Q&A: tiu makkonen
By Jess T. Dugan | July 4, 2019
Tiu Makkonen (b.1989) is a queer immigrant artist and photographer originally from Finland. Since moving to Scotland 10 years ago, her work has developed from personal reflections on identity and queerness to documenting the LGBT+ scene in Scotland at large. Using both analogue and digital formats, her work ranges from fine art portraiture projects addressing visibility, representation and empowerment to documentary work shooting underground queer raves, art festivals and national gender equality campaigns.
Her projects have in the past been supported by generous funding from LGBT Youth Scotland, the Scotland Office and LEAP Sports Scotland. The most important places her work has been shown are a sexual health centre, a local gym and a temporary LGBT+ safe space during the Glasgow European Championships, because the ethos underpinning all of her work is a desire to bolster the community from within. The projects work as a two-way mirror: to have us be seen, but also to really see ourselves, full of fierce love and radical vulnerability.
Jess T. Dugan: Hi Tiu! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. Let’s start at the beginning: what first drew you to photography, and what was your path to getting to where you are today?
Tiu Makkonen: Hi Jess! Thank you for having me – this is a very exciting initiative to be a part of!
Real talk – initially, photography was a way for me to handle my mental health. As a quiet kid struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD and an eating disorder all through my teens until I was about 23, photography was a therapeutic outlet that really helped make some sense of it all. I only had a little point-and-shoot and knew nothing about apertures or focal lengths, but I did have a pirate copy of Photoshop. A lot of it was pictures of myself, as I was too shy to ask anyone else to model for me, and I found the process of self-portraiture and putting on a different identity very relieving.
After graduating high school, I finally got my first DSLR as a gift and enrolled in a year-long photography foundation course in Lahti, Finland. I think what finally made it click for me was when a classmate introduced me to the work of Cindy Sherman: her Untitled Film Stills made me finally understand how photography can be used as a conceptual art form, particularly a feminist one, and how I had been subconsciously playing with themes of identity in my own experiments already.
I started to take photography seriously and also knew I needed to get away from Finland. So I applied to do a photography BA degree at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland, even though I´d never been to the country before, and got in. The day I got the news was probably one of the happiest days of my life – that’s been exactly 10 years ago now, and I'm still living in Scotland. I graduated in 2013, and then worked my ass off in hospitality for a few years in order to save up for expensive equipment. Since 2016, photography has been my main source of (meagre) income, and I balance both artistic projects and commissions as well as commercial work. Last year I worked as a photography technician at Edinburgh College of Art, which was fantastic – I love the technical side of photography, and I also taught students in the darkroom. For the past 6 years, most of my work has concentrated on documenting queer life in Scotland, and that's where I am today.
JTD: Tell me about your series As We Are, which you describe as “an intimate dialogue with members of Edinburgh's gender and sexual minorities, dealing with themes of visibility, (self)representation, identity and empowerment.” How did this project come to be, and what was your process for working on it? Is it ongoing or completed?
TM: As We Are was my final project for my photography degree show in 2013. Up until my final year of study, my work was quite personal, “slice of life” type of photography shot on various film cameras – in other words, I didn't really know what I was doing. I envied photographers with fully realised, beautiful portraiture projects and sought excuses why I hadn't made work like that yet. Maybe they had better cameras? More experience? Access to contacts?
I'd come out as queer after moving from home, and I wrote my dissertation on the visibility and representation of trans people in popular visual culture (spoiler alert, in 2012 that situation was dire) and then compared that to the way art photography can be used in a more positive, progressive way to further representation instead. I looked at work from photographers like Katie Koti, Molly Landreth and you, Jess! After researching, I didn't find much contemporary work like that being made in the UK, much less in Scotland – so I decided to quit my excuses, look my own identity and community head-on and finally make the work I'd always wanted to make.
