VIDEO: Exploring Nelli Palomäki’s portraits of childhood

Have you ever studied a picture of your mother or father when they were children, unaware of their future, oblivious to the presence of you.

They are at once so familiar, yet so unknowable; so clearly the person you so intimately love, and then at a remove, happy and free in a context devoid of you.

Photography is an existential medium, for it preserves moments that existed before you did. It was only by some abstract, biological constellation of random events that allowed this child in the picture to create and raise you. Here is evidence of life before they gave you life.

“While time gnaws away at the faces of us and our close ones, we return to look at the pictures from our past,” Nelli Palomäki says. The Finnish artist’s photography starts from a truism – that beyond beauty, beyond concept, it’s the simple photographs of our loved ones, taken in a time before memory, that maintain the ability to move us the most. And make us question the most.

“As beautiful or poignant as an image may be; as much as we could garner from it emotionally, the feeling for which we search remains intangible and elusive,” Palomäki says. “We will never fully comprehend or recreate the moment, it died at the moment of its’ birth. Sadly, the portrait is just a shadow of our meeting, a small stain of the time we spend together.”

After a stint living in something closely resembling a squat in East London, Palomäki has returned to Helsinki, the city she grew up in. She now has a child of her own. She’s nervous during our interview, apologising again and again for talking rubbish, her infectious energy somehow at odds with the compellingly warm yet deeply austere portraits surrounding us.


This weekend, she is revealing, for the first time, her new series About Ten, a collection of portraits of children at that complex, vulnerable age before puberty, just as they begin to become cognisant, and feel conflicted about, their physical selves. “The photographs are about how we start studying our own body, our own face, when we realise people are seeing us in a way so different to how we see ourselves.”

Palomäki’s portraits are reminiscent of a photograph by Vanessa Winship, with elements, even, of Diane Arbus. The focus here is not on how the photographer has excited their subject into a dramatic pose or expression, a performance that masks rather than describes their character.

Instead, they are intently, intensely still explorations of eyes, face, hair and body in this moment. They don’t treat the subjects as objective, still life studies, but instead make us guess at the relationship between the person in front of and behind the camera, of what the slight variations of colour, light, composition, space and tone are saying about the dynamic between artist, subject, and ourselves.

“We fight against our mortality, denying it, yet photographs are there to prove our inescapable destiny. The idea of getting older is heart-rending,” she says.

In an exclusive video interview, BJP ask Palomäki to reveal the scenario behind these portraits of childhood at the cusp of a profound state of realisation – the dawn of a self-awareness that will last for the rest of their lives.

See more of Nelli’s work here.

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