This article is the second part of a series of studies into 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.

Obviously, the conversation about lost territories cannot take place without analyzing their direct representation in photography. The landscape we see from our window every day, which constantly surrounds us as we grow up, is present around as though by default. We may admire or hardly notice it, using it as a forced background for our selfies, but in any case, this daily environment influences us, determines us, and becomes part of our identity, habits, and habitus.

We get used to seeing snow or mountains around us; we miss the sea when we have to move from the coast to the country; we lack the sun when we have to go somewhere further to the north; in the south, the sun burns our skin; in the city by the sea, the wind blows hard because we are not used to it and so on. A Polish acquaintance recounted how, after a few years in Malta, she returned to her hometown and went to the forest to hug trees—something she had never done before her leaving. She didn't think so much about the fact that trees might not be part of the ‘default’ landscape as didn't expect it to be so important to her. Like many of our acquaintances from the industrial east of Ukraine, we still think that it’s the mountains that resemble spoil tips and not the other way around.

Liia Dostlieva, from the series “In Donetsk, there were no real mountains so we used to stare at spoil tips instead and dream” (2018)
Liia Dostlieva, from the series “In Donetsk, there were no real mountains so we used to stare at spoil tips instead and dream” (2018)

The industrial landscapes of the Ukrainian Donbas can also serve as a good example of how the landscape changes its symbolic meaning over time and due to certain events—if before the war they could be perceived rather as nature’s decay and degradation, then now they have gradually become the mythologized space for memories and nostalgia.

In fact, the above-mentioned examples demonstrate that a landscape could be perceived as an array of certain cultural practices and a kind of discourse that connects territory, people, history and the space for memories and remembrance.

The same refers to the national dimension of landscapes—Catherine Palmer notes that the landscape recognised and perceived by members of a certain community as ‘their own’ is a manifestation of ‘banal nationalism’ and, along with body and food, serves as a material medium for national identity. Also, despite the fact that in reality the landscape across a particular country usually varies greatly, the representation of the so-called national landscape depicts sceneries as homogeneous and typical. Such a ‘typical’, established landscape becomes generally used and reproduced in art, education and mass media.[1]

And now let’s go back to Finland.

Since the 19th century, the idea of ​​a typical Finnish landscape—forests and lakes—has been gradually formed in literature and art. Karelia—a territory that for centuries has been disputed for Russia and Finland—also takes an important place in the iconic representation of the national landscape. According to the Finnish researcher Anssi Paasi, in the late 19th century, Karelian culture in general and Karelian landscapes, in particular, were key themes for Finnish national romanticism, the Scandinavian branch of northern modernism. After World War II, the situation changed radically: Finland lost much of Karelia, and Karelian landscapes were no longer thought of as part of the national landscape. Eventually, they were replaced with images of North Karelia, a territory on the Finnish side of the border, and its overland hills became a new symbol of the typically Finnish landscape.[2]

In the context of personal archives of people whose houses ultimately turned out to be on the Russian side after the movement of borders, this metamorphosis of the national landscape looked like this: before the evacuation, photos with their own houses in the background were no more than registering of daily life, recording of everyday events, and had no greater symbolic weight for them. In family albums, they were pasted somewhere between a picture of cattle and a photo of a neighbour’s child riding a bicycle.

Images from the private photo archive

After the evacuation, those photos (especially landscape photos of the houses themselves) immediately became the only documentary evidence of a peaceful life and a very important sentimental memorial. Accordingly, the attitude to them was changed: the pictures were enlarged, placed in a prominent place or hung in frames on the wall in new homes. Artists were often commissioned to make pictures (or even large coloured landscape paintings) redrawn from such photographs—a photocopy of a drawing made from a photograph of the house was inserted in one of the studied family albums among other photos.

Images from the private photo archive

In fact, that was how, after the evacuation, the Karelian house went beyond a small black-and-white photograph, changed the medium of representation, size, scale, gained colour and symbolic meaning, and moved from an inconspicuous place somewhere in the depths of the family album to a place of honour where everyone could see it.

And the lost Karelian landscapes from a background present by default turned into a mythologised space for memories and nostalgia.