After finding willing people to photograph for the project, many of them unknown to me before, I set about planning the shoots. It was of utmost importance to me that the project address the power imbalance between photographer and 'subject', and to this day I never call the people I photograph subjects or sitters or models – they are volunteers or participants or collaborators. I wanted to symbolically relinquish some of that power over to the people in front of the lens, and decided to represent this by having the participants be the ones in physical control of the shutter. I was using an analogue Hasselblad with a long cable release, and it is visible on purpose in every shot. For some photos featuring couples, I actually left the room and let them press the shutter in private once they felt ready.
The project is finished in its current form, as the projects I have done since have been a continuation and evolvement from this first one. I was so immensely proud for conquering my insecurities and showing myself I could, in fact, create documentary portrait work like this. The series ended up being picked up by the NHS and it was on permanent show for 4 years in a sexual health clinic in Edinburgh which also housed a gender clinic, where thousands of people will have seen and read it.
JTD: For the past several years, you have been working on Letters to Ourselves, portraits of LGBT+ people in Scotland who are over the age of 50. What led you to begin this project, and why did you choose to focus on older adults?
TM: The project evolved from As We Are, which primarily featured people my own age – queer people in their 20s and 30s. Originally, Letters was a larger idea, and I had planned to photograph those in the 50+ demographic, and then young people (13-25 year olds) and have the two groups write letters to their younger selves, and their future selves, respectively. I had applied for a large grant with this idea, which I didn't get, but was able to secure a small bit of funding anyway – and I decided to focus on only older adults instead and keep the project more simple. Most of our progress towards equality for LGBT+ people in this society is directly thanks to the generation that came before, and who are still here, yet severely marginalised and kind of forgotten. I wanted to bring forward those stories and experiences and I was willing to traverse the length and width of Scotland to find them, as a way of paying tribute to the warm welcome and safety I have been privileged to experience as a queer immigrant in this country. It was also important for me to find volunteers outside the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and I ended up going as far as Shetland to meet and photograph people.
JTD: I’m interested in your use of handwritten text, both in As We Are and also in Letters to Ourselves. What is your motivation for including text alongside to your portraits, and what do you think it adds? How important is it that we see the text written in the subject’s own handwriting?
I have always been wary of documentary projects that depict a certain group, particularly a non-mainstream one, and then only talk about the participants in third person as though they aren't even there. Their own voice seems to be missing. So in order to avoid this, I had everyone contribute handwritten statements about themselves to display alongside their portraits. I wanted to directly show that these statements have in no way been altered or edited by myself. The handwriting is both a personal marker as well as a stamp of authenticity. Some letters were created using typewriters, which also add a physicality to them, mistypes and corrections and all. I scan and print the texts on the same photographic paper, and mount them on dibond same as the portraits, so they have equal value
It’s important to note that though all text featured in these projects has been created in some form by hand, in terms of accessibility, it has never been a strict requirement. Not everyone may be able to wield a pen, or typewriter, and in these instances I would always seek to work with the individual to find out how to best express their words in a way that is authentic to them. When I show the work I also provide computer-typed transcripts of the letters, in case anyone has trouble reading the handwriting.
In my latest project, Fast Enough, where I photographed local Scottish LGBT+ folk who are involved in community sports, I also incorporated personal statements from participants but they were displayed as prints from digital texts. This is definitely much easier, and not every project necessitates or suits the handwriting theme.
JTD: What do you envision as the final result of Letters to Ourselves? Are you working on an exhibition or book, or possibly both?
TM: The project has now been exhibited twice, which is great. The original grant I received was enough to cover the production, but not printing or exhibiting of the work. But then I was contacted by the Scotland Office, which is the governing body representing Scotland in the UK Parliament, who offered to help fund the printing of the work for a show during LGBT History Month 2018. This was the quickest exhibition of my life – it lasted only 3 hours as it was for an evening event hosted by the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is a gay man himself, and I had to set up and take it all down that same night! But I got to make a speech about the importance of queer visibility and representation to a room full of government folk, the Head Commander of the Scottish army, etc., so that was pretty wild.
Luckily I got a chance to show the series again, with proper time, in August last year during the 2018 European Championships which were held in Glasgow. Pride House International and LEAP Sports Scotland set up a temporary LGBT+ community space and the work was shown there, alongside Fast Enough.
