Life in Death – an evocative title, and with a meaning more literal than you might at first expect. Eva Persson came across, on one of her jaunts around Finland, a small town named Koulema, meaning “death” when translated from the Finnish. As small towns go, Death is quietly peculiar to the outsiders’ eye and no doubt entirely ordinary to those who live there.
Instantly attracted by the prospect of producing a photographic body of work entitled Life in Death, Persson decided to return to Death, although not entirely sure of her plan of action when she arrived. Little did she know that behind the façade of Death, and its single, solitary store, K-Extra Pitkänen, there was a charming story waiting to be told.
K-Extra Pitkänen is run by twin sisters Arja and Airi Pitkänen. The twins work in the shop and also live together in the house behind with their husbands, who are themselves brothers. Each couple has one child, born just seven weeks apart. The quirkiness of the arrangement would excite any contemporary documentary photographer into action, so Persson set about making friends with the twins to persuade them to let her use their families as a subject. This turned out to be easier than expected: by using the magic word, coffee.
The resulting book from her many visits to Death holds few surprises. We are offered glimpses from the Pitkänen sisters’ lives and also the cultural peculiarities and rituals from this area of Finland.
Persson’s camera takes in the garish colours of kitsch decorations scattered about their house and she follows the sisters on their daily routines which revolve around working, preparing meals, drinking coffee and watching their favourite soap, The Bold and The Beautiful. The images are as static as one can imagine life is in Death. Still lives reveal boots lined up after an elk hunt, a dartboard on a wall (demonstrating a tendency for bad aim, with more tiny punctures on the wall then the board) and a shelf full of trophies and medals for some unidentifiable sport.
It is the more curious images, that have a sense of a story only half-told, that are the more intriguing: the two separate master bedrooms practically identical, complete with plush red carpet wall hangings, Joni, Airi’s son, aiming a riffle at nothing in particular in K-Extra, and Kalevi, Arja’s husband, at the stove making dinner, sitting down as he does so.
Persson does not convincingly unearth the emotional makeup of the relationships shared by the family. Most portraits are of a singular person. Indeed, the only sign of affection, albeit one-sided, is in an image of Arja looking up and smiling at her husband, Kalevi.
Perhaps this was Persson’s intention – only skimming the surface of her characters and relying mainly on idiosyncrasies of the unusual family arrangement. The result is somewhat mundane … lifeless, even. Who knows, maybe life in Death is as much fun as a party in a graveyard.