Body perception in the 21st Century has become distorted by mass media imagery and the use of social media, which demands that people maintain a positive public image at all times. Such a situation can lead people to go to extreme lengths to assure that they appear attractive to others, a situation exacerbated by the nature of social media networks such as facebook, and the smartphone, which encourage people to constantly monitor the approval of their friends and peers. At extremes it is well documented that such a preoccupation with appearance can lead to negative self perceptions, lack of self confidence and even body dysmorphia, anorexia and bulimia. Yet the phenomena of the mass media and social media manifest in more subtle ways day to day. Aki Roukala, an artist based in the Northern Bothnia region on Hailuoto island, practices fine art photography, playing close attention to his often unconventional human subjects. For the Pohjavirta project Roukala aimed to challenge the conventional mainstream notion of beauty which is as pervasive in Finland as in the rest of the developed world.
Working in rural Finland, Roukala aimed to explore the tension between the slick bodily image of the city and the more carefree, raw and unstylised approach to self image embodied by the inhabitants of villages and small towns. Wishing to explore further the notion of the body and one’s personal image, Roukala approached the inhabitants of Pudasjärvi, asking them if he could photograph them wearing just their underwear. Such an act in itself entered became part of the artwork, which created a dialogue with local inhabitants, as the taboo of exposing oneself semi nude to a stranger was addressed. Perhaps surpisingly 12 people, unknown to Roukala at the start of his project, agreed to pose for him in his studio, knowing that the photos would finally be put on permanent display outside, around the town of Pudasjärvi, which has a population of just 8'500 people. Some pictures are even placed alongside a busy main road with hundreds of passers by each day.
The final result is the work Aikalaiset, the title of which plays on the notion of what it is to be ‘contemporary’ in the 21st Century. Ultimately, what Roukala demonstrates is that the all pervasive image of beauty which is perpetuated by the media does not yet completely dominate. Roukala’s images of everyday people in their underwear, displayed in public against the backdrop of the changing seasons, shows that at a basic level we are the same as we have always been, regardless of the pressure to conform to a standardized vision of beauty. The work Aikalaiset also plays on taboos of public nudity in a country where nakedness is restricted to the home and sauna. As such it reveals the hidden reality often glossed over in magazines and other mass media outlets.
The work Aikalaiset consists eight portraits of Pudasjärvi people which offer a window onto the lives of the inhabitants of a small town in the Northern Bothnia region. They follow in the tradition of portraiture embodied by Juho Kuopus, the early 20th Century documenter of life in the same area, when people were emigrating en masse from Pudasjärvi to America and Sweden in hope of better life. These days Pudasjärvi receives immigrants from across the world, whilst many young inhabitants seek work in Finnish cities and abroad. ×