Working-with - Animistic Entanglements within and beyond Cameraless Landscape Photography

It is early evening in the end of june 2020, just one week after the summer solstice. The air is warm, warmer than usual at this time of the year, and the sun who is still high up on the sky casts rays through the tree branches in the forest. My mother and I are walking on the gravel road that leads to one of the larger lakes in the area. My entire being always shifts a little bit when I am returning to this place, like the feet and the skin instantly recognices the surroundings. It is almost as if my body is communicating with the forest and the lakes. As we walk further into the forest, theychange from time to time. Ancient firs torning up like huge walls on each side of the road, old clearcuts which have now been taken over by raspberry shrubs, middleaged parts which where clearcut many years ago, now with pines growing tall and in straight neat lines. We keep on walking and as we get closer to the lake my mother says to me:

Ja nu komer ju den hä delen som jag int ha vela eller rikit komi underfund me hu jag ska berätt åt dej (Well now we are approaching the area which I didn’t want to or didn’t really know how to tell you about)

After a few meters, a clearcut opens up in front of us. I have the same bodily reaction to the devastation as I’ve had since I was a small child. It is getting hard to breath, my body starts to ache, the loss of all the individuals who used to live here manifests in my body and their voices scream silently out across the demolished ground. After a few minutes of silence I tell my mother about the bodily reaction I am having, which she knows about, has always known, and I ask her:

Men brukar it du o känna sådä att de liksom gör fysiskt ont i kroppen, så ont att it du rikit vet va du ska göra me den dä smärtan? (But don’t you also get this physical sensation which ache throughout your body and you have no idea of what you should make of the it?)

After a while she answers:

Jo no brukar jag få de no, men de e en känsla som it jag rikit vet hur jag ska säta ord på. (Yes I do get that same sensation myself, but it is a feeling which I am not sure on how to phrase )

Six months prior to this conversation I had with my mother, during the winter solstice, I walk through the same part of the forest except at this moment everyone is still there and everything is intact. I do as I always do, I walk across the thick moss among the firs that has been standing there since long before I was born. It smells of late autumn, damp and of leaves that have turned into soil and all around me I hear drops dripping after last nights rain. Dripp, Dripp, Dripp. I lay down on the ground, taking deep breaths, sinking deeper and deeper in. When I turn my head I notice small strings of linnaea borealis spreading across the ground. I think about the linnaea borealis, who’s name I also share. The thin stem that goes straight up from the vine on the ground, splitting into two at the top and two pale, pink flowers on each side facing down like tears.

What are the premises for being an artist who works with the photographic medium and with landscapes and environmental photography as an area of investigation? What kind of working situation are we finding ourselves in when using the chosen medium? Do we use the sites as instruments, take-from, or do we work-with them, co-world with them? Is it even possible with the photograph being a method and tool used for mapping and with a scientific purpose, possibly extracting from whomever is depicted? How can we shift the idea of representation within landscape photography to something that is more intertwined and not separate? To not think of or look at the landscape as other. To shift agency and allow the individuals to become an active participant in the making of the art. The land with all its compounds, the trees, the air, the microbes, ourselves watching it, connecting with it? Margaret McFall-Ngai’s text Noticing Microbial Worlds: The Postmodern Synthesis in Biology from the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is a text that stuck its roots deep into my concious when I read it. In the essay McFall-Ngai explains that microbes, which inhabit every little thing on this earth, don’t just rule the world but that they are actually responsible for creating and maintaining life. Apparently all species are made up of more cells of others than of their ”own”. She writes that ‘…indeed we are more microbe than human.’[i] This notion shifts the idea of scale and place. Millions upon millions of critters intra-acting with each other, floating through space and time. We are not dualised entities but rather collective blobs breathing, feeling, moving in all kinds of directions. With this idea in mind, our interactions at a specific site becomes something different. By knowing that you and I are a part of the constant flow of the site, we can interact with it on a different level. Try to tap into the energies of the site. Can you feel it? Stick your hands deep into the ground, open up and let them flow through you.

