Ulla Jokisalo
lnterviewed by Andrea Holzherr, August 11, 2011

Ulla Jokisalo. For the past several years now, you have used your work to explore the ways in which childhood memories and experi­ences influence our personalities and perception of the world.

That is a perfect definition of the central theme of my work.
As an artist, I am interested in the ways an individual sees the world. Personally, I would define my artistic production as a point of view that allows one to under­stand life as a fatal chain of reactions in which causes and effects follow one another. My work is imprinted with nostalgia and child­hood memories associated with play and the imaginary.

You combine different techniques in your work. What particular role does photography play?

Photography is a perfect support for my work. given its narrative aspect. Each photograph is a narrative in itself. None­theless. I also attempt to express my perception of reality and to develop my own imaginary language through my work. That is why my photographs are often embroidered or cut out. I also in­tegrate for example, threads and pins in my works. This approach has the advantage of being both concrete and conceptual, allow­ing me to reproduce my imaginary ideas in a more eclectic way.

Do you consider yourself as belonging to a specific generation or movement of artists or photographers in Finland? During your time as a student, were there common interests shared among students, that you feel defined the approach of artists of your generation?

When I was a student at the University of Art and Design Helsinki during the late seventies and early eighties, both the teaching staff and we the students were trying to establish pho­tography as a part of the visual arts. At the time, this was not at all how things were seen. Generally speaking, the camera as a vehicle for artistic expression was barely valued. To support these aims we founded, among other things, Photographic Gallery Hippolyte and the Union of Artist Photographers, both of which remain cornerstones of Finnish photographic art.
The atmosphere when I was a student was inspiring and those of us who started around that time became a close community. I still feel a strong connection with my peers and teachers. Many of them remain good friends and [are still] active in the field.
Otherwise, I don't actually believe in rigid generational think­ing. As an artist, I feel a kinship with individual artists-regardless of what generation they represent. Artistic work is always based fundamentally on individuality and not on some generational influ­ence. Besides, artistic work is about conceiving the world now, and the photographer, if anyone, always operates in the current world situation.

For several years you have taught at the Degree Program in Photography at Aalto University School of Art and Design. How would you describe your teaching method? What are the basic ideas that you strive to pass on to your students?

I'm really poor assessing my teaching methods because I don't identify so strongly as a teacher. Even though I started to teach photography as far back as the eighties. I've always consid­ered myself an artist first.
And as a teacher too, I have tried to share precisely the knowl­edge and skills that my own artistic work has produced.
In recent years, I have taught mostly in workshops which are based on one-to-one meetings and on exchanging ideas with students. This kind of teaching situation is mutually interactive rather than a standard teacher-student relationship. Every artist must, however find their own way through concrete practice. Being an artist is a lifelong career choice - we're all lifelong stu­dents. And that's the whole point! What is most valuable is pre­cisely everything that one achieves through personal effort.

Your influence can be perceived in the work of some of the younger female artists of the Helsinki School, several of whom you had as students. How do you perceive your influence on the younger generations of artists?

That's not something I can assess myself. In fact I would prefer not to influence younger colleagues in the sense that my own work would somehow be directly visible in theirs! I don't want followers, whatever that might mean. Besides, I think of my­self more broadly as a visual artist, not as a pure photographer.
I admit I've hugely enjoyed the developments in fine art pho­tography in recent years. These days, half of photography stu­dents are women. Even as late as the eighties it was much more lonely to be a female photographer! And I doubt I'm wrong if I claim that Finland currently has a very high number of top talents in fine art photography who are in fact female. But how many of them take their gender as the starting point of their work? I dare not guess. Personally I would prefer my own work to be assessed on my general human grounds than purely in relation to some kind of woman's perspective.

Do you believe that there is something like a specifically feminine artistic sensibility or mode of expression?

I'd be more inclined to say that our current photographic artists are strong personalities who I at least find impossible to define as part of some broader school. Myself, I see more individ­uality than similarity. Maybe current photographers are united most by their use of straight color photography. Photographic artists these days have a strong belief in the photograph as artistic ex­pression.  

Do you think that women artists and photographers are more nu­merous in the Nordic countries than in the rest of Europe? Do you believe that there is a specifically Finnish feminine strength or quality?

I don't know the artistic photography of other Nordic countries well enough to be able to answer that question. There­fore my answer will be limited to Finland, where women photog­raphers are quite present in the artistic scene. When I started my career thirty years ago the situation was completely different. Today sexual equality as we conceive of it in the Nordic countries, also extends into the world of art. If we examine popular refer­ence books about the history of photography, women seem to be more marginal in [the rest of] Europe compared to Finland, where the history of our country's photography has only been written about for the last couple of decades.

As you are saying yourself, there has been a perceptible shift from male dominance to a very strong female presence. In what ways has this affected your experience of teaching?

The photograph really has undergone a significant change in Finland over the last twenty years or so. For a long time, photography was a very masculine field but today there is an emphatic female presence among photographic artists in particular. The underlying influence has been a photographic education that is specifically geared towards equality and an emphasis on the expressive.

Only twenty or so years ago a woman photographer almost had to be a "man among men" in order to succeed. I for one used to long for more exemplars of my own gender. I'd imagine that ultimately the most significant factor in my own development was nevertheless my persistence in the work and the work experience thus gained. As I understand it, these days male photographers also appreciate women as equal photographers. Your gender is no longer a barrier to advancement in your career; a woman in Finland can get just as far as a photographer as can a man.

How would you judge the development of photography in Finland during these last few years?

In the first years of the twenty-first century, Finnish artis­tic photography has received enormous international exposure that has created new opportunities for an increasing number of photographers. The Finnish artistic scene only has limited re­sources, but we have the chance of having a pool of particularly talented young photographers. Without doubt, this reservoir of talent has formed thanks to our system of photographic training, which uses photographers from past generations as teachers. In this way, the traditions and ambitions of artistic photographers have been perpetuated. The fruits of these determined efforts are particularly evident today.

What role, do you think, did or does Aalto University School of Art and Design play in the development of Finnish photography?

The artistic bias in our university-level photographic training goes back thirty years. And even now it is precisely because of the strong emphasis on artistic formation that our masters program attracts students from all institutions providing photographic training. Because of this, Aalto University brings together the most artistically motivated people.

How do you explain the international success of the Helsinki School?

Perhaps purely cultural factors explain the specificities of Finnish photography and people's interest in it, including abroad. But it's the Helsinki School in particular that has decisively ad­vanced the internationalization and professionalization of younger photographic artists' careers. In the eighties and nineties it was a rare photography student indeed who committed full-time to be­ing an artist. Being an artist in those days did not promise a bright future, especially not economically. And still today the domestic markets are too limited for many young artists to be able to work solely in Finland. The Helsinki School's impact can be seen par­ticularly in the way that ever more photographers are willing to believe they can succeed as artists. Success breeds success. That goes for individuals as well as more broadly.