I would love to continue the project and the idea of a book has definitely crossed my mind.
JTD: As an artist working within LGBT+ communities, how do you balance your role as an activist or educator with that of being an artist? Do you feel tension between the two, or do they dovetail smoothly for you?
TM: I've never thought about this really, as the art I make is what essentially makes me an activist and educator. Using my skill as a photographer, and putting my time and effort into making our communities more visible and our authentic voices being heard, is the greatest kind of educating as it works on a human level. I want to make visually engaging, beautiful and accessible-on-the-surface work that draws viewers in and then makes them stay by presenting a story to go with the image. I'm thrilled that As We Are was shown in a sexual health clinic for 4 years, and Fast Enough is now being exhibited in the hallway of a local big gym for 4 months. By directly queering these non-traditionally arty spaces, the work and message gets seen by a lot more people, and I would guess many of those people would never seek out a queer exhibition to view in the first place. I hope these exhibitions will have positively affected at least some minds and mainstream attitudes towards queer people.
JTD: Can you speak about the importance of visibility and representation, both in your work specifically, and also more broadly?
TM: Though these words often go hand in hand or even interchangeably, they aren't entirely the same. In the context of my work, visibility is the radical act of the person photographed volunteering themselves to be vulnerable, to be seen. Without them, the work doesn't even exist. Representation is the action that is my responsibility as a portrait photographer; though I strive for authenticity, even minute choices of composition and framing and posing are still aspects of how *I* want to represent that person in that moment. And as a photographer, I am still selfish enough to want to be the one to select the final image (though I show contact sheets and explain my reasoning when I do) and that is a matter of representation too. This is why I explain that the final image will never be an entirely 'true' or objective depiction of them, that it is a collaboration and ultimately how I experienced our encounter – always empowering, memorable and beautiful. It can be hard to see a portrait of yourself like that, which is why I am immensely proud of everyone in the projects who have chosen to be visible so publicly through them.
In a broader sense, I think I've touched on the importance of visibility and representation earlier, particularly with regards to how necessary it is to take queer art and stories out of the usual places and plonk them, without asking, absolutely everywhere. The more we are faced with otherness, the less other it becomes. This is why we must constantly keep making queer work, so that our otherness will become familiarity instead, so people stop being afraid of our queerness and stop using violence and discrimination as tools to shield themselves from something they just haven't gotten to know yet.
JTD: What are you currently working on, and what’s on the horizon for you as an artist?
TM: Alongside my own photography, I have also been an assistant to Edinburgh-based blind photographer Rosita McKenzie for the past 5 years. This work is hugely rewarding. I also work as an art workshop assistant and facilitator for an organization called Artlink, who organize creative activities for adults who experience disadvantage and disability in the East of Scotland. I'm currently planning a series of photography workshops for them.
At the moment, I have been doing a lot more commercial work, which luckily for me is also super queer! By commercial I mean that I get paid, but the events and people I photograph are still very much grassroots. It all ties back into my more artistic work, by ways of ideas and connections – the biggest difference would be that my fine art work is all shot on film, while the more immediate work is done digitally. Ultimately, it is all a part of my quest to photograph the LGBTQ+ scene in Scotland in all its myriad forms, from launch events for big national gender equality campaigns, Pride parades, small queer cabarets, helping other queer artists with their visual promo material, and documenting underground queer raves. Glasgow has a very thriving queer scene at the moment and it’s an exciting place to be.
After working on primarily LGBT+ projects for the last 6 years, I'm starting to feel an itch to push myself a little bit more again. It's almost too easy for me to find queer people to photograph now, and there has been an explosion of queer art and photography in only the last few years. I find visual LGBT+ projects need more edge to them now, new perspectives and diversity. Portraiture is the most rewarding genre for me, and I'd like to change it up a bit and veer towards projects that highlight environmental issues – at the moment, I've started doing research on Scottish seaweed and particularly the ancient yet thriving business of harvesting kelp from the sea by hand. I would love to go out and photograph the kelp pickers, particularly women who do this!
All images © Tiu Makkonen