Interview by Mia Dillemuth | Photographs by Sofia Okkonen | English Editor Julie Uusinarkaus

Tell​ ​us​ ​a​ ​little​ ​bit​ ​about​ ​your​ ​past.​ ​What​ ​got​ ​you​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​photography?​ ​How​ ​would​ ​you​ ​describe​ ​yourself​ ​as​ ​an artist? 

In​ ​short, I​ ​would​ ​describe​ ​myself​ ​as​ ​a​ ​Helsinki​-based,​ ​thirty​-year​-old​ ​artist​ ​working​ ​with​ ​staged​ ​and​ ​fashion photography. From​ ​a young​ ​age​ ​I’ve​ ​been​​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​the fine arts,​ ​and​ ​throughout​ ​my​ ​life​ ​I​ ​have​ ​attended​ ​various​ ​art courses ​ and art schools.​ ​Getting​ ​selected​ ​to​ the ​Aalto University, ​Department​ ​of​ ​Photography​ ​in​ ​2008​ ​confirmed​ ​my​ ​career choice​ and​​ ​photography​ as​ ​my​ ​chosen​ ​medium​ ​for ​​self​-expression.

Can​ ​you​ ​introduce​ ​us​ to ​the​ ​ideas​ behind​ your​ current​ Rose​ exhibition​ at​​ the​ Finnish​ Museum​ of​​ Photography?​ What​ does ​Rose​ mean?​                       

The​ ​series​ ​Rose​ ​presented​ ​in​ ​the Project​ ​Space​ ​is​ ​a​ ​study​ ​on​ ​the​ ​performance​ ​of​ ​the​ ​feminine.​ ​The series​ ​started​ ​in 2015. ​​ It​ ​presents​ ​a​ ​woman​ ​isolated​ ​in ​a​​ ​studio,​ ​posing​ ​for​ ​a​ ​camera. ​In​ ​my​ ​art​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​study​ ​how​ ​our​ ​ideas​ ​about​ ​our​ ​ideal​ ​selves,​ ​beauty,​ ​trauma,​ ​the​ ​erotic​ ​and​ ​fantasies​ ​present themselves​ in​​ front​ of​​ the​ camera,​ on ​one hand​ ​through​ ​directed ​posing​​ ​and​ ​on​ ​the ​​other​ ​hand​ ​through​ the​ ​uncontrolled​ and​ subconscious. The images​ ​borrow​ ​elements​ ​from​ ​fashion​ ​photography.​ ​Even​ ​while the​ series​ flirts​ with fashion​ aesthetics,​ it​​​ simultaneously​ guides the​​ viewer​ towards​ ​opposite ​themes and​ ​interpretations.

Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 100 x 75 cm.
Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 75 x 56 cm.

In​ ​the​ ​curatorial​ ​statement​ ​you​ ​raise​ ​important​ ​questions​ ​on​ ​femininity,​ ​how​ ​each​ ​woman​ ​performs​ ​it​ ​in​ ​their​ ​unique way.​ ​Who​ ​were​ ​you​ ​looking​ ​for​? ​What​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​roles​ ​did​ ​you​ ​have​ ​in​ ​mind,​ ​when​ ​you​ ​were​ ​casting​ ​for​ ​this​ ​exhibition? 

​I​ ​wasn’t​ ​familiar​ ​with some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​models ​prior​ ​to​ ​working​ ​with​ ​them,​ ​and​ ​some​ ​are​ ​my​ ​friends.​ ​All​ ​the​ ​models​ ​are roughly​ ​about​ ​the​ ​same​ ​age​,​ ​and​ ​none​ ​of​ ​them​ ​are​ ​professional​ ​models.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​reflected​ ​my​ ​own​ ​experience​ ​and feelings​ ​about​ ​age​ ​and​ ​ageing​ ​on​ ​my​ ​models.​ ​Being​ ​thirty​ ​now,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​past​ ​couple​ ​of​ ​years​ ​I’ve​ ​felt​ ​that​ ​I’m​ ​in​ ​a state​ ​of​ ​transitioning​ ​from​ ​girlhood​ ​into​ ​womanhood.​ ​I​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​quite​ ​fit​ ​into​ ​my​ ​old​ ​idea​ ​of​ ​myself.​ ​This​ ​is something​ ​that​ ​I’ve​ ​been​ ​echoing​ ​when​ ​dressing​ ​the​ ​models​;​ ​the​ ​jersey​ ​outfits​ ​are​ ​tight​ ​and​ ​slightly​ ​translucent, simultaneously​ ​covering​ ​and​ ​revealing.​ ​All​ ​of a​ ​sudden​ ​something​ ​like​ ​a​ ​leotard,​ ​that​ ​can​ ​be​ ​quite​ ​innocent,​ ​becomes something​ ​sexy.​ ​The​ ​people​ ​that​ ​I​ ​chose​ ​to​ ​be​ ​my​ ​models​ ​have​ ​some​ ​external​ ​aspect,​ ​feeling​ ​or​ ​a​ ​crack​ ​–​ ​a​ ​chip​ ​– that​ ​has​ ​appealed​ ​to​ ​me​ ​on​ ​an​ ​intuitive​ ​level. The​ ​woman​ ​in​ ​the​ ​series​ ​is​ ​always​ ​the​ ​same,​ ​yet​ ​different.

Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 75 x 56 cm.
Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 75 x 56 cm.

Posing​ ​for​ ​profile​ ​pictures​ ​or​ ​blogs​ ​on​ ​social​ ​media​ ​has​ ​become​ ​an​ ​everyday function​ ​for​ ​many​ ​people.​ ​Even​ ​when it’s​ ​done​ ​in​ ​a​ ​more​ ​‘natural’​ ​way,​ ​we​ ​use​ ​different​ ​angles​ ​depending​ ​on​ ​the​ ​impact​ ​we​ ​wish​ ​to​ ​make​ ​on​ ​the​ ​viewer. What​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​script​ ​did​ ​you​ ​give​ ​the​ ​models​ ​when​ ​they​ ​entered​ ​your studio?  

Yes,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​very​ ​interesting​ ​why​ ​we​ ​as​ ​people​ ​want​ ​to​ ​be​ ​recognised​ ​specifically​ ​through​ ​our​ ​visual​ ​representation, images​ ​of​ ​us.​ ​Even​ ​to​ ​the​ ​point​ ​of​ ​shaping​ ​our​ ​lives​ ​for​ ​the​ ​sake of​ ​image. As​ ​I​ ​wrote​ ​in​ ​my​ ​statement,​ ​I’ve​ ​thought​ of ​the​ ​model​ ​almost​ ​as​ ​an​ ​amateur​ ​actress​ ​invited​ ​for​ ​an​ ​audition,​ ​where​ ​she​ ​only receives​ ​the​ ​script​ ​when​ ​she goes ​in​ ​front​ ​of​ ​the​ ​casting​ ​jury.​ ​As​ ​a​ ​photographer​ ​I​ ​give​ ​very​ ​detailed​ ​directions​ ​to​ ​my models,​ ​placing​ ​my​ ​models​ ​in​ ​very​ ​particular​ ​poses.​ ​However,​ ​I​ ​might​ ​take​ ​the​ ​picture​ ​when​ ​the​ ​model​ ​is​ ​still​ ​in​ ​the process​ ​of​ ​placing​ ​herself​ ​into​ ​the​ ​pose.​ ​I’m​ ​intrigued​ ​by​ ​situations​ ​and​ ​compositions​ ​where​ ​the​ ​intended​ ​sexiness and​ ​self​-confidence​ ​gets​ ​muddled​ ​by​ ​unintended​ ​awkwardness,​ ​stiffness​ ​and​ ​a​ ​looming​ ​sense​ ​of​ ​violence.​ ​The woman​ ​has​ ​volunteered​ ​to​ ​be​ ​looked​ ​at​ ​but​ ​is​ ​simultaneously​ ​rejecting​ ​the​ ​gaze.

Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 75 x 56 cm.
Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2017, pigment print, framed, 135 x 101 cm.

The​ ​graininess​ ​in​ ​your​ ​pictures​ ​gives​ ​the​ ​exhibition​ ​a​ ​soft,​ ​nostalgic​ ​feel.​ ​Almost​ ​as​ ​if​ ​time​ ​had​ ​stopped​ ​many​ ​decades ago.​ ​Is​ ​this​ ​visual​ ​effect​ ​related​ ​to​ ​your​ ​thoughts​ ​on​ ​women’s​ ​actual​ ​position​ ​in​ ​society?​ ​Although​ ​there​ ​has​ ​been a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​progress,​ ​the​ ​concept​ ​of​ ​a​ ​women​ ​seen​ ​as​ ​an​ ​object​ ​is​ ​still​ ​dangerously​ ​present. 

