decide photography would be the perfect medium to express your ideas?
I was studying graphic design at the time when I became interested in Photoshop. And because I didn’t want to just photoshop other people’s photos so I started to photograph myself. Little by little I grew more into it, starting with photographing schoolmates’ fashion and some portraits for myself to use. I started to slowly develop my own style and got in to study photography in the best school in Finland, Lahti Institute of Design.
The photo series entitled “The Invisible Empire” explores how people, prisoners of traditions, religion, political thoughts, professions, hide their true persona and create walls between them. How does this idea come to you? Are your works carrying more a spirit of cliché breaking or a message to avoid past errors?
The series has been influenced by many different artists but the main one is history and the news. I think that you have to create photographs and if they work, make more instead of merely thinking about doing something. In another words, I started first making pictures and then reading about the subjects. The new knowledge inspired new pictures. I’ve always been interested in the way power wants to cover its empty message in the most beautiful veil. This surfise has great meaning in my art. The way rituals create bonds between humans and, at the same time, distract us from the real state of issues.
Every element of clothing and set design in your photos is colored in black. Which is the process that takes you more time: styling or photography? Please take us behind the curtains of your working studio.
The photoshoot is just one, short stage of my working process. It might be a surprise but I don’t feel any deeper connection with cameras or photographing. It all starts with an idea; a theme or an era, and then I start to sketch the idea and seek for the proper outfits. When the day of the photoshoot is near, I contact one of my trusted models. The shoot doesn’t usually take that long. Then comes hours and hours of photoshop.
Usually you sketch the photograph-to-be in detail and then the planned photo is taken. Your work seems meticulously arranged, is there room for improvisation or last minute change during the shooting?
People sometimes have the wrong impression that I am terribly precise but really I’m a very chaotic person. That deliberate order seen in the final work is the outcome of total chaos. Often the sketched idea doesn’t work and the real art work comes from the extras I photographed at the studio. It’s great to look for suitable photos from older shoots. The piece entitled ”101” (2015) was created this way. I was simply captivated by the posture of the officer in the middle and worked around it. It is like a puzzle. Even though the themes are dark, the photoshoots are upbeat moments spent with friends who often model for me. The humor helps, since some find the black bandages and masks distressing. In the photoshoot I look for a certain atmosphere and if I don’t achieve it, the photoshoot is failure.
Most of the time your photographs are related to past events and authority figures, but visually they tend to look so futuristic. Do you think that there will always exist an unavoidable link between the past and the future and the human nature will never change?
When you look at the state of the world today, it feels hopeless, but it’s important to remember that never in the history of humans have so many people went to sleep with their stomachs full. People are living healthier and longer. I think that the beast won’t go away but you can control it by accepting that it’s in every one of us.
The eyes hold the truth and it is where people are usual to look to understand what the person is thinking. In your photos the characters have their faces bandaged, it remains still a mask don’t you think?
Without the bandages and masks ideologies would fall apart. My characters are the slaves of these traditions. There’s something intriguing about it. We can also ask, how many ”masks” we ourselves wear every day. There’s a public and a personal me. A me, which we show to our loved ones and a more shallow me when we go to work. There’s a small Batman and a Bruce Wayne living inside us.
We live in a constant flow of information: Internet, phones, Television. These are instruments that nowadays facilitate the work of leading people to keep the mass under control, why not a kind of “Big Brother is watching you”. How do you live this part of human history? Do you fear the future?
I don’t think that Orwell’s dystopia is possible in a organized civil society. Knowledge is hard to control in the time of the internet. There’s more of a problem of too much information. The amount makes numb. It also makes us ”experts” who don’t trust the people who are actually familiar with the subject. We humans have a desire to look for information which is already suitable for our own world view. It doesn’t educate, though, it makes us just more stupid. But no matter how dark your world view is, it's important to remember the triumph of democratic societies. Country/State after another has abandoned, for example, death penalty. You have to be vigilant but also have faith in the future.
E.E. Cummings said: “The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” How does Art reflect and impact your life? To what point are your works an extension of yourself?
I think it’s important to find balance whatever you do. To accept criticism of your work and at the same time stay true to yourself. We are not alone in a sense that we are a product of the environment and our genes.
Art is a good way to deal with the world. My works have found international audience because the themes, even though painful, are also universal. I am and I am not my art.
A big part of your artist work is reading. Who are your favorite writers and the book that impressed you most?
Because of my vivid imagination I find it hard to read fiction. It’s simply too hard for me to focus. Naturally, though, I read Frank Herbert’s Dune and Clive Barker’s Books of Blood but as I grew older, I’ve shifted towards reading only nonfiction. I have been, and am still, interested in the mechanisms behind acts of genocides. The way a society gives up the thought that killing someone is wrong. We want to think that the evil which destroys whole village is a feature in other nations, not ours. Few countries have been through their own bloody past as carefully as Germany. It gives some comfort that totally militaristic countries like Germany and Japan are nowadays known as rather pacifistic. We people change and grow. I think everybody shut read Jonathan Glovers Humanity, A Moral History of the Twentieth Century.
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Are you still afraid of the dark?
All images, courtesy of artist: Juha Arvid Helminen