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Exploration, Enlightenment & Enthusiasm

Storytelling through the Lens

Interview by Lisa Burwell | Photography by Paul Hänninen

The places and creatures of earth are magical, especially when viewed through the lens of twenty-five-year-old Finnish photographer Paul Hänninen. His rich images depict a fairy-tale world of beautiful landscapes and mesmerizing wild animals that seem to come alive from the still photos and remind viewers that our planet is incredible and worth protecting.

Paul has captured scenes in Finland, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Namibia, and South Africa and has a trip to New Zealand planned for the coming year. He expounds upon his adventures, the challenges and rewards of photography, and how travel can change your life.

VIE: You travel the world in search of stories to tell through your lens. How did you get started in such a fascinating career at your young age?

Paul Hänninen: I’ve been thinking about this a lot—about when it really started and what led to its becoming a career. To begin with the earliest creative influences for me, I’d say unorganized playing with Legos, exploring and examining the nature of my motherland, Finland, and really scrutinizing the tiny wonders of the bug world as a lonely kid.

But the actual photographing started not much earlier than 2016, although I was somewhat familiar with cameras and Photoshop already. I started with LG’s G3 smartphone, as it was one of the first to have a camera with manual settings, and started actively looking for artistic stuff to shoot, creating tiny stuff to shoot, and looking for the creative angles. What motivated me to keep shooting—and what still motivates me today—is the ability to edit and tone the colors of a photo to intensify the mood that I want it to convey.

My first photography trip was a week in Iceland in the fall of 2016 with my partner, Hannele, and the longest one was when she insisted that I come with her to Namibia for three months in the beginning of 2018. She was doing a school internship there in a hospital in Katutura, Windhoek. But more on that incredibly life-changing trip later.

VIE: Are you a self-taught photographer or professionally trained?

PH: Self-learning in itself is crucial in building a bundle of skills for a meaningful, fulfilled life where you gather new understanding throughout your life and retain a humble beginner’s attitude toward everything. That’s why I prefer it and am self-taught, thanks to the internet.

You should treat every person you meet as a teacher yet still use common sense and humble questioning in your mind to decide whether the teachings of someone are right or if you should use their life as a warning example instead.

Self-learning in itself is crucial in building a bundle of skills for a meaningful, fulfilled life where you gather new understanding throughout your life and retain a humble beginner’s attitude toward everything.

The majority of schools diminish creativity to a certain point as they put every student into the same mold; but even so, they do have some valuable things to be learned for those who are motivated—plus they are perfect for making new friends.

VIE: Of all the subjects that you photograph, do you have a favorite?

PH: I tend to bounce back and forth between wildlife photography and setting up something creative by myself to shoot—a tiny snowman, for example. But in the end, what’s more meaningful is the wildlife of our planet. Thankfully, though, those two subjects are easily condensable.

VIE: How do you determine when and where you will go next to tell your story?

PH: I’m a simple man; I see pictures of a place and I wanna go—haha. Mostly, it’s thinking about what we (my partner and I) will get from the journey in a certain country, if it is safe for us, and most important, if we can afford it. Our next and longest trip so far will be to New Zealand at the end of 2019 with a working holiday visa. We’ll stay there for at least six months, while the max limit is one year. You should stay tuned for more of that later on this year!

VIE: What do you want to communicate to the world through your art?

PH: In short, I want to show how beautiful our planet earth really is and communicate that we should truly treasure it—and to show that imagination is the most essential seasoning of life; without it, life tastes bland, no matter where you are.

We loved the two-hour-long story sessions at the dinner table back with our host family—no phones around, just wild African stories one simply couldn’t make up.

VIE: Can you elaborate on what you feel or what happens to you when you know you’ve captured an image that will move people to stop, think, and pay attention?

PH: To be honest, I really don’t know until after I’ve edited an image. Before that, it’s just wild guessing. Only after I’ve had the time to deeply get into a certain image and carve out and intensify the mood that, before editing, only subtly smoldered within, do my senses start to tingle that this might be it.

VIE: Is there any news coming up for you that you’d like to share with our readers?

