“I’m from a small town in northern Finland, surrounded by a vast, sparsely populated wilderness. Most pass through the town on their way to some place else… They never know of its strange and colourful history.”
Maria Lax is a Finnish-born, London-based photographer and a winner of Female in Focus 2019 (Single Image category). In the last year, Lax has signed with Stem Agency and published her first photobook, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire, with Setanta Books.
“British Journal of Photography was the very first publication I started following when I started photography,” Lax says. “I’ve been entering all the contests for a couple of years now, and Female in Focus was a no brainer. Winning definitely helped garner attention.”
As well as Finland, Lax spent stints of her youth in the US and Switzerland, becoming fluent in three languages by the time she was six. “Although brief,” she reflects, “these experiences left me quite restless later on in my life, and somewhat always looking for a place I could call home.” Lax’s debut book, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire, was born when she uncovered her grandfather’s chronicling of a series of UFO sightings in her native neighbourhood in the 1960s. A delicate and dynamic amalgamation of photography, family archive and newspaper cuttings, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire became a process of grappling with the history of a ‘home’ town that — to Lax — was never wholly that.
“It wasn’t until I read my grandfather’s book that I learned of the incredible stories of supernatural events, bravery and struggle against hardship in what is largely a barren land,” remarks Lax. The post-war period sparked a painful moment in Northern Finland’s history, when industrialisation and overproduction in agriculture meant rural communities could no longer support themselves through farming. “A whole lifestyle disappeared in a matter of a few years,” she says. Nearly half the population was forced to move to cities in search of work — a fatal blow to northern Finland’s identity — while those that remained were plunged into a period of fear and uncertainty. The area never recovered.
Known for her arresting use of colour and seamless blending of reality and fantasy, Lax cites everything from Tove Jansson and Henri Rousseau to E.T. and Jurassic Park as influences on her work (“I must have seen it 50 times,” she tells us of the latter). Her background in cinematography palpably informs her practice, searing through in her signature experimentation with lighting and camera techniques. Incidentally, Some Kind of Heavenly Fire was originally conceived as a film: the photos were intended merely as a way of storyboarding, but photography lit a fire in Lax, and soon became her preferred method of storytelling. The distinctly cinematic element to her work, however, was never lost.
Lax chose a film editor to design the book, and together they approached it like cutting a film. The end product is unsettling, yet magical; alien, yet nostalgic. “With northern Finland’s lack of sunlight for a large part of the year, it’s impossible to escape the darkness,” says Lax. “It’s almost like the nighttime gives you freedom to explore the sides of mundane things to which you rarely pay attention in the daylight. It has its own rules.”
Growing up, Lax recalls the myriad of ghost stories and folktales relayed to her by grandparents on both sides. “Coming from an area surrounded by a wilderness, I think people are more in tune with nature,” she says. “They tend to be more spiritual.” As founder of the local newspaper, Lax’s grandfather had followed the supernatural phenomenon as it unravelled, from beginning to end. But by the time Lax found his book, he was already suffering from dementia — so she had to go looking for answers herself. “Everything in my family’s history is entwined in this narrative,” she says. “But I had been away for years, and I became an adult during that time. I had changed, and the place I had grown up in had changed.” As such, Lax was both connected to the events and an outsider, straddling a blurred line between familiar and foreign.
“In a lot of ways,” Lax muses, “I am one of the aliens in the book. By doing the project, talking to people, reading my grandfather’s book, searching through family albums and walking around the landscapes, I got to know my past, my family and my family history so much better. In a lot of ways, it was a healing process.”
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.