On the Estonian islands of Kihnu and Manija, Anne Helene Gjelstad beautifully photographs its older women

Geographically isolated, these islands are regarded as the last matriarchal society in Europe – where the older women take care of daily life while their husbands travel the seas.

3 February 2020


“My goal is to learn something new everyday,” says Anne Helene Gjelstad, a photographer based in Norway. This mantra is something that she has applied to every aspect of her career to date, even if photography wasn’t her first calling.

Anne Helene began her journey in school learning language, mathematics and history – a path followed as a result of her advisor pointing out “how difficult it was to get employment” in the photography industry. That which followed was a creative education filled with sewing and weaving at the Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry, where she studied costume and fashion design for four years. She then set up her own studio and worked as a designer for 25 years, fully immersing herself in the realms of fashion, working with major publications, participating in shows and even writing her own book on machine knitting.

“After a long time in the fashion industry, I wanted to use my skills and do something for unemployed women,” she tells It’s Nice That. “This led me to the Estonian island of Hiiumaa, where I established my knitting company Close Knit World.” Creating handmade garments that were to be sent across seas, this was the moment that Anne Helene took up photography – “we needed pictures to sell and promote our designs; the economy in the company was difficult and I could not afford to hire a professional photographer and, besides, I loved photographing.” Realising her connection with the medium – and after a tragic end to her company that was brought on by the rapidly increasingly economy in Estonia – she went forth and pursued her interests, opening her own photography studio to begin her new-found craft in portrait, documentary and fine art photography.


Anne Helene Gjelstad: Big Heart, Strong Hands

It was during the summer of 2005 that Anne Helene really tested her documentary photography capabilities. At this time, her knitting company was still in full force and she had spent a few days on Kihnu Island, attending the Nordic Knitting Symposium in Estonia. “Amazed by the strong women and their beautiful handcrafted textiles, I fell in love with this peaceful island, its folklore and culture,” she says. Returning to the island three years later with an aim to photograph its handicrafts and colour textiles, one of the local women sadly passed away during her visit and she was invited to photograph her funeral ceremonies. “That changed everything and I decided to focus on the older women,” she adds. “Older women have always inspired and impressed me, and these strong women, their culture and hardship in particular. The more I met them and the more I learned, I wanted to dig deeper and know them and their stories more.”

More than 11 years have now passed and the project has evolved into a new book titled Big Heart, Strong Hands, published by Dewi Lewish Publishing. Having travelled to such a geographically isolated part of the globe, it soon became clear that this is a place of community and tradition. So much so that it’s often regarded as the last matriarchal society in Europe, whereby the older women take care of pretty much all aspects of daily life while their husbands travel the seas. Immersing herself into such a community could have thus been a daunting task, yet Anne Helene explains how she was accepted “from day one” and good relationships were built “everywhere” – “quite extraordinary as the traditional society is more closed to foreigners, and the islanders are modest and want to live their daily lives without interference from the outside world.”

Having garnered trust from her subjects, Anne Helene then proceeded with spontaneity and authenticity, capturing around 35 older women in natural light – never with flash. She had visited Kihnu Island 12 times and visited the Manija Island twice during her trips, with each lasting around two weeks. Although a tricky task, the photographer chooses one of her most favoured and important images – a portrait of an 85-year-old woman named Kihnu Virve, taken in 2013 [pictured below]. “She is one of Estonia’s most-loved folk singers and she is very dear to me. She has shared a lot about her hard life in my book, and yet there’s still so much love in her eyes.” Posing with her son, Eedi, outside their home at Christmas, she is in fact grieving the lost of her daughter and her husband, making the moment a hard yet meaningful encounter. “It turned out that this was the very first image ever taken of the mother and son together.”

With an aim to preserve the colourful Kihnu culture for years to come, Anne Helene’s work with Big Heart, Strong Hands will most certainly do just that. It’s an honest and beautiful representation of a land that many may not know the story of, until a camera is pointed – with great care – to those who wish to tell their tale. As for the future, Anne Helene will continue her mantra: “I still have so much to photograph, so many images to take and make; so many people to meet, so many places to go.”

GalleryAnne Helene Gjelstad: Big Heart, Strong Hands


Portrait of an 85-year-old woman named Kihnu Virve

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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