Light and backlight

Photographer Tuula Heinilä has been a resident in Villa Karo in 2001 and 2002 as well as an invited fellow in 2005 and 2007. 


Text and pictures: Tuula Heinilä



I faced the first light in Africa. The dark continent was full of strong, bright light and the sun’s warmth. The warmth of the people, I experienced later on. The North and Africa are in many ways each other’s opposites; rich and poor, cold and hot, safe and unstable, individual-centred and communal, effective and leisurely.


My first trip to Africa was to Mozambique and South Africa ten years ago. It left me with a strong feeling that I need to go to Africa again. Later, I made a total of six long trips to West Africa. No other foreign culture or continent has strongly appealed to me as deeply as Africa. It also strongly influenced my photography and aroused a new kind of creativity in me. I have long worked as a press photographer in newspapers and taken part in a number of joint exhibitions. In addition to photo reports and new joint exhibitions, trips to Africa have also spawned numerous of my own photo exhibitions. 



The God is faced with a chalked face. Tuula Heinilä

I show with my pictures the reality I encountered in West Africa. About the people and their everyday life, combining old indigenous cultures, animistic religion, hard work and joy of life. Africa is so much more than the one-sided view that the media feeds you.



When I photographed a Grand-Popo school on my first trip to Benin, I noticed a small doll on top of a student’s desk. I thought the girl had taken her toy to school. However, that was not the case. Later, I got to know the twin cult related to the voodoo gods and the family community, which also includes the dead family members. The birth of twins is believed to bring special happiness to the family. In poor conditions, however, it often happens that the other twin dies. That’s when the deceased twin goes on with their life as a little wooden doll. Through a ceremony, they receive the spirit of the twin. This way the twins are not apart and the gods remain favoured. Relatives carry the dolls with them and care for them like a living child.




Once a friend of mine came to ask me for help in buying a chicken. His brother had been ill for a long time, and nothing had helped him heal. The family now wanted to sacrifice the chicken to Sakpata, the God of sickness, so that the brother would finally be healed. Of course, I would have liked to advise them to buy drugs, but then I thought that how would I know how they could best treat his illness. So the chicken was bought, and the brother was healed.


Familiar faces

I experienced filming and contacted Africans surprisingly easily, just sometimes in difficult conditions. A positive approach gets along, on both sides. I don’t describe anyone against his will, but rarely has anyone denied it. I also don’t buy permission to shoot. For those that I have shot a lot, I have given something in return with Grand-Popo residents who have come to know us, and I photographed their lives for a long time. I made the pictures for the 2007 exhibition in Lissa Gbassa, Villa Karo. Familiar landscapes and faces in the pictures hung on the gallery walls delighted the villagers. At the end of the show, they were excited to get the pictures for themselves.


In Africa, I bring the simplest possible camera equipment. However, it is good to have a spare camera with you. On a push taxi ride on a bumpy road, my camera broke right in the first week, even though I had packed it well. Heat, salt, moisture and sand are also poison to the camera.


Colours are important to me as a photographer, especially in Africa. I can’t ignore its stunning, strong colors, and I can’t photograph Africa in black and white, at least not yet. My favourite light when shooting is the Harmattan light. The Harmattan wind blowing from the Sahara brings fine sand when it comes and covers the sky in the light mist. It softens bright and hard sunlight into stunning photographic light. The sharp lights and shadows of the sun on the faces of Africans soften. Although not everyone likes dewat, and many complain of dusty sand clinging to their throats, it doesn’t bother me.



The twins always go together, Tuula Heinilä

A shattered dream

One week before the Togolese presidential election in the spring of 2005, I was visiting my friends Sewa and Mimi Agbess in the country’s capital, Lomé. The entire city was filled with protests against the military regime and government-armed soldiers. For the first time in forty years, there was hope for a change and free elections. The dictatorial president had died and his son was immediately appointed as the new president. However, due to international pressure, he was forced to hold elections.


I have never seen such huge demonstrations, and of course I wanted to shoot them. My friends said it would be too dangerous and I couldn’t go anywhere with the camera. However, I wanted to describe the demonstration until I realised that they were right. No other white person was on the streets. The soldiers were by no means allowed to be photographed, and some of the protesters directed their threatening anger at me because they thought I was French. The former colonial France had supported the presidents. That day, several protesters died in clashes with soldiers.


The elections were fraudulent, the borders were closed and the soldiers took an even tougher grip. Hundreds of supporters of democracy died, thousands were injured and tens of thousands were forced to flee to neighbouring countries. I later visited a UN-set up refugee camp on the Beninese side.



The twins at their morning bath, Tuula Heinilä

Mama Africa

Gorgeous African women and motherhood were at the forefront of my filming contribution to Villa Karon’s Five Years - Five Artists exhibition. Strong women have a long tradition in Africa. The famous female warriors, the Amazons, once defended the kingdom of Dahomey. Women continue to have a strong position in the voodoo tradition and the family community. They give birth to several children, take care of heavy housework, and often support their families through the marketplace. Women carry huge burdens on their heads and children on their backs. In difficult living conditions, they are real survivors.


While living in Togo for a month, I met the family of Reine Kpodzo, who lived next door. Reine’s story is a very ordinary story of an African woman. Her husband could not find work in his home country but had to search for work in a more prosperous neighbouring country, Ghana. The man went home and brought money with him whenever he came back. Gradually, however, visits became less frequent until they came to an end. Likewise, the family ran out of money. Rhine has four children and a grandmother to take care of alone.


His youngest child, Ines, was baptised. It is customary for each child to have their own godfather in the church. Reine asked me to photograph her daughter, and that was an honourable task for me, of course. The family received important memoirs and was proud because Ines’ own photographer had the best camera at the baptismal service.


Villa Karo has served as an important base for my photography trips and has acted as a gateway to Africa. Through it, I found my way to the local people, homes, schools and ceremonies. I've got a small part of my camera to peep into a huge, fascinating continent.



Women's march and the face of the president, Tuula Heinilä