In​ ​my​ ​work​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​explore​ ​traits​ ​that​ ​have​ ​stereotypically​ ​been​ ​considered​ ​feminine,​ ​such​ ​as​ ​sensitivity,​ ​insecurity, volatility,​ ​emotionality​ ​and​ ​so​ ​forth.​ ​Traditionally​,​​ ​the​ ​domain​ ​of​ ​the​ ​feminine has ​been​ ​thought​​ ​to be ​indoors​ –​ ​an​ ​inward turning​ ​and​ ​passive​ ​construction​ ​–​ ​for​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​to​ ​reign​ ​in,​ ​whereas​ ​the​ ​outdoors,​ ​with​ ​its​ ​active,​ ​extrovert​ ​and public​ ​existence,​ ​represents​ ​the​ ​masculine.​ ​In​ ​my​ ​images​ ​the​ ​anonymous​ ​studio​ ​space​ ​emphasises​ ​the​ ​figure’s position​ ​in​ ​relation​ ​to​ ​the​ ​world​ ​and​ ​her​ ​thoughts.​ ​She’s​ ​not​ ​out​ ​there​ ​interacting​ ​but​ ​stuck​ ​as​ ​a​ ​prisoner​ ​of​ ​her​ ​own inner​ ​world. Even​ ​if​ ​my​ ​work​ ​involves​ ​theoretical​ ​research,​ ​the​ ​images​ ​are​ ​very​ ​much​ ​subjective​ ​meditations.​ ​Creating​ ​the images​ ​and​ ​directing​ ​the​ ​models​ ​is​ ​very​ ​much​ ​informed​ ​by​ ​my​ ​personal​ ​experiences​ ​and​ ​feelings​ ​on​ ​sexuality​ ​and posing.​ ​Obviously,​ ​as​ ​the​ ​saying​ ​goes,​ ​personal​ ​is​ ​(also)​ ​political​ ​and​ ​never​ ​exist​s ​out​ ​of​ ​the​ ​surrounding​ ​discourse.

Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2015, pigment print, framed, 100 x 75 cm.
Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 100 x 75 cm.

The​ ​highly​ ​saturated,​ ​retro​ ​tones​ ​added​ ​to​ ​the​ ​composition​ ​of​ ​the​ ​colours​ ​give​ ​your​ ​photographs​ ​a​ ​painterly​ ​appearance from​ ​a​ ​distance.​ ​Is​ ​this​ ​something​ ​that​ ​intrigues​ ​you?​ ​Do​ ​you​ ​like​ ​to work​ ​between​ ​different​ ​genres? 

In​ ​the​ ​series​ ​Rose​ ​I​ ​have​ ​been​ ​using​ ​what​ ​could​ ​be​ ​considered​ ​a​ ​method​ ​of​ ​recycling​ ​the​ ​images.​ ​By​ ​printing​ ​and then​ ​re​scanning​ ​the​ ​pictures,​ ​I’m​ ​able​ ​to​ ​draw​ ​the​ ​focus​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​material​ ​aspects​ ​of​ ​the​ ​works.​ ​This​ ​”materiality”​ ​of the​ ​images​ ​is​ ​also​ ​present​ ​in​ ​the​ ​costumes,​ ​body​ ​paint​ ​and​ ​the​ ​overall​ ​staging​ ​of​ ​the​ ​studio​ ​spaces.​ ​In​ ​a​ ​way​ ​the technique​ ​is​ ​also​ ​a​ ​reaction​ ​to​ ​the​ ​sterility​ ​so​ ​often​ ​present​ ​in​ ​contemporary​ ​photography.​ ​I’ve​ ​left​ ​the​ ​scratches, smudges​ ​and​ ​discolourations​ ​that​ ​come​ ​from​ ​the​ ​process​ ​in​ ​the​ ​final​ ​images,​ ​as​ ​if​ ​painting​ ​with​ ​a​ ​slightly​ ​dirty brush.​ ​Producing​ ​”retro”​ ​images​ ​has​ ​never​ ​been​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​my​ ​conscious​ ​working​ ​method​ ​or​ ​end​ ​result.​ ​The​ ​painting-like​ ​quality​ ​is​ ​not​ ​just​ ​an​ ​aesthetic​ ​decision.​ ​For​ ​the​ ​viewer​ ​to​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​see​ ​the​ ​female​ ​figure​ ​clearly,​ ​they​ ​have​ ​to view​ ​the​ ​work​ ​from​ ​a​ ​certain​ ​distance.​ ​If​ ​the​ ​they​ ​get​ ​too​ ​close,​ ​the​ ​outlines​ ​of​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​get​ ​blurry​ ​–​ they ​disappear.​ ​Just as​ ​the​ ​picture​ ​that​ ​has​ ​been​ ​run​ ​through​ ​”the​ ​recycling”​ ​process​ ​becomes​ ​more​ ​distant​ ​from​ ​the​ ​original,​ ​the​ ​woman in​ ​the​ ​image​ ​is​ ​distanced​ ​from​ ​the​ ​viewer​ ​and​ ​turned​ ​into​ ​a​ ​form​ ​of​ ​fiction.