In late 2016 when I was visiting home during the holidays, I took a stroll in the forest close to my mothers childhood home. I have been walking in this forest for as long as I can remember. As a child, my grandmother used to take my younger brother and me out for strolls in the forest, to pick berries or mushrooms or swim in one of the many lakes. In 2012 I did a photographic series about oddly shapen trees in the forests and I remember that I took a photograph of an old fir which stood with one of its many feets in a ditch. This fir was a part of an area full of old individuals (trees) and in December 2016 as I walked through the forest, I noticed that the entire area had been clearcut. I contemplate on this sudden loss of individuals, what did it feel like for them? Could we collaborate and tell a story of what has happened to you? I remembered a very interesting TED talk that I watched about six months earlier. In the talk Suzanne Simmard explained how she and her team from University of British Columbia conducted a research where they discovered the way trees talk to one another. Apparently trees send out information to each other and the older a tree is, Simard describe these individuals as Mother trees, the more likely it is for the forest to survive if a heavy flood or a drought is approaching. Older trees who have been standing and thriving for a very long time have a lot of knowledge that they have gained during their long life. What is also interesting is that the trees does not only communicate with their ”own” kind, they are interdiciplinary conversationalists, recognising the other as kin and sharing the knowledge. What might this communication look like when a site has been turned up side down? What stories will they share with me? Let us convey the communication you have in between each other and with me as I visit you.

I walk up the road that leads straight into the forest. The air is cold and smoke pillars emerge from my mouth. It is easy to breathe and the sun barely makes its way above the trees.

There it is.

I set up my tripod and place the camera on top, I measure the light and change the settings on the camera, pull the film forward. It is quiet. In, out, in, out, in, out, I breathe in the same pace as the slow wind around me. Click. A metallic and mechanical sound echoes through the scenery. I ponder upon this act of photographing a site, or landscape, or them. It feels uneasy and I get uncomfortable. There it is again, the uncanny feeling of having robbed someone of something. I get obsessed with this thought. How can I move pass this? Is it even possible?

Time passes, seasons change.

I walk across a clearcut not very far from my mother’s home. During the past few months, the site has completely shifted, turning from something enclosing and safe to something quite the opposite. The ground is bare, torn to pieces. I stroll randomly across the lacerated ground, tapping into the energies of the place. I dig my hands into the warm earth. Fir needles, dirt and bark get stuck underneath my fingernails, tiny branches scratches my hands and wrists. Instinctively I lay down on my stomach. A photograph pops up in my mind. It is a photograph of a man named Miihkali Timoskainen who lays on the ground, also on his stomach, arms and legs stretched out. The caption says: Ilomantsilainen Miihkali Timoskainen tervehtii maata (Miihkali Timoskainen from Ilomantsi greets the earth).[ii]

 As Miihkali, I greet the dismantled earth.

