Juuso Westerlund’s initial foray into photography “kind of happened by accident”, he recounts. It was upon encountering the photojournalism of Sebastião Salgado in a local Finnish newspaper that he thought to himself, “I could take those kinds of pictures – why not?” He bought a camera and, armed with a body of work spanning just three rolls of film, began applying to arts academies. “The schools were really hard to get into,” he tells us; “there were hundreds of applicants and only a handful were chosen.” To Juuso’s surprise, he was quickly accepted for the BA photography programme at the Turku Arts Academy, and went on to pursue an MA at The University of Art and Design in Helsinki.
Photography, for Juuso, is a mode of expression that is personal and emotive: “The photos I take have to make me feel something,” he says. As such, his approach is an intuitive one, based on his innate feel for the subject in front of him. He states: “I don’t usually plan too much ahead” and “I always try to do something different. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.” Juuso’s ongoing personal project, Heartbeats, is his photographic, creative response to the experience of watching his children grow up. The results are breathtaking, each photograph dense with concentrated personal significance, the series as a whole unfolding as a collection of memories.
Heartbeats is an expression of love where words fail: “It’s difficult for me to verbalise the feelings that I try to show in my photos of the boys,” Juuso says. As he conceives of the series: “All the pictures in Heartbeats are kind of like just one single image. The pictures are like poems of my feelings about the subjects that I deal with in this body of work: boyhood, longing, innocence, vulnerability, mortality.” Juuso’s tender photographs of his sons seek to address questions that are fundamental to human experience, the answers to which we might have lost touch with as we’ve become older – “What does childhood mean and how does it feel?”
This emphasis on feeling is important, for what makes Juuso’s photographs so captivating is his astounding ability, as a photographer, to capture and evoke sensation and emotion within a purely visual format. The sensory impressions of childhood are palpable throughout Heartbeats – the sudden, all-consuming exhaustion that precedes an afternoon nap, the delicious shock of plunging feet-first into cold water, the grit of sand under bare feet, the sting of snow on warm cheeks, the temptation to prod and poke and pick at a scab before it’s ready to come off, the suffocating feeling of being tangled up in bedsheets, the throbbing soreness of a fresh bruise.
Juuso is not simply creating a family album; he is forging tangible memories that are steeped in the essence of his sons’ experience of childhood and his own experience of parenthood. In a way, he is also reclaiming memories of his childhood. He tells us: “My own dad drank himself to death when I was a young boy, so I basically grew up without a father. I only have vague memories of him, which are not that pleasant, so I guess I’m also creating childhood memories that could have been my own. Although I’m documenting my sons’ childhood, it is also my memories that I’m salvaging, for myself.”
“I don’t arrange the pictures,” Juuso states. For him, it’s the spontaneity and unexpectedness of the everyday that defines childhood: “I love normal and boring,” he admits. Indeed, boredom is, in many respects, one of the key facets of a happy childhood – a childhood in which all there is to worry about is how to entertain yourself – a childhood of the kind that Juuso himself did not always have. Heartbeats upholds the wonder of the ordinary. As Juuso says: “With children everything is chaos, and from that chaos, I have to recognise those moments that I don’t necessarily find unique but that resonate with something I find significant.”