Fact and fiction in the work of Aapo Huhta

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Huhta spent two years creating work in the desolate plains of the Namibian desert. Omatandangole is the result of his journey

In Omatandangole reality and fantasy converge. The images that comprise Aapo Huhta’s most recent photo book are rooted in the real world but they could have as easily been dreamed. Shot over two years, the extraordinary landscapes of the Namibian desert became metaphors for issues of personal and global significance. “[The term] seemed to reflect my photographic pursuit of illusion that is rooted in actuality,” writes Huhta in a short text included at the end of the publication.

Huhta retreated to the Namibian desert following a personal upheaval. The barren and remote terrain provided a refuge — a space to experiment creatively and gain distance from his past and life in Finland. Huhta’s state of mind shaped the images he made, which exude a sense of unease. In some, solitary creatures inhabit surreal interiors and desolate, dreamlike landscapes, in others, bleak swathes of desert are frozen in hazy colour or black and white.

If inward turmoil provoked the project then it is also burdened by a wider narrative: the shadow of environmental degradation that hangs over depictions of the natural world. Although it is not the central focus, the series alludes to an impending future in which society has transformed beyond recognition, ravaged by the effects of the climate crisis. “The place itself, a vast emptiness that threatens to engulf everything it touches, is both the catalyst for this loss and its final manifestation,” writes Darren Campion in an accompanying essay.

Below, Huhta discusses the project’s main themes and whether photography is an effective tool for inciting environmental action and change.

© Aapo Huhta.

Why the Namibian desert? Did you have a preconceived idea of the kind of project you wanted to make or did the location inspire it?

Ultimately, I went to Namibia to have a break from my life in Finland. One could say that I didn’t have an aim to do there anything photographically, but perhaps that isn’t completely true. It was an escape yes, but at the same time I wanted to somehow develop my photographic language, to take the next step after my first photo book Block. Since then, it seems that I am moving further away from an informative approach towards something else, where the illusion an image creates is more important than the actuality.

I wanted to be free from any self-imposed restrictions; to be able to shoot whatever in whatever style I wanted. I did not want to frame or define my process beforehand, but I wanted to see where it led me. It was a reaction against the very strict, form-based photography I did while working on Block. By working like this I thought, perhaps, I could find something beyond my imagination. But it is hard not to destroy one’s intuition by being too conscious; it is hard to let go.

Of course, the location has a lot to do with the process. The desert is such an extreme place. Also, I was going through a heavy chapter in my life when a great deal changed. An attempt to persevere in the ruins of the story of my life provided an emotional backbone. Then again, how can you express this kind of thing in a photo? I could have done the project in some other place too, I mean of course it would not be the same, but I was just looking for space as far away as possible.

The text that accompanies the book explains that the images are subjective: shaped by an inner journey provoked by a personal crisis. How is this reflected in the photographs? 

How far can inner and outer reality be divorced from one another? And can you use photography to investigate the difference, the world between? Perhaps there are topics or notions that you only perceive in a certain state of mind, or you see them more clearly. But, I cannot think of anything else I could have photographed. It is a battle between intuition and consciousness, somehow you always use both.

I have done quite a bit of straightforward documentary photography too, in places such as Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. I think it is an important tradition, it has its own place in the field of photography and I appreciate it. But that kind of photography seems to say things about the world in the same way. In fact, I believe our connection to the world is much more personal. And right now, I am interested in exploring that personal side and where it leads me to.

So, in a way, I like to think of my process for this project as a painter would look at their hand making work on the canvas. The hand has its own will and the hand’s owner can only respect it and allow it to create things without truly knowing what they will be. It is only afterwards that one can attempt to make sense of what has happened.

© Aapo Huhta.
© Aapo Huhta.
© Aapo Huhta.

Do you think that photography is an effective medium for raising awareness about environmental issues? Do you think it possesses the power to incite change? And, if so, why and how? 

If my first goal was to raise awareness about environmental issues, I would try to do something like Greta Thunberg. It is very special what she has been able to do.  In that sense, the project is much more introverted. There are about a thousand copies of this book, which is probably the average size of an edition of most photo books. The number of people who will see it is small in comparison to anything you can do on the Internet, which will reach thousands of people in a few minutes.

I find it very hard to justify the existence of the book by saying I want to raise awareness about our environmental situation. But I understand some people see the work as a threat, a dystopian vision, and I don’t have anything against that. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that the book is not a representation of any place or the environmental situation. There is a connection to Namibia, of course, but after all, the whole book is about the retreat I did to make sense of my life.

Generally, the question of the effectiveness of the medium is hard to answer. We are so used to seeing the infinite stream of images, what pops out now? Also in a journalistic context, imagery is most often subordinate to text. But it is a whole different question if we look at this from a wider perspective. How do all these streams of images affect us? They definitely matter.

How did you develop your visual language and what do you think your work can contribute to conversations about the climate crisis?

I have always been more interested in the visual language itself than what my photographs are about. I mean, it is impossible to separate the two, but we can focus on the subject-matter of an image, or how that subject-matter is presented. The latter always mattered to me the most. I think the development of my own photographic language comes from there. But I feel troubled to think of the work next to projects that aim for change in our behaviour towards the environment. That topic is so important to me too. But, in the end, it is not what my work is about, even though it may touch on it.

Omatandangole is published by Kehrer Verlag.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.