The world around us is alive, thriving and entagled with each other. In the old customs and traditions within the Baltic Finnic peoples there is this peculiar word, or rather notion called Hiisi. This word has changed quite a bit during the course of history, initially in Finland it referred to something called ‘pyhä lehto’, which is a sacred place within the forest. These places could be ponds or other water formations, strangely shaped rocks or specific trees or plainly burial grounds. The word also encompass the immanent spirits on these locations. As time changed and christianity was brought to these regions, the meaning of the word changed in Finland to being synonym with the devil or something sinister. ‘Painu hiiteen’ (go to hell) is an expression where the meaning has tranformed into something negative and this expression is still in use today. However the word Hiisi as describing a place is still present in the form of names of geographical places in Finland, Hiidenvesi and Hiisi in southern Finland are just two examples. The folk traditions in Finland, Karelia, Inkeri and Estonia had, and also still have to some extent, a clear animistic approach. Apart from the notion of Hiisi, there is a term called Haltija, which translates to english as ‘occupant’ or ‘posessor’. The words Metsänhaltija, Vedenhaltija and even Kodinhaltija are all describing the occupants, or spirits, within the forest (metsä), the sea or waters (vesi) or the home (koti). Another term called Maahiset was also prominent within the folk traditions. Maahiset can be translated to earthlings and where as haltijat spirits that lived inside the ground itself. One particular photographic work that circles around the topic of old folk traditions in Finland, Karelia and Inkeri is the work Puiden Kansa by Ritva Kovalainen and Sanni Seppo. In the work Kovalainen and Seppo explores particularily the relation towards the forest within these regions but they also look into the idea around trees tied to a family (uhripuut and haltijanpuut) and the significance of the bear. Animism is of course a tradition with a long history and a way of connecting to something, perhaps larger, than ourselves, that have been present throughout time and throughout the planet. Within animistic traditions, the world around you is alive. Materials that are thought to be lifeless are thought of something, or someone, alive with more or less agency. The traditions vary however, for some animistic ideas only apply to the natural world but to others it might apply to every possible thing imaginable. Graham Harvey describes animism as an alternative approach in his book Animism – Respecting the Living World:

All this being so, animists live a theory of personhood and selfhood that radically challenges the dominant point of view which is that of modernity… For example, they might posit a different relationship between mind and matter, consciousness and physicality, culture and nature than that enshrined in Cartesian dualism.[iii]

Dualism, which Val Plumwood dissects in her book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, could perhaps be applied to landscape photography. As a person operating a camera you always have some distance between yourself and the one you are depicting and by this approach, does the individual portrayed automatically become objectified? The photographer/ the photographed. Both Plumwood and Carolyn Merchant puts the camera in the toolbox for instrumentalism. Plumwood explains that in the western culture relationships to animals, rivers or entire ecosystems has been seen as entirely instrumental. The relationship to others in nature is defined in the same manner as how the egoist defines their relationship to others and that is that humans stand apart from nature and who is in turn solemnly working as a means to satisfy self-contained human interests.[iv] But if what Plumwood is suggesting is the case, are we always unwillingly tapping into the notion of instrumentalism when working camerabased and when depicting landscapes? I want to come back to the notion of animism once more. If we implement an animistic approach, is it possible to move past dualism and instrumentalism that is automatically inherited when working camerabased? One could argue that the photographic apparatus is inherently linked to imperialism due to the time and place when the technique was introduced in the first half of the 19thcentury. It is also linked to representation and agency within portrait photography which can be more or less problematic depending on the context. But is it possible to overcome these issues by leaving out the camera itself and work with the photographic material instead? One could perhaps suggest that by juxtaposing elements, individuals or things with the light sensitive material you get a collaboration instead of a mere representation of the subject.

I am here and so are they, neither of us has more authority. Our bodies may differ but yet we still are a part of what is omnipresent, the constant flow of needs and wishes, of pain and survival, past, future and present times. How do I interact with you? Become a part of you? Play with you?

