In her photographs, Elina Brotherus (born 1972) examines the topologies of people and places; in these images of France, she describes what it is like to live in a country whose language one has not yet learned. Photographs and extracts from an interview with Jan Kaila from Decisive days. Valokuvia. Photographies. Photographs 1997–2001; graphic design Minna Luoma. Pohjoinen, 2002)

When I began studying photographic art in 1995, I was still in the middle of my university science studies. I was strongly resistant to investigating my own emotional life. When I finally finished my master’s dissertation in chemistry, I guess I was able to give up the scientific-analytical thinking required by that type of work and to concentrate on intuition and looking. This brought about a tremendous burst of creativity in me, especially since I suddenly had some free time, and it is that period that the first works that ended up in exhibitions come from. A lot of old issues came to the surface and I began digging into my own head, my own history.
     I made Wedding Portraits (1997) when I got married, Divorce Portrait (1998) when I got divorced, and I hate sex (1998) when I felt that way. So I wasn’t showing various women’s roles, but living my life and trying to capture something genuine and real about it in the pictures. A crucial factor was a sensitivity for recognising ‘decisive moments’ and then to react quickly. The camera had to be easily accessible, often I already had it read on a tripod in the corner of the room. I did make my pictures ‘for the camera’ too, but the more unforced the photographing became, the more the presence of the camera could be ignored.
     I at least hoped that the pictures would rise above the personal level to become universal – over-intimate revelatory art is a bit unpleasant. That’s why I tried to keep the language ascetic and subdued: I didn’t want the pictures to scream, ‘Look, I’m unhappy, have pity on me!’ In retrospect, I have actually noticed that I reached for the camera more readily when I was unhappy. I worked the pain into a beautiful object that could be looked at detached from myself, and this consoled me a little. In a way it’s banal, but it is as if art legitimates grief. I think in this way a lot of artists make indecent use of their own unhappy lives as material for their art.
     And then; I’m in no way special, the same things have happened in my life as in everyone else’s: people fall in love and split up, their mothers die. These are archetypal events, and that is why people are able to recognise them, perhaps to identify with them, even if the examples are taken from my own life.
     I try to avoid mannerisms. A work has to have a certain coherence, but at the same time sufficient variety so that things stay interesting. One thing that appeals to me is the musical form ‘theme and variations’.
     This is quite a common structural solution; the composer composes or takes some already existing theme and makes variations on it. The sonata form also has a main theme and a subsidiary theme, which are played first, then comes the development, in which the themes are varied, and in the final recapitulation the themes are reiterated, slightly transformed, but almost the same as in the beginning.
     I think ‘theme and variations’ is also an excellent form for serial pictorial work. But have to be careful that the whole thing doesn't become monotonous. I once made the mistake of constructing an exhibition almost solely out of self-portraits. It created a claustrophobic feeling: wherever I looked, I was staring into my own eyes. After that, I started making landscapes part of my exhibitions, alongside the self-portraits – like commas, or breathing spaces, or windows, so that the viewer would get to rest now and then....

Suites françaises 2 (1999) has an autobiographical background, but the series’ primary content, with its questions about understanding language, is something else. I see Suites françaises 2 as a transition between the old and the new work. The fact that I have photographed, for example, in France and Iceland is, of course, a narrative elment, ‘EB was here’, but I haven’t in any way tried to emphasise the place or to give it significance on the basis of geographical location. Instead, I have been interested in pictorial elements, purely on the basis of visual perception. It has been a relief, something new and fresh. Now that I have been happier, I have been able to concentrate on observing my environment instead of myself.
     If we think of the strongly personal-historical material of the initial phase and my work at the moment, from which autobiographical ingredients have been almost totally eliminated, Suites françaises 2 is situated pretty well half-way between. The starting point for the series was certainly my personal situation, when I came to live in France with almost no grasp of the language. But very many people share these experiences with me: being an outsider, terrible loneliness, and the way that everyday communication is difficult, never mind any deeper exchange of ideas.
     As a survival strategy people try to bring order to the conceptual chaos by naming things and through that taking control of their environment and their life. In my case, it was a question of taking of control – taking photographs is also, like naming things, a way of taking control of the world....
     In fact, it has worked out that since the autumn on 1999 I have spent the greater part of my time in France.

Original photographs from Suites françaises 2, 1999
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