“For me it's important to develop strong relationships with the people I photograph and give back something, and also to make work that is not just for other photographers or photography enthusiasts.”
Noorderlicht: Could you say in what sense your project relates to the overall festival theme, from a personal point of view? Where in this bigger picture do you feel your work fits in?
Laura Böök: The series Walking on Rivers focuses on Congolese families who have resettled in Northern Finland after fifteen years as refugees. Their new hometown, Pudasjärvi, is a small town of just over 8,500 residents, where half of the population has moved out in the last few decades. As a result of this, the town council is hoping for more immigrants to move in and at some point stated a goal that in 2018, one in ten residents should be an immigrant. The last place you would think of when you think of a multicultural city is a small town in Northern Finland, and that's what makes it an interesting place to photograph.
This year's festival is focused on change and people creating change, and that's really the key theme for my series as well. It follows the transition of these families as they are starting a new life. It is also looking at the transition of the surrounding community, a small town on the northern edge of Europe, and how they are trying to adapt to the changes facing them. It's a place where people are living close to nature and it's yearly cycle, hunting, fishing and picking berries. It's also a place facing similar challenges to other rural communities in Europe that are becoming emptier as people move to bigger cities with more possibilities. It remains to be seen how long the Congolese families will stay in Pudasjärvi. Some of the teenagers have already started to speak with the same certainty as their local peers about leaving small town life behind.
Noorderlicht: Based on your experience working with different communities and individuals who are affected by this 'crisis of agency', what impression did you get about the likelihood that common people can regain such a sense of agency? Do you feel there are grounds for a realistic hope for improvements?
Laura Böök: The families I have worked with show an extreme resilience; after fleeing from a war and living as refugees for fifteen years, they are now adapting to a new culture and environment as different as you can imagine from the places they were born and raised in. You could say they are now at the start of another journey, starting to shape a new life and future - finding, or rediscovering, their own skills, hopes and ambitions and hopefully slowly finding a sense of home and belonging.
During their times as refugees most of the families have faced situations where the possibilities of retaining their own agency are very limited. Even after being selected by UNHCR to resettle in Finland, they have been waiting for several years without knowing when they will be able to move, as the decision is out of their hands. In some cases, even after arriving to Finland people have continued waiting to be reunited with close family members. In some ways, they are global citizens, keeping close contact and sharing photographs over social media showing their new lives to friends in Africa, America and Europe. A couple of weeks ago I went on a Sunday walk with a woman from DR Congo, and in the silent forest, she was having a long and heartfelt Skype conversation with a friend in the US. But it is a global citizenship that comes with the pain of being separated from loved ones, friends and family members, sometimes not knowing if they are safe.
Speaking more generally about migration, the public debate tends to focus on problems and potential threats in a way that undermines people's agency. Migrants seeking to enter Europe are referred to in terms of ”floods” or ”waves”, rather than people who have made a conscious, active decision to improve their lives. This rhetoric also feeds a sense of powerlessness among Europeans in this current crisis, portraying immigrants as scapegoats. It's extremely important to see through this false division of ”us and them” and remember that we are all affected by the same political and economic structures, and to work to create networks of support and solidarity between the people who are fortunate enough to be born with EU citizenship and the people who have arrived here more recently.
Noorderlicht: The general public, that old and perhaps mythical darling, has by now fractured and reorganized itself in different special interest groups, aligned according to other parameters than shared nationality, language, culture, age or religion. One of the hardest things nowadays is to reach out across these different interests groups - beyond and outside the photo community.
What is the audience that you'd hope would look at your project / series? Who should see this work?
Laura Böök: While I was starting the project, a wide debate was going on in Finland about the situation of migrants and the daily racism many of them face. This made it seem even more important to work on a long term project looking at the lives and experiences of these refugee families. As in many other European countries, the economic crisis and rise of right wing populism has led to a hardened social climate where outright racist comments have more space in the public debate than before. At the same time, more first and second generation immigrants have found their place in media and culture to share their own experiences and analysis.
It has been great to see an interest in the project also outside Finland, as an example of a positive story related to migration, and a story about different cultures meeting in an unexpected place. Currently the photographs are also shown in the local gallery in Pudasjärvi, and I was very happy about the positive reactions both from the people I photographed and other local people. Some had never been to an exhibition opening before, and others said they've never been to an exhibition where they can recognize the scenery and locations of the photographs.
For me it's important to develop strong relationships with the people I photograph and give back something, and also to make work that is not just for other photographers or photography enthusiasts. I am hoping to include more collaborative elements both in this project and future ones.