Animism as a topic can be explored in the forms of art and stories and one particular story that pops up in my mind is the story of Mononoke-himeby Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli from 1997. In the film there are creatures which are not human but spirits in different forms and shapes and all of these have a clear and present agency, however some are more active than others. Some of the spirits protect, like the wolf goddess Moro and her children, the forest which is a central entity within the story. Or the Kodama’s which are omnipresent, from time to time visible to the naked eye and sometimes not. It is a classic story within the nature/culture dualism, however with the clear presence of animism this dualism is being brought into light and questioned. The forest which has a significant role in the story, is protected by the The Great Forest Spirit, the god of life and death. The forest spirit is capable of restoring life and taking it away and is hence an indication of balance. During the night the forest spirit transforms into the Night Walker, a daidarabotchi, a huge translucent creature that walks across the landscape. As the story unfolds the humans slays the spirit, or decapitate them, when they are transforming into the Night Walker. As the Forest Spirit turns into the daidarabotchi they walk across the landscape searching for their head which has been taken away by the humans. As the daidarabotchi roams the grounds, whatever they touch wither and die. The balance is restored when the head of the Forest Spirit is returned to them. The story is a great example of animist practice but also dualism and shifting agencies. By telling the story of a site inhabited by different kinds of spirits and creatures, Miyazaki shifts agency and turn nature into a force with a will of their own. Can we apply this shift in agency within landscape or environmental photography as well? By recognising the other as kin, is the basis of how we meet and interact with them  becoming more of a play or a collaboration? We are bound together and everyone engaged in this interactive play intra-act in order to move in one or another direction. The play, or narrative, gets etched onto the surface with the help of everyone involved and it is literary here on this piece of paper where the interaction and play has been unfolding. In that sense, we can apply an animistic approach towards the artistic process and also by juxtaposition and giving everyone as much authority, we might get pass the dualisms and alienation which is inherent within the photographic medium.

As I lie on my stomach with the blanket over my head I can feel that the earth is embracing me. The scent seeps in and so does the moist from the ground. It is an interesting feeling, a calm sensations runs over me and I feel completely protected. I transform into a tiny grain of sand, or a pine cone who slowly but surely transforms into dirt and becomes a part of the healing landscape. I let go of the material. How the dirt and all the other individuals, the mycorrhiza and the moist from the ground, what is left of the roots of the trees who has been cut down, interact with the material is beyond my control. I am no longer the sole maker in this.

Co-Worldling, intertwining, intra-action. I can feel the wind but I can’t hear them, no branches are there to convey the voice of the wind. I bury the photographic paper in the ground. Debris and matter gets stuck on my clothes. Am I also burying a part of myself? What the ground and the blanket I use not to expose the light sensitive paper create together with the approaching dusk is some kind of limbo. A safe place where time and space seize to exist. I breathe in the scent of the forest ground, it smells fresh and of leaves and other organic matter slowly composting, a smell that gets etched into my conscious.

Many days later I still find pine needles in my hair.





Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway. Duke University Press, Durham & London 2007

Haraway, Donna J, Staying With the Trouble. Duke University Press, Durham North Carolina, 2016

Haraway, Donna J. Story Telling for Earthly Survival, Screened at GIBCA 2019 at Naturhistoriska Museet in Gothenburg

Harvey, Graham, Animism – Respecting the Living World

Kovalainen, Ritva and Seppo, Sanni, Puiden Kansa. Fourth edition. Hiilinielu tuotanto and Mielotar, Porvoo 2014

McFall-Ngai, Margaret, Noticing Microbial Worlds: The Postmodern Synthesis in Biology in Monsters and the Arts of Living in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. Bubandt, Nils. Gan, Elaine. Swanson, Heather. Tsing, Anna (ed), 51 – 70. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 2017

Merchant, Carolyn, Earthcare. Routledge, New York, 1996

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature – Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution. HarperOne, New York. 1989

Mononoke-hime, dir. Hayao Miyazaki. Studio Ghibli. 1997

Neimanis, Astrida, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. Bloomsbury Academic, UK. 2017

Plumwood, Val, Feminism and Mastery of Nature. Routledge, London, 1993

Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree. Allen Lane, Canada. 2021

Harva, Uno. Suomalaisten Muinaisusko. WSOY, Helsinki. 1948

Wohlleben, Pet

[i]McFall-Ngai, Margaret. Noticing Microbial Worlds: The Postmodern Synthesis in Biology in Monsters and the Arts of Living in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. M51 – M70

[ii]Harva, Uno. Maahiset in Suomalaisten Muinaisusko. p. 288

[iii]Harvey, Graham. Animism – Respecting the Living World. p. xviii

[iv]Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. p. 142