By Tim Bird, November 2013
The Finns are some of the world’s keenest and most proficient nature photographers – and they start young. At the time of writing, ten-year-old Lasse Kurkela has two photos in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in London. (Don’t miss our slideshow below. Warning: They aren’t all pretty.)
It’s an exquisite moment. A wolverine is prowling along a bare tree branch but it can’t quite reach the petulant magpie that’s perched on the end of a higher branch. You can tell the wolverine is getting a bit territorial but the magpie isn’t going anywhere.
You can see this picture by Finland’s Lasse Kurkela at London’s Natural History Museum in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. This annual event, organised by the museum and BBC Worldwide, celebrates the world’s best nature photographers of all ages. In Kurkela’s case, that means under-ten-year-olds. His wolverine-and-magpie tableau and another beautifully lit shot of a wolf both received special commendations.
Kurkela is starting early, but he has joined a distinguished roll call of Finnish photographers who have earned international awards. The special connection between Finns and their natural environment is nothing new, of course, but the national absorption with photographing is growing in popularity.
“I think that Finns have a very close understanding of nature,” says Kari Niemeläinen, secretary of the Finnish Association of Nature Photographers. “We are not as urban as many other European people are. And we have Everyman’s Right, which allows us to walk across private land – something that we take for granted. Nature is close to us and we usually don’t have to travel far to get to it.”
Empathy with nature is reflected in Finnish photography, says Niemeläinen – and so, perhaps, is Finnish patience. “We have quite different light in all four seasons, and the use of this light can be clearly seen in our photography. Foreign nature pictures are often technically very good, but they can seem ‘cold’ or lacking a real relationship [with nature]. Many top non-Finnish nature photographers travel around the world and have many good pictures, but they don’t always seem to concentrate on their subject deeply. In Finland we can take our time to concentrate on the subjects.”
The Finnish association holds its own annual contest, and winners in Finland have also succeeded in the worldwide competition. A case in point is Kai Fagerström, whose extended photo essay of animals visiting a deserted Finnish house – an extraordinary private wildlife party of owls, mice, squirrels and badgers – was published in best-selling book form.
Finland has produced an impressive roster of nature photographers, including Hannu Hautala, an all-round veteran master; Tea Karvinen, also very versatile with a special flair for magical landscapes; and Tommi Laurinsalo, whose endearing obsession with the moon makes him a lunatic in the most literal and creative sense of the word.
Young Lasse Kurkela seems likely to represent the next generation. “Ever since Lasse was very young he has been going out a lot in nature with his family,” says his father Heikki, also a keen wildlife photographer. “He started with a small compact camera but soon took up a digital single-lens reflex camera, like his dad. A couple years ago Lasse started to ask about the chances of photographing specific animal species, and that was the starting point for frequent son-and-father nature photography trips. To start with the trips were short and easy, but they gradually got longer and more demanding.”
According to Kurkela senior, Lasse likes the excitement of waiting and seeing the animals, and also the good pictures he is able to capture from rapidly developing situations. He has photographed large Finnish predators, including brown bears, wolves, wolverines, eagles and owls. “He wants to continue his hobby and develop as photographer,” says Heikki, “but he has many other interests in his life, so it’s too early for him to say what he wants to become when older.”
The news of the London awards came as a surprise: “Lasse was very happy and surprised. He didn’t know what to say! The whole family decided to travel to London, so the award ceremony in October  was a family event for us.”
See also on thisisFINLAND
Lasse Kurkela’s photo site
Kai Fagerström’s House in the Woods
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 exhibition info, Natural History Museum, London, until March 24, 2014
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 online gallery
Finnish Wildlife Photo of the Year winners, 1980–present, Finnish Association of Nature Photographers (Be sure to explore the subheadings under each year.)
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