A photographer’s Tampere

Night Walker / Photo by Hannu Vanhanen

A round trip to Tampere


While walking down Pirkankatu in November, I come across a dark figure who stops moving in front of my camera. Thousands of raindrops and streaks of light of all colours are dancing together. Our shadows are reflected on the silvery grey asphalt.

My photo is from the Tampere Dok exhibition that features nine photographers from Tampere interpreting the city’s transformation: the encounters of residents and people who build the city, the tram rails hitting the city’s soil and the new residential areas taking over the shorelines of lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi.

Tampere has always been part of my life and its important turning points. When I graduated from upper secondary school, I wanted to move to Tampere. Getting a university place here was difficult because Tampere was the only city in Finland where one could study to become a journalist. Before the era of social media, journalism was a trendy profession and I was strangely attracted to the socially critical university of Tampere.

In the 1970s, it was possible to spot Juice Leskinen sitting in the university campus café, surrounded by students who considered themselves intellectuals. Soon Juice replaced books with the sounds of rock’n’roll and became the icon of the Finnish rock scene. The next decade brought new ideologies with it, and the student union building’s stage was taken over by Eppu Normaali. Punk rock made people pogo like crazy.

Students came to Tampere from all over the country. One of them was Aki Kaurismäki who had dropped out of school and played the lead in Valehtelija, a movie directed by his brother Mika in 1981 that was awarded at the Tampere Film Festival. The student-found Pahkasika magazine raised hell with its humour and demanded light beer to be sold in R Kiosks. Their mission was a success. The people making the magazine later became comic artists and authors.

After my graduation I moved to Kotka, and I became a photojournalist who toured Finland. Environment activism, alternative culture and my first photo exhibition. Work 24/7. My prize was a gastric ulcer and a forced stop. One day I got a call from the university. An old friend asked if I was interested in teaching photography in the University of Tampere. I quit my job the next day and moved from Kotka back to Tampere.

I got to apply the skills I had learned in Helsingin Sanomat and my self-established culture magazine Peilaaja to an academic environment. A photojournalist does not only take photos but also needs to have an understanding of the increasingly complex society and work in media that has become a field of multiple skills in the spirit of renaissance. My job at the University of Tampere became repetitive and I decided that I needed a change of scenery as far away as possible. I hopped into a northward train and went to the University of Lapland.

Although I liked my job in Rovaniemi, I was not willing to move away from Tampere. My home remained in Pyynikinharju. After staring out of the window of the Tampere–Rovaniemi train for several years, I realised how big and uninhabited Finland is. Only the scarce cities and urban areas built by riverbanks interrupt the monotonous continuum of forests and bogs. Then a surprising message arrived in my email and it was time to leave the University of Lapland’s Faculty of Art and the arctic exoticism behind. I was asked to become the director of the international Backlight photo festival.

I was already part of the first ever photo festival in Tampere in 1987. In the festival workshop, the British photographer Martin Parr outspokenly criticised the political consensus of our society. He felt like in Finland no matter how hard you try, it ends up being futile. A good 30 years later, while the Brits are struggling with Brexit, Tampere has changed from a proletarian town to a multicultural mini metropolis. The old factory grounds of Finlayson and Tampella are filled to the brim with artists and museums where the factory workers used to earn their bread with hard work.

The photo festival that was organised every three years has expanded, and prior to the millennium, it was renamed to Backlight. Now Backlight is one of the biggest and oldest photo festivals in Northern Europe. It has opened windows and galleries for contemporary Finnish and European photography. The triennial raises socially significant and topical themes. The theme of Backlight 2020 is Related Realities. Different realities and technologies of the photos and installations not only meet in art museums and galleries, but also in the shopping centres and on the throbbing of autumn streets.