Interviews with Tim Hetherington Award Winners: Meeri Koutaniemi


In 2012 Meeri Koutaniemi won The Tim Hetherington Memorial Award in association with Eddie Adams Workshop. The award was set up to support young documentarians who are actively pursuing a career dedicated to humanitarian subjects.

Koutaniemi is a Finnish photographer and journalist. Her work extends to over 40 countries where she has documented people with powerful stories of struggle and resilience. Recently, Meeri has focused on the difficult and complex situation of female genital mutilation. Here, in this interview Meeri outlines the reality of becoming a documentarian and how the work she is making is progressing.

How have you developed professionally as a documentarian?

At the core of my ambition lies a necessity to portrait and understand basic human needs and abilities. A journalist today has no excuse to limit themselves to a certain medium. Everything can be learned through co-operation and by being involved in projects that are combining more than one artistic medium. I am actively searching new things to develop and deepen my documentarian skills. This means often to expose oneself to the unknown. 

During the past few years I have extended my professionalism from still photography to films. Besides having learned a lot more about photography and cinematography through various projects and workshops I have also understood my capacities to influence on the public attitudes and social changes through art and grass root activism. This has led me to give workshops and speeches, that I see as an essential growing part of my documentarian work.

What projects are you currently working on?

My main focus at the moment is in my long term project on female genital mutilation. This work is a combination of research and field work done in more than 10 countries worldwide. I started the project three years ago and will be continuing in the next six months in Tanzania, Finland, Nigeria, Germany, Iraq and Sudan. The project is a combination of photography, research and real-life stories. My aim is to reveal the history and traditions of female genital mutilation (FGM). The work will be presented as an interactive website and a visual non-fiction book which intends to answer fundamental questions about FGM. Why and how is FGM done to millions of women? What are the physical and mental consequences of FGM?

My other project is an eight chapter long documentary series about the theme survival. This documentary series will be directed and filmed by me and TV-reporter Arman Alizad. 

How do you approach the individuals you are documenting who have been through difficult and challenging situations?

My work is inspired by an encounter. My method is to know the person through common actions and discussion. A camera comes to the moment only after the common mood has accepted it. My interest is to understand the people I am photographing and that happens naturally by spending time with them and listening to them. My intent to use as many of my senses possible to get an authentic overall experience on the phenomenon I am documenting. This requires feeling, sensing, smelling, tasting, hearing, sharing, not only seeing and observing. I try to build genuine trust through sharing of experiences and feelings. When people devote their time to you and share details of their personal life with you, it should never be taken for granted. Mutual respect and sensibility are the most required values, not to forget irony and humour, which usually sparks even in the darkest and most challenging circumstances. 

How have your images been greeted by those working in the human rights sector?

I work closely with the human rights sector, with them and for them. I have close relationships with many NGO's worldwide, and been for a second year a peace ambassador for Finnish Church Aid. I have made cooperation, volunteer work and given workshops for UNICEF, Plan International, WWF, UN Women, Red Cross, Lutheran World Relief and Finnish Refugee Council. I received an honorable mention in Germany by UNICEF in 2014 regarding female circumcision which I documented in Kenya in 2013. Human rights organizations have networks, knowledge, experience and work ethics that I admire greatly and am very thankful for. 

What are your aims as a documentarian and how will you choose your subjects in the future?

I continue to work with themes such as survival, resilience, grass root activism, opposition and oppression. I am constantly amazed by the ability of individuals and groups to empower themselves against hardship. One's creativity and strength does not have limitations when there will be a chance to actualize it. Sometimes this chance has to be taken by means that do not ask permission.

The gist of human nature is an instinct to act, to build a house after an earthquake, to work, to teach, to love and keep your children safe, to co-operate. I see this tendency and ability in every culture - as the base of humanity.


Interviews with Tim Hetherington Award Winners: Meeri Koutaniemi