Reflections on the Devitt + Kelley Finland Workshop

Reflections on the Devitt + Kelley Finland Workshop

When an American photographer I had come to know purely through the ‘gram suggested we run a workshop on a remote island in the Finnish Archipelago, I was living in a very surreal time, the world was in the middle of a global pandemic, twerking was all over Tik Tok, oxygen tanks were being buried in backyards in India, and people were baking sourdough with reckless abandon.

No one was flying ANYWHERE and the whole idea of running a workshop on the other side of the world with someone I barely knew seemed ridiculous and bizarrely fantastic.

Why the hell not?

Fast forward 18 months and my partner Dee and I are stepping off a plane in Helsinki, six flights and 48 hours of travel later, to an empty baggage carousel.  Apparently, our luggage had other plans for their European Summer. Cool, cool, cool.

The discovery of our luggage not accompanying us to Helsinki added to the already intrepid nature of modern-day travel. So, with the weak exchange rate in our minds, and dreams of Finnish fashion in our hearts, we used our misfortune to our favour and set off on a shopping excursion – what better excuse!

Our body clocks flipped over like an egg timer, we found our best hours were early, walking mostly empty streets in the magnificent very northern summer light. Jet lag seems harder to fend off when compared to my first European trip 30 years earlier. Coffee helps and travelling with Dee means we both get to laugh a lot ‘whatever the weather’.

A few days in Helsinki sees us get our fill of Finnish food, architecture a great hotel (with the best breakfast in Helsinki IMHO) and it’s now time for Mike and I to meet our first workshop crew.

Six eager faces, some who have travelled a significant distance, and all who have confirmed they are brave, adventurous, and a little crazy(!), await us at the meeting point to board the waiting bus.

The 2023 Mike Kelly and Simon Devitt Workshop is finally underway!

We hare off in pursuit in our rental car for the two-and-a-half-hour drive west to Kasnäs. Our eyeballs were treated to stunning landscapes along the way, rock trees, achingly beautiful rural landscapes, and wildlife corridors. Kasnäs is a sleepy port town, and the meeting spot for our boat, skippered by Janne – quite simply the loveliest human you’d hope to encounter.

We make a bee-line for our first stop ‘Örö’, an historic island fortress and accommodation for our students. With bags checked in (yes, theirs arrived!) we head into the dining hall for lunch – this is the first chance for everyone to get to know each other, and we chat over salmon soup before we head for workshop one, ground zero.

We are deep into the Finnish archipelago when the boat goes silent – we have rounded the final headland and our workshop location for the next 48 hours has come into view.

Project Ö’ is special. 

It’s an island that’s a football field and a half in size. Pine, rock and the bluest blue water take over the visuals. We are met by Aleksi, the owner builder and visionary for this incredible island experience and dwelling who welcomes us with a friendliness and quirkiness that I’ve begun to learn is common amongst the Fins.

The feeling of dragging six (18 by the end of the three workshops) very talented and eager photographers to the far side of the globe suddenly becomes very overwhelming, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone while pondering “what the fuck have we done?” and “isn’t this fucking wild?!”.

Six students, together with Mike and I began the first of three workshops – which in summary was a healthy mix of contagious humour, impeccable fortitude, and hard work mixed with generous amounts of good food, sauna and cold plunges. 

I can’t go on without a better description of the setting.

The Archipelago in Finland is very unlike anywhere I’ve been. Rather than setting vertically like I’m used to in New Zealand, the sun slides across the sky, off on its languid journey to somewhere beneath the horizon. In the late afternoon, the light quality feels more like an eclipse than usual bright afternoon summer sun.

A photographer’s dream, dusk feels like it won’t end.

The Baltic Sea, that fills up seemingly tideless, all around the rocks that make up the archipelago, taste like a teaspoon of salt water was added for flavour. More like a lake than a sea, migrating birds flying over with regularity, anchors the feeling of stillness, nestled on this very small island. The only sea-life we encountered were jellyfish, thankfully, the non-stinging type. I did encounter a tall, white tail deer one morning on a stroll, I was the only one to see it. Apparently, they swim between islands, which is a boon for the imagination.

Over the past 15 years as an educator, I have developed a series of exercises. Together with Mike, we repurposed and curated specific exercises for this series of workshops.

Our practical exercises were deliberately more challenging on the psyche than the shutter finger. Our exercises aren’t the kind of education you get from a YouTube tutorial.

‘Standing Still’ and ‘Fresh Eyes’ were designed to test the best.

Perhaps the most memorable (I’ve heard!) exercise was ‘Lord of the Flies’, which seemed apt given the eight of us were to share a very small island for the next two days. As photographers of architecture, it’s not often we have the opportunity to utilise seven people as we wish on a shoot, be it as assistants, models, or gophers! It’s even rarer to observe another photographer at work, and in this case UNDER PRESSURE!

The brief was to complete a photoshoot in a prescribed area utilising the seven other workshop attendees however you wished. There’s one minute of prep, then ten minutes of shoot time. One student after the other. It’s high tension, and high stakes with the Finland workshop 2023 LORD OF THE FLIES title (and celebrated trophy!) up for grabs.

A place isn’t a place, a place is a place in time.

As I sit at home in Wellington, New Zealand and reflect on my time in Finland, it strikes me that each of the three workshops could not have been more different. The changing weather and dynamic of each group meant each day was a distinctly unique experience. 

It reminds me of a quote by Heraclitus “No man (person) ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man (person).”

The 2024 Mike Kelley and Simon Devitt (somewhere in the world, and hopefully at a destination my luggage is happy with..) will be announced soon.

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