This article is the result of a study of Finnish vernacular photography and the impact of the forced displacement experience on photographic practices made during a stay at the Serlachius Residency in Mänttä-Vilppula (Finland) in 2019.

So, this story began as follows: on March 13, 1940, the Winter War ended, Finland and the USSR signed a peace treaty, under which Karelia, along with other border areas, ceded to the USSR. Though the Soviet government did not make such a demand, more than four hundred thousand Finns who lived in those territories hastily evacuated leaving behind almost everything they had. Among them was the family of Taavi Siltanen, a member of the City Council of Viipuri, which was about to become Russia’s city of Vyborg. Among other things, an old family photo album remained at their villa in Samola.

The Siltanen family on the porch of their villa in Samola, 1920. Courtesy of the Museum of South Karelia in Lappeenranta

In June 1941, the Finnish army joined Germany and attacked the USSR to regain what it had lost. Karelia became Finnish again, the evacuees (about two hundred and eighty thousand people) were gradually returning to their homes. Taavi Siltanen’s family returned quite late, in 1943. Their villa survived, but not everyone was so lucky: instead of their homes, many people found ruins, ashes or new Soviet buildings. The Siltanens were looking for their family album and were surprised to find out that the Russian family who lived in the villa during their absence not only saved it but added their own photos to it. Little is known about those people, except that they had to hastily leave all their belongings in the recently occupied house and flee with the retreating Soviet army.

However, the return of the Siltanens to Samola did not last long: in the summer of 1944, the Soviet army recaptured those territories, and they had to evacuate from Karelia for the second time. (“And at that moment, our neighbor, imagine,” laughs 90-year-old Aino, who survived both evacuations, “had just finished rebuilding his house burned down by Russians during the first occupation.”)

This time, the Siltanens took the album with them, saved the new photos (only with some astonishment signing them as the photos of “unknown Russian guests”), and continued to add their own. And just like that—with photographs of Karelia in the 1920s, portraits of “Russian guests,” documentation of a brief return to their villa and the Siltanens’ life in evacuation until the mid-1950s—that album became part of the collection of the Museum of South Karelia in Lappeenranta.

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This extraordinary story clearly shows how a family album (and, more broadly, an archive) can function as a form of historical record, capturing events united by common geography. Interestingly, the movement of borders and the resulting mass displacement did not influence the continuity of this record—during the time that the original owners were separated from the album, it continued to exist, be replenished and perform its function. This album can also be considered as a kind of contact, an intersection between the two worlds that would never exist in the same space and at the same time, and people who have never met in real life.

So, why did the Russian family keep the album of people they had never seen? What was the reason for their decision to add their photos to it? We will never know the answer for sure. Note that the three ‘added’ photos of ‘Russian guests’ are staged photos taken by a third-party photographer, their poses look forced, artificial, they are dressed specially for this occasion, their faces are focused and serious, it is clear that a photography session is a special event for them.

Siltanens’ pictures, on the other hand, are amateur photos taken with their own camera. Here we can see scenes from the everyday life of a wealthy Finnish family, group photos with their villa in the background, portraits of the wife, children and even the kitchen maid.

Photography existed as part of their daily experience, a form of recording and documenting that was not perceived as something extraordinary. The very act of photographing did not require them to make extensive efforts, they did not need to go anywhere or dress in any special way. The background was mostly their own villa, and their photos captured not only and so much themselves (as was the case with studio portraits), as certain moments in their life. We can say that for them, capturing photos was not an event in itself, but rather a tool.

For an average rural Soviet family at the time, photography meant going to a photo studio or a visiting photographer, and the idea of having a camera at home for their own use was rather exotic and unattainable.

In the case of these two families, the functioning of photography as a practice is a clear class and social marker. Perhaps, this difference in perception and experience led to the ‘Russian guests’ not destroying the album, which was found in the empty villa. What could also be important is that the Russian family did not have direct contact with the people in the photos, and therefore no emotional connection with them, but there was a connection with the place depicted in those photos—a house and neighbourhood—which they could hardly make themselves. Therefore, they could perceive the found album rather as an illustrated magazine, something impersonal and distant from real-life experience.

It is also noteworthy that they added their own photos but did not sign them. That’s why we do not know anything about this family—neither their names nor the place they came from. Could that be because the archive now belonged to them, and they knew for sure who they were? Or because its original owners spoke and, accordingly, signed their photos in another language? Or because the ‘Russian guests’ did not have a well-established practice of archiving their history?

Using categories borrowed from linguistics, we can say that the archive creates a paradigm or iconic system within which photographic statements are developed. Archives are not neutral: they represent the power associated with accumulation, collecting, storage, and dominating over vocabulary and language norms. In bourgeois culture, the project of photography was initially associated not only with the dream of a universal language but also with the creation of global archives and repositories, such as models of libraries, encyclopedias, zoos and botanical gardens, museums, etc. Each archive indirectly derives its authority from the authority of the above-mentioned institutions. Therefore, as stated by Allan Sekula, the perspective of the archive is closer to the perspective of the capitalist, bureaucrat, or engineer than to the perspective of the working class or peasants. The culture of the latter is not created at this level.[1]

Why didn't the ‘Russian guests’ take the album with them when it was their turn to evacuate? Was it due to lack of time, luggage space, or maybe they just didn’t consider that album to be something important? Perhaps, they considered it to belong to that very place and left it as its previous family did?

