Art & Photography

Exclusive Preview: Nelli Palomäki’s Sons of Nakhimov

How a chance encounter in a park changed the direction of her work, on show at the Wapping Project

For Nelli Palomäki, building a relationship with her sitter is a vital aspect of taking their portrait.  Sons of Nakhimov (2011-2012), a series of works on display at The Wapping Project, London came about through a happenstance encounter with Vlad, a Russian man whom she met walking through a park in Finland in 2009.  “I took his portrait and sent it to him but he never replied” she explains, “I was worried that he didn’t receive it.  I want the people I take pictures of to see the photographs because I want them to see what I’ve done of them.”

When Palomäki then started to research places to see if she might be able to find Vlad through a different route, she came across Nakhimov Naval School, a boarding educational facility in St. Petersburg. .

“When you spend more time looking, it seems just like any other school,
even though it’s not. You start to forget the uniforms”

“I became really interested in this place, it’s timeless.  It’s a military school built after the Second World War for war orphans.  It has changed now, and you get very rich kids as well as working class children but everyone is from a military background. It’s fascinating, the idea that these are children and teenagers and whether they remain children as they live their lives [in this environment with such an embedded sense of responsibility].”

Contacting the embassy and facility directly, Palomäki was told that she couldn’t visit, as it’s a closed institution.  “I thought it can’t be that hard, so I took a train and went there.  The English teacher at the time was leaving.  We started talking about my portfolio and how I would love to see the place and maybe start a project and she was really excited – and then they made me an English teacher!” The power of Sons of Nakhimov comes from the evident bonding process between herself as photographer and her subjects. “It’s a military school, and you can tell that from the boys.  I don’t have to underline it. When you spend more time looking, it seems just like any other school, even though it’s not.  You start to forget the uniforms.”  The large-scale photographs were taken within the school itself, a building that has changed little over the years.  It provides a rigidly classical backdrop to Palomäki’s formal and elegant black and white portraits.  The pictures are deceptively rich in detail.  Each sitter looks directly into the camera lens.  Their gazes are acute, but muted, showing pride, fear and wisdom simultaneously, whilst remaining perfectly enigmatic.  The results are alluring and ageless.Such perceptive photography is difficult to capture.  Palomäki’s aim is to represent her subjects truthfully and honestly.  In analysing the pictures, the nature of the relationships also reveals something personal of Palomäki herself.  “At the academy I was an outsider.  I’m not from Russia.  They have uniforms and I have tattoos.  For us both it was a chance to communicate with someone we don’t know and that are unlikely to meet.  I still haven’t found Vlad but I found these other guys.”

Sons of Nakhimov (2011-2012) by Nelli Palomäki runs 09 November – 21 December at The Wapping Project