While cleaning the top shelf of my bedroom wardrobe, my hand hit thick cardboard. I pulled out a large, dark gray folder. On the front cover “Suomi, Finland” was printed in golden letters, and between them was the lion coat of arms of Finland. I climbed down from the ladder carefully holding the about ten pounds album . It had accompanied me in my many moves, and I had only opened it once when I received it about twenty years ago.
Now I opened the album. Sturdy silk ribbons cracked when I turned the thick gray pages. In the beginning there were several openings with gray landscape photographs from all over Finland: fields, meadows, lakes, rivers, rapids and waterfalls. These photographs were followed by numerous city scenes from around Finland: schools, colleges, town halls, the marketplace in the capital with old vendors wrapped in shawls, and horse carts.
The album had sections for old Finnish art, sports, agriculture, industry, and politics. The last picture – the only unnumbered one of the 245 – showed the riding victory parade of the “white General” Mannerheim. It was also the only image with a handwritten date: 16.5.1918. The short but extremely violent civil war had ended and about 100,000 “reds” had been captured by then.
Who had assembled this album and for what purpose? My librarian in Birkerød had given it to me. She had bought it long before she gave it to me at some Danish flea market. She may have thought when handing it to me that it would ease my homesickness.
I left the album on the living room table and went on cleaning my wardrobe. During the summer, my curiosity about the album grew. I opened it and tried to find clues as to when it had been compiled and by whom. Clearly, the creator of the album wanted to convey the message that Finland is a good country: a lot of pure nature; seas, lakes and rivers full of fish; and hard-working people. Finland invited visiting it, investing there, and even settling down in this beautiful country. Or maybe it is an easy country to conquer, to destroy? Even the military uses horses for transportation…
In my fantasy I developed a story about a German spy who was sent to Finland during the First World War to prepare for German takeover. But it did not sound credible. Why would he have written the captions in English?
In my next story, an introvert English engineer had been sent to Finland for a lengthy work assignment. His main hobby was photography and he acquired an expensive camera with several lenses. Maybe he even had a dark room at home. During vacations, he traveled around in Finland fishing and photographing. His aim was to show his relatives and Rotary fellows in the English hometown what Finland looked like. At the time it was an exotic country of which no one knew much more than that it had recently been part of Russia.
However, handsome decks with spaciously positioned photos led me to the idea that perhaps behind the album was a Finnish authority, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. I sent an email to my ex-fellow student, Leila Riitaoja, who has been working for ages at the Foreign Ministry, and I asked her for advice. According to Leila, Finnish embassies abroad have always been displaying materials about Finland. She believed that the Finnish Association for Promotion of Tourism might have produced the photo album to promote tourism early in the previous century.
At that point in time, it struck me that the top shelf of a wardrobe in a Danish village was not the right place for the album. Therefore I wrote a message to the Finnish National Museum asking whether they wanted to have a look at it. The Curator, Hannu Häkkinen, at the Finnish Heritage Agency was keen on seeing the album. We agreed to meet.
It was interesting to see what an expert could extract from the photos at first sight when I met with Hannu at the Heritage Agency:
“These are taken by different photographers”.
“Definitively professional photographers”.
“All the prints seem to have been done at the same time”.
“Here, two photographs have been merged into one.”
“Clearly this album is about branding Finland”.
“Nudism was in fashion at the beginning of the last century” – as a commentary on a picture where naked adults of Humallahti swimming school are standing on a bathing bridge waiting for their turn to be instructed.
Hannu used a magnifying glass to check the number plate of a funny cabriolet on the main street of Helsinki in order to date the photo, but in was in vain.
I learnt that he had recently been studying a well-known Finnish photographer family, the Pietiläs. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs had contracted Aarne Pietilä in 1933 to create a national image for Finland. Maybe he took some of the photos in my album before that contract? Last year, the Finnish Heritage Agency published a book about the Pietinens titlet Peilissä Pietiset . It aims to provide a realistic picture of Finland’s history in the 1930s and 40s through the photographs taken by the Pietinens.
Satisfied I left the album in care of Hannu Häkkinen and felt I had contributed a tiny bit to preserving our cultural heritage…