And why did the Siltanens, in turn, decide to leave those ‘added’ photos and not destroy them? There are also many possibilities: it could happen due to the exoticism of the story, the tremendous sense of humor of the owners of the villa, or those pictures were something so strange and alien for them, that they didn’t perceive them directly as the photos of the occupiers. Or perhaps, the Siltanens considered those photographs to be a kind of entry in the house’s guestbook—the tradition of guestbooks is still widespread in Finland, especially among the older generation. (This may be evidenced by the very signature ‘Russian guests’.) Again, the lack of direct contact with those specific ‘Russian guests’ or gratitude for saving the album could have influenced the situation.

It is also worth mentioning that one of those ‘guest’ photos does not have a central figure—most likely, one of the ‘guests’ carved their own portrait to take it with them. (The Siltanens signed that photo: ‘the third Russian guest escaped!!’—it seems that their sense of humor was much better than their fortune.)

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Another interesting source for studying the impact of historical events and forced displacement on photographic practices is Jalmari Lankinen’s archive. Lankinen worked as an architect in Viipuri and the camera was his working tool, which is why, in fact, his archive was preserved and found its way to the museum. This is an impressive array of pictures—more than one and a half thousand photos—where in addition to the facades of houses and their interiors, there are many private photos carefully capturing everything that happened to Lankinen and his family. There are numerous photos against the background of the family villa, photos taken at the new location after the 1940 evacuation, photos documenting their short return home, the second evacuation and their life afterwards. Again, we see a wealthy family with a caring and attentive attitude to their own history, which has the technological ability to track and preserve every detail.

Elina Lankinen and the three women, Viipuri, 1923-30. Courtesy of the Museum of South Karelia in Lappeenranta

In this archive, we have identified several typical visual patterns. Photographs taken in Viipuri from about the 1920s until the first evacuation in 1940 mostly depict the Lankinens’ closest family members and their friends. Here we can see Elina Lankinen (Jalmari’s wife) with her friends, children, etc. Most of the photos were taken outside with the villa in the background or during some walks. There are almost no other relatives here, but we see some private details from the family's life—for example, in the archive, we can find a dog that looks out the window or some cabbage in the vegetable garden. These photos signify personal space and name things that are perceived as their own—here is my wife, my car, my children, my villa, my garden, my dog, and my vegetables. My attention is focused on the smallest details of my life.

In the archive, we can also find the attempts to experiment with color and composition—for example, pay attention to this photo of 1939.

Hermann Starckjohann with his colleagues in the yard, 1939. Courtesy of the Museum of South Karelia in Lappeenranta

Jalmari continued to photograph during the evacuation, but everything changed: space and air disappeared from his photos, the personal decreased to the size of a poor room, and many other relatives (especially children) who were not in the photos from Viipuri appeared in the picture.

The Lankinens in Kuhmalahti, Pirkanmaa, 1940. Courtesy of the Museum of South Karelia in Lappeenranta

The poses are tense, all these people are close to each other in the frame, they seem to huddle together—and that is a very noticeable difference if compared to the relaxed family portraits from Karelia. This impression of unnaturalness, artificiality, compulsion is further enhanced by atypical framing—a group of people is placed in the upper left corner of the photo, while the wooden floor, striped carpet and probably a bed are in the front of the image. Such a visual decision is hardly a technical error or lack of experience: there is nothing like this in the archive before or after, and besides we can see several versions of this photo—each with different but significant shifts. The same crowding can be seen in other photographs of that time. Even in the pictures taken outside, the photographer seems to avoid looking at anything other than the group of people he is shooting.

There are no still lifes, landscapes and domestic scenes in the Lankinens’ archives from the time of evacuation. There are almost no separate photos of Elina with her children or even photos of a smaller group of people. By the way, there is an interesting story about their car—none of the photos taken during the evacuation depicts it. Although there is no doubt that the car itself existed—we can see it at a villa in Viipuri before the war, as well as heavily loaded with mattresses during the packing up before the second evacuation from Viipuri in 1944. However, for some reason, during the family's stay outside Viipuri, it disappeared from the photos.

In 1942, the family returned to Viipuri, and photographs taken in 1942-1944 (before the second evacuation) became similar to those we could see in the archives before 1940—relaxed family portraits, still lifes, and color experiments. Other relatives disappeared from the photos again.

What can cause such a significant difference in depicting their daily routine at home and during evacuation?

In our opinion, that could be due to the non-acceptance of the new environment as their own one, as their personal space, due to the absence of a deeper emotional connection with that place and due to the attitude to it as to something temporary—staying there was rather forced, and therefore, was not worth noticing and being captured in time. And in general, that coincided with popular interwar sentiments in society—after the defeat in the Winter War, the loss of Karelia was perceived as a violation of the natural state of affairs, which could not last long, and evacuation was thought to be a forced delay before coming back home. However, even after Finland's withdrawal from the 1941-1944 war and the final loss of Karelia, those territories remained a mythologized space of memory and nostalgia on the Finnish mental map. And we’ll discuss it in the second part of the article.

* This first part of a series of two articles was initially published in the Ukrainian language in Korydor ( The English translation was done by Tania Rodionova.


[1] Allan Sekula (2010) Społeczne użycia fotografii. Warszawa: Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 119.


Lia Dostlieva, b. 1984, Donetsk, Ukraine
Artist, cultural anthropologist, essayist. Primary areas of my research include the issues of trauma, postmemory, commemorative practices, and agency and visibility of vulnerable groups.

Andrii Dostliev
Artist, curator, and photography researcher from Ukraine, currently based in Poland. His primary areas of interest are memory, trauma, identity — both personal and collective, and limits of photography as a medium. His art practice works across photography, video, drawing, performance, and installation. Has published several photobooks.