At the same time, immediately after the war, inexpensive photo albums with pre-war Karelian landscapes were published, which were primarily aimed at satisfying the nostalgic needs of the evacuees.

Over time, those collections and generalised nostalgic landscapes lost their popularity and disappeared from bookstore shelves. Instead, the nostalgic connection to personal landscapes maintained through private photo reproductions remained just as strong. Among the families of evacuees with whom we recorded interviews were representatives of the second generation who said that they also commissioned paintings based on archival photographs of Karelian houses of their families—i.e. those were people born after the war who had never seen those houses with their own eyes.

In the memorial collections dedicated to small communities from some Karelian villages, photos of the house occupy an honourable place next to the ceremonial portraits of the heads of the family in almost every story about a certain family. (The book Kotona Reuskulassa published in 2016 is a good example.)

Spread from the book Kotona Reuskulassa (published by Suur-Jaakkimalaiset r.y, 2016)
Spread from the book Kotona Reuskulassa (published by Suur-Jaakkimalaiset r.y, 2016)

In Karelia, the genre of family photography with the house in the background took a somewhat unexpected turn in the 1990s, when after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the borders were opened. At that time, the Finns evacuated from Karelia received the first legal opportunity to visit their former homeland, and many of them went in search of their abandoned homes.

It is also worth noting that such nostalgic tourism, motivated by the desire to once again see home places that were forcibly left, is not something unique to Karelian Finns. Similarly, in the 1970s*, the Germans, deprived of their homes due to the post-war movement of the Polish-German border, came to Soviet Poland and knocked on the doors of their houses, unless, of course, they were met by ashes instead of their former homes.

Unfortunately, Finnish travellers also often found nothing else but ruins or burnt-out black rectangles overgrown with grass on the site of their homes. Those ashes and ruins also became an object of photography: in family albums, we can find many colourful photos taken on point-and-shoot cameras, where families—either sad or happy—pose against the background of what is left of their homes.

Väinö and Airi in Sulasalmi, Karelia. Courtesy of the Serlachius Museum
Väinö with his daughter Irma on the site of their former house. Courtesy of the Serlachius Museum
The ruins of a barn near Väinö’s house. Courtesy of the Serlachius Museum

As we can see, the landscape becomes a kind of screen on which the descendants of the displaced and the migrants themselves project their sadness, nostalgia and loss. This understanding of the landscape is subjective and procedural, it seems to interact with those who look at it and, accordingly, changes gaining the meaning of the memory landscape or the landscape as memory.

In fact, here we totally agree with researchers who believe that the landscape is not so much a geographical or spatial category but rather an anthropological frame for reflection on the trauma associated with a particular place.[3]

Andrii Dostliev, Olga Zelenska. From the Lost Karelian Landscapes project

The Lost Karelian Landscapes project created in collaboration with designer Olga Zelenska is a continuation of this research intelligence and an attempt of artistic reflection on its problems. Within its framework, we redraw Karelian houses from archival photographs on handmade paper mixed with grains of common Finnish plants and document the process of their germination. We then dry these sheets, forcibly interrupting the growth and development of the plants to make them a kind of herbarium or an album of memory landscapes.

*after the opening of the borders between the German Democratic Republic and the Polish People’s Republic; see Karolina Kuszyk (2019) Poniemieckie, wyd. Czarne.

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


[1] Catherine Palmer (1998) From Theory to Practice: Experiencing the Nation in Everyday Life, Journal of Material Culture, 3.

[2] Anssi Paasi (2008) Finnish Landscape as Social Practice: Mapping Identity and Scale. In: Nordic Landscapes. Thinking Landscape and Regional Identity on the Northern Edge of Europe, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

[3] Jenny Adams (2012) Cities under a sky of mud: landscapes of mourning, w: Land and identity: theory, memory, and practice, ed. Ch. Berberich, N. Campbell, Rodopi, Amsterdam. Aleksandra Szczepan (2014) Krajobrazy postpamięci, Teksty Drugie: teoria literatury, krytyka, interpretacja nr 1 (145), 103-126.


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.