PH: Yes—New Zealand at the end of this year with Hannele. The working holiday visa was her idea, but she was thinking about Australia at first. We then thought it over and came to a realization that we’ll get much more out of the vast country of Australia when we’ve lived in the tightly packed New Zealand first. So, new adventures full of ocean life, rain forests, mountains, and glaciers are forthcoming!

But, obviously, since we’re on a budget, we’re going to need to work there. Still not knowing too much about all the work opportunities the country has to offer, we’re not planning to travel around every day, but often. I’ll also aim to do collaborations with many of the local businesses that I don’t even know yet, but I’ll get into that before the trip. And because we don’t know enough about New Zealand, we’d be more than thankful for any tips, deep knowledge, and contacts concerning all of the above, so I welcome anyone to hit me up if they think they know of something we don’t. Getting into underwater photography there would be a real dream come true!

VIE: Tell us more about that life-changing trip to Namibia.

PH: In 2017, Hannele asked me if I’d like to go to Namibia with her as she wanted to finish her paramedic studies with a hospital internship there. I hesitated for a moment, but after scrolling through the wonders the country had to offer, I was fully sold. It was our first time traveling to Africa. On January 7, 2018, we hopped on the plane in Finland knowing we wouldn’t be back until April. After twenty hours and one stop in Doha, Qatar, our plane began its descent to the airport at Windhoek, Namibia, and, oh man, the landscape through the plane windows was exactly as one might imagine Africa to be. Bushy trees covered a vast, dry savanna with puffy clouds above it. It instantly took me back to the VHS wonders of my childhood, which I had never experienced tangibly.

Let’s fast-forward to our host family, who lived in the slum of Windhoek—Katutura (roughly translated to “place where we don’t want to be”)—where we spent our first month. As you might imagine, being two white people from Finland on our first trip to Africa, we experienced a huge culture shock. Thankfully, our hosts, Leonard and Hillary, were the kindest, most loving people the world has to offer and treated us as their own children, no matter our skin color.

After only a week, the neighbors accepted us as good people, and walking Hannele to the hospital at 6:00 a.m. had already become a routine. Two of Hannele’s classmates from Finland had also come there for their internships at the same time, which brought more peace of mind to me. We were actually supposed to go live with them in a student guesthouse as their school had assured, but none of us got there until after the first month. Nevertheless, I knew Hannele wouldn’t have to be alone in the hospital, which turned out to be a real test of one’s mind with all the disaster around—they didn’t have the resources or the equipment we had back home; young people were dying and you could do nothing about it; and, worst of all, only a few workers tended to really care. One just had to adapt and put up with it.

Seeing a sixteen-foot-tall giraffe launching itself into a run was mesmerizing—the creature almost seemed to be moving in slow motion because it was so heavy.

But, despite all that, we loved the two-hour-long story sessions at the dinner table back with our host family—no phones around, just wild African stories one simply couldn’t make up. That was seriously priceless. That I really miss.

But what I miss at least as much are the adventures. Every weekend we rented a car and drove to some nature destination, be it the desert or a game reserve. Katutura made me grow as a man, but, oh boy, those savanna rides were what truly brought out my inner child. Seeing a sixteen-foot-tall giraffe launching itself into a run was mesmerizing—the creature almost seemed to be moving in slow motion because it was so heavy. Staring a male lion in his eyes was intense, but staring a male leopard in his eyes as he walked toward our open safari vehicle was beyond frightening. The most dramatic moment, however, was when a horny bull elephant, packed with testosterone, was about to run over Hannele’s and my car on one of those safaris. Happily, my foot was firmly on the gas pedal, and we got away.

Showing all the shots I took to Leonard and Hillary was so special. Seeing the excitement on their faces made me feel fulfilled. And with that being said, that’s where I must go back with Hannele—back to Namibia.

It made us feel alive with its subtle and not-so-subtle dangers, with the right amount of uncertainty, and with its people in the same time zone yet nearly a polar opposite from Finland. And no school has ever taught me as much as those three months did—just think about that.

— V —

View more of Paul’s work or inquire about purchasing a print when you visit PaulHanninen.PB.Photography or follow him on Instagram @paul_hanninen.

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