Hailing from the northern reaches of the world, Finland to be precise, Toni Ahvenainen got into photography for a reason all too familiar to many of us and quite common in this digital age – the birth of a child. “I realized that I needed a camera to capture that miracle of life.” Ahvenainen tells The Phoblographer, “with the help of a friend, I acquired the relatively affordable Sony Nex-5N, and soon photography became my obsession. I shot over 26 000 frames in the first year…” But he quickly learned that he needed to frame his photography, give it a purpose, or he would lose his new found passion for it.
Ahvenainen started a photo blog, its purpose was to be home to a personal photo-365 project that he hoped would help him find his identity as a photographer. “I decided to explore my own photographic eye within the life I was already living – sometimes quite literally at home or with a baby carriage next to me outdoors while I was composing the image.”Ahvenainen continued, “These sort of limitations led my path to certain kind of dark frames with some color occasionally thrown in, and which became eventually my own photographic style.”
Check out our interview with Toni Ahvenainen, and a beautiful selection of his work after the jump.
Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography and how you found your own way?
Toni: I’ve always been a visual person and I’ve been doing, for example, graphics design in the past, but my path into photography only started when we got our first child – the common story. When our first daughter was born at 2012 I acquired a relatively affordable Sony Nex-5N and soon photography became my new obsession. I shot over 26 000 frames in the first year before I realized that I needed to come up with some sort of framework or otherwise I would just kill my inspiration because my photography had no clear direction. But what could I do? I was a family man far from the places where real photography happens and with very little resources. I didn’t have opportunities to go for exotic workshops other side of the globe or neither was I fascinated by the idea that I would try to master some existing genre of photography like landscape or fashion photography. I just wanted to create captivating images that would convoy my own way of seeing things and give me a certain visual pleasure related to my own life.
So I decided to start a photo blog and to find my audience I build it around the Sony Nex-5N – I figured that at least some of those who had the same camera as I did would be interested to see what I was doing with mine. At 2014 ‘Year of the Alpha – 52 Weeks of Sony Alpha photography’ (no affiliation with Sony) was born with an intention to find my own photographic eye. I shared my images approximately two times a week with textual narratives that contemplated on photography and circled around many other things as well. Very much to my surprise the blog draw a huge number of followers and my images were loaded approximately 500 000 times over the year 2014 – a gigantic number for someone like me who just uploaded them from our bedroom. Most of the images that are presented here are from this project, but there are also some other images which are from my current project called ‘Days of Zeiss’. In the end my success with a photo blog led me to collaboration with Sony and Zeiss, which eventually gave my photography a framework and I felt that I had finally solved, in some way, my original question ‘what should I photograph and why’.
Phoblographer: What made you get into creating surreal and dark work like this?
Toni: I belief everyone has their own way of seeing things which guides their photography, even if it’s sometimes lost or subconsciously buried under other influences. Finding your own way of seeing and building your identity as a photographer is something that is deeply rooted in visual culture, and when I was searching my own photographic eye I fell in love with dark images that were enclosed by deep unpenetratable black mass – a look which really has its origins and many interpretations in a visual culture around us. One could also say that it’s my own reaction to common images taken in broad daylight which are often too obvious, mundane and declarative to the point that makes them somewhat boring. But when you cover the ordinary with darkness, it creates tension and ultimately opens doors into subliminal as the viewer has to complete the image in his own mind. ‘It’s all about the light’, they say, but I would like to think my work is more about the lack of light and darkness.
But then, on the other hand, my work has been very much affected by the limitations I had when I was searching for my own way. I was tied to family and other routines and sometimes I could only do photography at night when rest of the herd were sleeping. On many occasions I was quite literally swaying baby carriage at the same time as I was making a shot. Sometimes I persuaded my brother or some other familiar to participate into photographic idea that I had in my mind. Looking back I’ve realized that it was these creative limitations that really shaped my photography and I’m somewhat proud that I forged my own look from such a mundane elements. With too much freedom I wouldn’t have got anything done.
Phoblographer: So how did you feel that creating scenes vs just capturing them helped you to creatively express yourself?
Toni: I’d like to think that images are best when they bend the reality, by presenting it in different light for example, but do not break it. Photography has this presumption (even if it’s been refuted countless times) that the images we see have also existed in real world, at least in some way. When one breaks this bond between image and reality, the value of the image deteriorates as it isn’t as interesting. Coming from this point of view I value more images that have just been captured (instead of being created), but on the other hand creating images offers so much more freedom of expression. My approach is some sort of a hybrid version of all this, since I’m always looking for interesting sceneries, but often end up spicing them a bit when I find one. If it happens that I find interesting alley, interior or something similar, I wait for my subconscious mind to fulfill with some additional idea that is doable with limited resources that I have. Sometimes finding the right idea takes weeks, but I want to keep it that way since it’s something that comes up to surface from inside of me, and in the end, makes the images mine.
Phoblographer: Where does your inspiration typically come from? Lots of the work looks cinematic.
Toni: It would be easy to list major influential photographers like Gregory Crewdson, Luca Rossini or someone else as a source of my inspiration, but as much as I admire their work, there’s a reason I want to keep them a bit further away. Instead of trying to find my inspiration from the outside world, I try to emphasize a certain kind of psychological unknown as a source of my inspiration – which is of course nothing new and is connected to aforementioned photographers as well. In the best scenario I’d like to create images that work for the reasons that are unknown even to myself. If there is some cinematic in my images, I believe it’s there because the way I use light, and the lack of it, to create certain tension. This kind of interest for the ‘dark side’ holds my work together, even if there is sometimes a splashes of color and other decouplings of this theme.
Phoblographer: When someone looks at your images, what are you trying to make them feel about your work?
Toni: I don’t daydream of becoming a professional photographer (don’t want to spoil it) and I don’t feel the need to connect my images with ‘art’ either. I just want people to be delighted when they see them. If possible I want to stop them, trigger their imagination and let them sense a certain unknown in them.
And if there is one thing I want to say to other photographers out there, it’s that anyone can do it. Even if you’re, like me, living in a place with no significant meaning to the rest of the world and surrounded by mundane everyday things, it doesn’t mean that you should surrender to the common sentiment that ‘there’s nothing to photograph’. Being active every day and creating projects for yourself is a great way to find your own photographic eye. Especially the social media opens up a vast playground for all kinds of ideas and audiences, and with contemporary services one can get project running very fast with very little costs. Seize the moment, create images and feel good about it.
Phoblographer: You currently have a new project called ‘Days of Zeiss’. Tell us a bit about that.
Toni: While the year 2014 was very active for me from the photography’s point of view, my inspiration somehow halted at 2015. I tried to kept myself active and searched for new things, but somewhere at the back of my mind I realized that I needed a new photography project to escape flickering screens and re-enter into that creative spot which had made photography so much fun for me in the first place. So for the year 2016 I engaged with a new personal photography project called ‘Days of Zeiss’. This is a yearlong project which is about photographing in a scratch book manner and hunting the stream of inspiration. No artistic goals, serious targets or even ‘black frames’ (well sometimes yes), just surrendering to pure photography and feeling good about it.
This time, as I had the opportunity, I asked (begged really) support from Sony & Zeiss and therefore it occasionally includes some gear talk as well, but I’m not pushing it since I believe the photographic experience is about something else than just gadgets. You can find the project website at: https://www.daysofzeiss.com. Feel free to browse the images shared there.