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Juha Arvid Helminen

Aug 30/2015
WORDS Glen Leavitt

Since 2008 the Finnish photographer Juha Arvid Helminen has been exploring humanity’s literal and metaphorical dark side with a photo series entitled The Invisible Empire, which explores the ways in which power, authority, and violence express themselves through fashion and visual iconography. Helminen dresses his subjects in uniforms and accessories which suggest fascist and authoritarian political movements, conservative religion and contemporary policing.

“I have always been fascinated by uniforms, and when I had studied arts and photography for a few years in 2008 I wanted to create photos with a meaning. To be honest, at first I was only intrigued by the aesthetics, but a bit later I started to think about human behaviour and how we convey different ideologies and professions by our clothes – how traditions and beliefs dictate our behaviour. How we hide our true persona and create walls around us.”

This name, ‘Invisible Empire’, was on my mind for many years. Little by little just a few photographs grew into a whole narrative of humans’ incapability to learn from its mistakes throughout many centuries.

The title, Invisible Empire, refers to an alternative name used by the Ku Klux Klan, an organization “known for violence, racism and mystic rituals.” According to Helminen, “This name, ‘Invisible Empire’, was on my mind for many years. Little by little just a few photographs grew into a whole narrative of humans’ incapability to learn from its mistakes throughout many centuries.”

Helminen is interested in the effects that masks and uniforms have on an individual’s sense of self – how they can magnify the self or make it disappear, subsumed within some larger whole. A uniform can glorify an individual or strip an individual of his or her humanity.

“Masks are fascinating because of their dualistic nature; they either cover up who we are or bring to light our true nature. Uniforms have this same nature. A prison inmate is forced to wear his outfit and a doctor wears his lab coat with honour. A soldier’s uniform distinguishes him from civilians and also takes much of his individuality away, so he is not singled out by the enemy. All of these things are present in some of the pictures of this series.”

Helminen designs as much of the props and clothing in his work as possible: “The outfits are fully designed beforehand, to every small detail. Luckily I get art grants for the projects, which helps a lot with the expenses. I don’t like to borrow outfits or props because I usually like to modify them. Usually I sketch the photograph-to-be in detail and when the planned photo has been taken, I play around with the characters and props to take extra frames. The characters themselves are often so powerful that it inspires me, but I don’t like to take ideas from the models.

“I’m a bit of a control freak when I’m photographing. The photographs that don’t deal directly with a certain country’s culture or situation tend to be more futuristic, in which case I ask if this really is the future.”

Looking at Helminen’s photos, it is evident that he draws from a variety of sources: Nazi and communist uniforms, KKK uniforms, Catholic headdresses, Muslim niqab head coverings, schoolboy uniforms, paramilitary police armour. But Helminen avoids tying his work too tightly to real world examples. He believes his work has universal implications. We must recognize the potentially dangerous role that masks and uniforms play in all places, at all times.

“The human species has more face muscles than any other species on this planet and we use them to communicate. In my opinion any outfit that covers the face, be it balaclava or a niqab, is problematic. I think the reason why the Invisible Empire series has been successful is because I’ve taken influences from different cultures and have removed ethnicity – this way it’s easy to identify with the characters in the series. My topics and themes are universal.”

And then there is the black. Virtually every element of clothing and set design in Helminen’s photos is black. He insists this aesthetic choice presents no special technical challenges.

“I often get asked this since black has a reputation: it’s told to be hard to photograph, but it really isn’t in this digital age. Everything starts from styling and I avoid bad synthetic fabrics because they tend to look cheap. Leather, wool and plastic masks work well. And naturally light has a lot to do with it. I grew up watching ‘80s movies and I think you can see it in how I light up my images.”

The unrelenting blackness of Helminen’s photos seems to serve two purposes. First, it underscores the ominous, oppressive nature of the subject matter. But it also implies that universality for which Helminen strives. The chromatic uniformity of the images suggests to us that this could be anyone, anywhere, at anytime. We only need to fill in the blanks.

One photo in the series, called “Optimism”, depicts a black train at night, waiting at a black station. It is an ambiguous image. Is the title ironic? Who is on that train, and where are they going?

“I think that from all of my photos, ‘Optimism’ depicts me as a person the best. I am an eternal optimist and pessimist when it comes to the human condition.”

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