Photographs examine ties of place and identity
It's a compelling photograph. A barber of about 60 years of age, sitting in his barber chair, surrounded by telltale signs of his trade — combs, brushes, mirrored walls, etc. His name is Eli, and he was photographed by Brooklyn-based photographer Dina Kantor in Helsinki in 2007.
Eli's picture is just one of 16 photographs by Kantor that fill the walls of the American Jewish Museum's exhibition space at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill in Kantor's traveling solo exhibit “Finnish and Jewish.”
“It doesn't look all that Scandinavian in terms of what we think of when it comes to Scandinavian design,” museum director Melissa Hiller says of the picture. “At first, it just looks like a really messy salon, with curlers and other apparatus for doing hair as well as lots of product. But the closer you look, you can see that there is an Israeli flag, there's a menorah on a shelf, and some kind of certificate in Hebrew. So, he has accessories representing his Jewishness in his workspace. But it really takes you, as a viewer, a minute or two to slow down and look at this image a little more carefully before these things start to emerge.”
Eli is one of approximately 1,300 Jews living in Finland.
“There's only two congregations in the entire country, and only 5.4 million people in the entire country. So, it's really sparsely inhabited,” Hiller says.
A stretch of the Jewish Diaspora not widely explored, most of Finland's Jewish population stems from Russian Jews who settled there in the late 19th century when the country was under Russian rule. Finland's Jewish history, therefore, is relatively young and markedly less diverse in comparison to other Western and Eastern European countries and the United States.
“While the two synagogues in Finland are both officially orthodox, Eli was the only person who I photographed who said that he was orthodox. Most of the community is conservative or reform,” Kantor says.
Kantor was raised in Minnesota by a Jewish father and a mother who was born in Finland, but moved to Minnesota with her family as a child in 1947. Her mother converted to Judaism when she married Kantor's father 30 years later.
Wanting to connect to her familial past as well as explore what contemporary Jewishness might be like in the remote Nordic region, in 2006 Kantor traveled to Finland. Once there, she began meeting people who identify as Jews and asked if she could take photographs of them. All told, she took some 350 photographs.
“Most of the photographs are of people in their bedrooms or living rooms,” Hiller says. “And they look like anyone else sitting for a portrait.”
For example, the Sinkonnen family of Helsinki is featured sitting on their couch in their living room. Mom, dad and their three blond-haired, blue-eyed children look every bit the Scandinavian family.
In another photograph, Heli, a typical Helsinki teenager, is sitting on her bed, which is in a typical teenage bedroom, complete with pictures and rock posters taped to the walls.
And in yet another photograph, an elderly couple, identified as Michael and Inna from Turku, are in their living room. The only sign alluding to country or ethnic origin being the Scandinavian rug that hangs on the wall behind them.
In fact, other than Eli the barber, the only photograph with obvious signs of Jewish ethnicity is Avi, a photograph of a lone grocer standing behind a deli case filled with ethnic specialties — kosher meats, kosher wine, olive oil from Israel, etc. “Avi runs the only Kosher deli in all of Finland,” Kantor says.
Hiller says she agreed to exhibit Kantor's work because she was drawn to the “casual intimacy” of her pictures. “These photographs really force us to pause and ask, how do we figure these people out and what's beyond the immediate impression of someone's identity?”
“We don't know who the people in these photographs are, but everyone is looking into this space and inviting us into theirs. So, they are fully aware that they are being photographed,” Hiller says.
Furthermore, she says about Kantor, “She's extremely interested in the transformation and change that are inherent in small communities, as the world changes and globalizes at a rapid pace.
“The idea of transition and the inevitability of change, and photography's role in capturing that, is really what this exhibition is about.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media.