Tuomo Manninen’s thesis: tell jokes to the clown and hold a complainer by the hand.
“In a way it all started by coincidence. I had been doing the normal rounds of the newspapers and magazines for more than a decade. The War Cry and Donald Duck were probably the only magazines that I hadn’t worked for. Maybe subconsciously I was looking for something else,” remembers photographer Tuomo Manninen.
“When my wife was asked to work in Nepal, I decided to go along. UNICEF’s work benefits were good and the country’s price level was low, so I could concentrate on making art.”
Nepal did not conform to Manninen’s expections. It was socially more diverse than it seemed in the stories published in the Finnish press.
“In 1994 the internet was not there in the same way as now, so I relied on newspapers, magazines and television. Their image of developing countries was, and still is, dualistic. Some dealt with poverty and societal problems within the genre of social porn or, alternatively, I read stories about smiling and happy noble savages.”
Manninen discovered something completely different to the preconceived categories of innocent natives and poor souls punished by global capitalism. He observed that Nepal also had a growing and increasingly significant middle class.
“Nowadays much is written about China’s rising middle class but in those days the idea of a middle class standard of living in developing countries was more unusual. I started focusing on these ordinary people who were reaching for a better livelihood in Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu, which had about one million inhabitants.”
As he got excited about the Nepalese middle class, Manninen also changed his negative attitude towards groups. Already before his departure to Nepal, Manninen had photographed different kinds of human groups for Helsingin Sanomat’s monthly supplement Kuukausiliite. The series included people from combat divers to transvestites.
“After the Helsingin Sanomat series and Nepal, photographing groups started feeling quite natural. I got interested and have now worked on the subject for over ten years. When I’m finishing one series, the next one is already in the works.”
Manninen’s images usually feature people from different professions. All different, yet all similar.
“I have taken pictures around the world. There’s a different story in every place. People are endlessly interesting,” Manninen enthuses. “But ultimately they are not that different. We may hold some individualistic dreams but one of the effects of globalisation is that we are all becoming a bit similar.”
“The cultural differences decrease and people don’t just represent their profession but also the general, global image of it. For example, the police pose in the same way all over the world. They are imitating the Cops programme and American television and movie fiction.”
The photographs Manninen took at a gym in Kathmandu can be viewed as a key series in the context of his later work.
“I was going there for my own enjoyment but soon I realized that I was arranging photo shoots. The Nepalese body builders and keep fit enthusiasts looked funny and I thought that I found a fresh angle on them. Soon I was photographing groups of people that I didn’t expect to find in Nepal, like grunge musicians.”
Manninen’s images often have a slightly comic tone, created either by the people or the details that appear in the image, perhaps only visible after the shoot.
“In Nepal’s stock exchange, the only electronic device was a calculator that was churning out paper tape.”
15 minutes at most
Manninen aims to maintain a certain spontaneity in his images. Since he asks unknown people into his pictures, everything has to work quickly. Sometimes without asking for permits.
“If you can persuade people to be in a picture, you have to understand that they can’t be kept waiting. 15 minutes is the maximum. You have to resort to quick solutions and accept imperfection.”
According to Manninen, France is the most difficult country where he has worked because a permit is required for everything.
“Or at least the decision is made hierarchically, sometimes at a surprisingly high level. Some years ago I was doing a series in Paris where I photographed professions which had survived from the 1200s to the 2000s, such as water sellers. One group consisted of advertising board painters – which today meant photographing the staff of JCDecaux. In order to photograph them at their work, I had to request permission from the company’s global marketing director. I would have thought he had more important things to do!”
When Manninen spends longer periods in a city, he starts thinking about larger projects than the picture series, which can work as exhibitions. For example, in 1997 he went to Riga to photograph professions that did not exist before the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 2007 he was searching Riga for new groups that had been born during the past ten years.
Characters and uniforms
As someone who has studied group dynamics in great depth, Manninen is the person to ask about how a ‘group’ as a concept is formed and how to maintain control over a shoot.
“People on a bus form a group. If the doors of the bus get jammed, the passengers will quickly turn into a group with its own roles. The time and the situation mould people in their places. The same characters are found in most groups: the manager, value leader, complainer and humourist. Things go more smoothly if you can identify them. You can tell jokes to the clown and hold the complainer’s hand. When you get a grip on the key people, the rest will also follow.”
“In fast shooting situations I look for structures, group dynamics and people’s relationships to each other. It’s a bit like running the 110 metre hurdles with the water jump. But I don’t do things primarily because they are easy.”
Many professions strengthen their identity and help identification by using uniforms. Security guards have them and so do go-go girls.
“People who have influenced each other for a long time create uniforms even without actual working outfits. People affect each other. The process of becoming alike cannot be avoided.”
Doesn’t that feel awful somehow?
“No. It makes me think about the flow of time, the big historical continuum that does not oscillate, whether we are in Kosovo or in Helsinki.”