Nelli Palomäki’s Timeless Portraits

Nelli Palomäki’s exhibition at the 2011 Guernsey Photography Festival was one of the most striking for me; her hauntingly beautiful portraits are reminiscent of a bygone era and stayed with me long after I had seen them. Whenever I was in town I couldn’t resist taking another peek at my favourite, Viola and Elsa at 10 and 9.

Viola and Elsa at 10 and 9

Nelli grew up in a small town in Finland and became interested in photography at the age of 16. Despite her success she admits, ‘I still don’t consider myself as a photographer, it is a thing I happen to do, my way of recording my life.’ Many a photographer would shy away from photographing children as they aren’t always keen to stay still, but Nelli is fascinated by them: ‘They can be very independent and clever, though we often treat them as if they have no opinions at all! I like the way children communicate, they don’t need spoken words, yet they always understand what you mean. They are probably better at reading our behaviour than we adults.’

One visitor to Guernsey told me that she found Nelli’s portraits lovely but rather sad. I asked Nelli if she had set out to capture her young subjects looking this way. ‘I didn’t ask them to look serious, I think children don’t always want to smile, we just think they should. Also, I work quite slowly, so no one could keep a natural smile that long. When a person forgets themself in front of the camera, there are no expressions left.’

Julia turning five

Jean Christophe Godet likes Nelli’s work because it is ‘very classical with a strong Finnish identity’, yet not all of her subjects are from Finland. Nelli understands what he means, however: ‘It’s the typical Finnish melancholy and loneliness which shines through. That’s part of our way of seeing the world. And also the light I often use is a typical Finnish spring/winter light.’

Perhaps surprisingly for a photographer, Nelli almost never carries her camera with her. ‘I feel a lot of pressure to take portraits if I carry my camera with me, its presence is almost like stealing my experiences! Sometimes you see something, or rather someone, and you wish you had your camera with you. But still, I enjoy wandering around without it. It feels more free.’

Anni Maria at 24 with Donna

Nelli divides her time between Isnä, her village in Finland, and London. This balance suits her perfectly: ‘When I go home, London seems to be so far away with all its craziness, and when I’m in London, Isnäs seems like a small dream world.  Visiting Guernsey for the Festival was a great experience for Nelli. ‘What I really liked about the Festival was the intimate atmosphere. And you can tell that it’s driven by a real passion for photography. ‘

Here Nelli describes what happened when she photographed Sergey at the Nakhimov Naval Academy:


‘When visiting the school for the first time, excited and lost, I found the timeless atmosphere on the hallways of Nakhimov Naval Academy. Students running around, playing and teasing each other. Like all boys, loud and restless. All very curious about me, some of them more shy, others more open with many questions to ask. Someone giving me a part of his lunch, a small mandarin and half of his bread. Some of the boys still too small for their uniforms, but clearly wearing them proudly. Military men, as they called themselves.

Clearly all the students are excited about my photography, they want to be part of it. I place my tripod on the hallway floor and choose one of the younger students for the portrait. All the other boys are trying to make him laugh, but Sergey stands there with a serious face, long sleeves covering his small hands. Waiting for me to take the picture, not even blinking. Light coming from behind surrounding his face. He listens carefully in case I have any instructions, but I’m staying quiet. The portrait is done.’

As for the future, Nelli has plans to explore other projects but she is not ready to abandon her stunning portraits. ‘I guess as I move on, my images will start to get different. Ultimately, the works are documenting my life. But I think I will stick with portraits for many, many more years.’ Which is great news for Nelli’s many fans.

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