Along​ ​with​ ​your​ ​art​ ​practices,​ ​you​ ​are​ ​specialized​ ​in​ ​fashion​ ​photography.​ ​Where​ ​does​ ​the​ ​line​ ​between​ ​art​ ​and fashion​ ​photography​ ​go,​ ​in​ ​your​ ​opinion? 

My​ ​own​ ​work​ ​with​ ​fashion​ ​is​ ​almost​ ​always​ ​commissioned,​ ​which​ ​means​ ​there​ ​is​ ​always​ ​a​ ​client.​ ​This​ ​obviously​ ​limits and​ ​defines​ ​the​ ​artistic​ ​freedom​ ​allowed​ ​in​ ​the​ ​images.​ ​There’s​ ​a​ ​broad​ ​range​ ​of​ ​fashion​ ​imagery,​ ​ranging​ ​from commercial​ ​product​ ​shots​ ​to​ ​very​ ​narrative​ ​lead​ ​editorials.​ ​In​ ​general​ ​I​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​a​ ​well​-​made​ ​fashion​ ​image​ ​can work​ ​outside​ ​of​ ​its​ ​original​ ​context​ ​and​ be ​viewed​ ​as​ ​art​ ​if​ ​so​ ​desired​ ​and​ ​positioned.​ ​The​ ​rhythm​ ​of​ ​working​ ​is​ ​very different​ ​between​ ​fashion​ ​commissions​ ​and​ ​my​ ​personal​ ​art​work.​ ​Fashion​ ​shoots​ ​tend​ ​to​ ​be​ ​very​ ​intensive​ ​and​ ​short projects​ ​where​ ​the​ ​emphasis​ ​is​ ​on​ ​the​ ​aesthetics,​ ​whereas​ ​in​ ​my​ ​art​ ​the​ ​projects​ ​can​ ​span​ ​over​ ​a​ ​very​ ​long​ ​period of​ ​time​ ​and​ ​be​ ​very​ ​laborious.​ ​I​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​the​ ​dialogue​ ​between​ ​fashion​ ​photography​ ​and​ ​art​ ​and​ ​the​ ​different​ ​working environments​ ​bring​ ​more​ ​to​ ​my​ ​career.

Sofia Okkonen, Untitled from the series Rose, 2016, pigment print, framed, 75 x 56 cm.

What or who inspires you?

I’m really inspired by a lot of things. The most recent art experiences that made an impression on me have been, for example, the video works featured in Kiasma by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Elena Ferranten’s novel My Brilliant Friend describing social climbing and friendship, and the art collective Akuliina Niemi, Felicia Honkasalo and Sinna Virtanen’s touching exhibition 7 Days before the Deluge on the relationship between humans and animals.

My ideas for making art, however, are very clearly the result of different experiences of uncertainty and conflict, as well as observing human relationships and people. Artistic fiction and painting somehow affect my work the most deeply.

What​ ​are​ ​your​ ​future​ ​plans? 

The​ ​Finnish​ ​Museum​ ​of​ ​Photography​ ​chose​ ​me​ ​for​ ​the​ ​one​-year​ ​long​ ​cultural​ ​programme​ ​Parallel.​ ​The​ ​programme​ ​is designed​ ​to​ ​promote​ ​interactions​ ​and​ ​collaboration​ ​between​ ​emerging​ ​photographers​ ​and​ ​curators,​ ​museums​ ​and festivals.​ ​At​ ​the​ ​end​ ​of​ ​November,​ ​I’m​ ​going​ ​to​ ​Lisbon​ ​for​ ​ten​ ​days​ ​to​ ​meet​ ​the​ ​other​ ​participants​ ​and​ ​to​ ​kick​​start the​ ​process​ ​into​ ​a​ ​new​ ​personal​ ​art​ ​project.​ ​Within​ ​next​ ​year,​ ​I’ll​ ​be​ ​travelling​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​and​ ​hoping​ ​to​ ​create​ a ​lot​ ​of​ ​new work.​ ​From​ ​a​ ​professional​ ​point​ ​of​ ​view​ ​it’s​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​know​ ​what​ ​the​ ​future​ ​holds,​ ​for​ ​instance,​ ​in​ ​three​ ​years’​ ​time,​ ​so​ ​for now​ ​I’m​ ​just​ ​going​ ​to​ ​let​ ​the​ ​existing​ ​projects​ ​lead​ ​me.

Exhibition view from Sofia Okkonen’s Rose at the Finnish Museum of Photography.

Sofia Okkonen: Rose

The Finnish Museum of Photography

1.11.2017-7.1.2018

www.sofiaokkonen.com