Big heart, strong hands
Project info

Kihnu archipelago in the south part of the Baltic Sea consists of the islands Kihnu (17 km2 with 500 people) and Manija (2 km2 with only 25 people) together with a dozen of smaller islands that only are inhabited in the summer time. With roots deep into the traditions the culture is strong, vibrant and living here. The life has in many ways stood still. Men are fishing and women wear folk costumes every day, just like they did 100 year ago.

Kihnu Cultural Space is on Unesco’s World Heritage List. Efforts takes place to preserve this unique society. This is a fine balance. Broad knowledge and cultural understanding is needed. Anthropologists and scientist are engaged. Habits and rites are documented through pictures and film, songs and food recipes are being written down. The culture is cared for. It is necessary for the future and it is necessary here and now.

This is partly why the society is reluctant to foreigners, but also because the islanders want privacy. They are humble and want to live their modest lives without any interference from the outside world.

Since 2008 I have been documenting the lives of the older women on Kihnu and Manija. In the past I was a fashion designer and for 51/2 years I had my knitting company in Estonia. My first trip to Kihnu in 2005 was to learn about their beautiful textiles. My connections were the door opener when I wanted to come back as a photographer. That I was so well received was an exception. It has been amazing to meet the people and the culture. For this I am deeply grateful.

I choose to photograph the older women as they are colorful, interesting and friendly, and they represent a culture and a way of living that will change despite the strong anchor in traditions. Here is some sort of matriarchy. The robust women have huge hands that are used to work hard, and they take care of almost everything. They bring up the children, plough the soil, drive the tractor and take care of the animals. And they knit and weave all the clothes and make items that they sell to the tourists. The men spend much time away from home, fishing or working on the mainland or abroad. Life is often hard. This is normal here. Nobody asks questions. You do what you have to do. This is how you get a big heart and strong hands. When I understood that, my project got the title.

My work has resulted in the exhibition ‘Big heart, strong hands’ that has been touring Estonia since 2011 and has also been shown in the National Museum in Tartu and in the lobby in the Estonian Parliament in Tallinn. For those I photographed and for the Kihnu society as well, it was important that the exhibition opening was on Kihnu Museum. It was also important that the pictures were exhibited in the Parliament and thus reminded the representatives about whom they really represented. Also, two of my images were part of the Third International Photography Biennial in the National Art Gallery in Beijing, China in 2014.

Images shown here is a small collection of my favorites. There are more images on my web site and many more to come.

- Anne Helene Gjelstad