The cover of this article, a portrait by Nelli Palomäki, was selected by photographer Todd Hido as his Juror’s Pick in our 2017 Portrait Awards. On the eve of an exhibition at Gallery Taik Persons in Berlin, Palomäki put together a thoughtful and poignant rumination for LensCulture on the major themes that drove her to produce this series on siblinghood. Read on to learn more about Palomäki’s remarkable work.
I cannot say I picked siblinghood as a theme—it kind of found me instead.
What I mean is that it all started somewhat naturally. I have worked with children and young adults for many years, and as a result, I am constantly surrounded by siblings. I was immediately drawn to (and intrigued by) their behavior, and I began studying their different ways of expressing their relationships and their unity almost unconsciously. Last year my husband and I made an exhibition together on the subject of siblinghood, and I continued working with the theme—I became almost obsessed with it. There is a certain darkness in these photographs that speaks to the twisted and convoluted feelings many siblings share. Underneath the cohesion and love, there are more complex emotions like envy, competition, and concern for the other.
From my perspective, there are many psychological elements at play. As a little sister myself, I am continually grappling with my own siblinghood. My sister and I were never close in a physical way, and I am absolutely fascinated (and slightly terrified) by the close physical relationship between many siblings: I often see sisters or brothers leaning on each other for an hour without any discomfort. I have a great relationship with my sister, but we do have a certain distance that I also see in the rest of my family.
I am also a mother of two little children, and that has affected the series very much. Through them I have realized how different siblings can be from day one—even despite the fact that they share the same parents, home, environment and affection. I pay attention to the little details; how I might talk differently to my daughter, or how I share my emotions with my son. No matter how equal I wish my interactions could be, there is always some disparity.
In my photographs, these personal interests are mixed with the intimacy and tensions that different siblings share. Some might feel incredibly uncomfortable when placed close to each other; some embrace it and become one. Even though I depict specific siblings (and underline their individuality by titling the portraits after them), I’m aiming to show something universal. This, I hope, is made clear through the simple gestures shared by many of the siblings.
Intimacy, empathy, and—simultaneously—discomfort play a crucial role in this work. Siblinghood is filled with contradictions; it is something so ordinary and yet amazingly complex. In particular, the portrait of two boys, Zane and August [the cover of this article], has become very dear to me; I feel that it articulates this dichotomy in a wonderful way. Zane, the big brother, holds his little brother as if protecting him, and yet simultaneously there is a disturbing air to the image. Zane has this amazingly peaceful and tranquil face, while August’s expression is much more complex and suspicious, yet safe in the arms of his older brother. I remember how their mother saw the gesture as sort of protective, whereas Zane stated that it looks like he was about to break his little brother’s neck. Personally I think this is what siblinghood is really about—there is a fine line between embracing and wrestling with the other.
“Shared” is an ongoing project and eventually I hope to make it into a book. First, however, I want to focus on the diversity of siblings, as lately I have been working mainly on pairs. In general, I don’t make many plans, as the work develops through coincidences and encounters. I mainly photograph strangers and usually become quite close with them in the end. Photography, and particularly portraiture, is an obsession for me. It allows me to experience a little part of the ordinary—yet private and intimate—lives of the people around me. Perhaps it is a type of escapism.