Photojournalism as social activism: shedding light on humanitarian crises

Aster washing her face.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, millions lose their sight due to common diseases that could be prevented or cured. Poverty causes disabilities but also increases obstacles. Aster will not let blindness define her life. Of her many hobbies, she loves swimming the most.

Meeri Koutaniemi is a Finnish photographer who started her career with a clear mission: to shed light on uncomfortable truths about social injustice around the world. Her powerful imagery and captivating stories about human fates and the resilience with which individuals face their struggles have earned her numerous awards in Finland as well as abroad.

Storytelling through photography

Meeri’s first memories about photography relate to her father, a passionate amateur photographer: – He used to set up a white screen and a slide projector and have us, his six children, settle down to watch his slide shows, Meeri recalls.

His preferred medium was diapositives and the topic always related to nature, varying from small details to wide landscapes.

– I learned to observe each photo for minutes without a hurry. I realised, then, that watching a photo wasn’t just about looking at it. You can also listen to the tones and vibrations in silence, she illuminates.

During high school, Meeri became politically active and interested in social justice. The idea of combining political activism with art started to take shape in her mind. She arrived at photojournalism as a means of spreading the word about issues that needed voicing.

– For my first photo essay, I gathered money and travelled to India to do a reportage on the caste system and child labour, Meeri reminisces.

It was there in India, sitting in a moto taxi, that she had a revelation: “Here I am, a stubborn 19-year-old girl, coping all on my own and doing exactly what I dreamed of doing.” She realised that if she studied hard and worked hard, she really could realise her dream and become a professional photojournalist.

Becoming a professional photojournalist
Meeri returned from her self-appointed assignment in India, set up her first photo exhibition and got her first reportages published in magazines. She then immediately started planning a second trip, which would take place later the same year. The destination was Central America where she spent three months working in and travelling across several countries.

Meeri Koutaniemi’s portrait.
Meeri Koutaniemi
34 years

Meeri Koutaniemi is a Finnish photographer and journalist, born in Lapland, currently residing in Helsinki. Her work extends to over 50 countries, where she has documented people’s stories of struggle and resilience.

Instagram: meeri.koutaniemi

The early trips solidified her career goal: to work as a freelance photojournalist, travelling around the globe reporting on human rights issues. Meeri enrolled in the University of Tampere and begun studying photojournalism in earnest.

In her work, Meeri has been hugely inspired and influenced by the works of classic photojournalists: Abbas, Susan Meiselas, W. Eugene Smith, and Josef Koudelka.

– The pioneers of photojournalism have all showed me a new perspective to humanity and the importance of shedding light into the shadows, Meeri explains. I have experienced immense emotions and gained deep knowledge simply by looking at the photographs taken by these masters.

Through the work of her heroes, she understood that photographic storytelling is the most powerful way to talk about what makes us human. That has guided Meeri on her path ever since.

Elizabeth hanging up her washing in Kenia.

Despite being illegal in Kenya, female circumcision is valued among tribes like the Masai. Some girls manage to escape mutilation to safehouses, a few become activists trying to protect the next generation. Elizabeth Nkere runs a safe house for girls who have escaped their homes because of female circumcision.

Developing a unique photographic style

Meeri’s style has been rooted in classic black-and-white film photography. But, over the years, it has developed to include colour photography as well.

– I try to actively listen to the light, not only to see it. Light is the poetry in photography, Meeri muses.

– When I look through the lens, time stretches away: as my eye focuses on a certain detail, nothing else exists outside of that moment. Photography is my way of exploring existence in time and space.

What Meeri does, is about much more than taking pictures. Each photograph tells a story and is part of a wider phenomenon that needs to be told. She finds it essential to include information about the wider social context or a personal quote from the subject to help people read the pictures fully.

– I am inspired the most by people who simply show their way of being. I am drawn to the person’s presence. The power and the vulnerability that is honest and resilient, she explains.

Portrait of Musiona Silpa Hantura of Namibia proudly posing in a Herero dress.

Musiona Silpa Hantura of Namibia dressed up in traditional Herero dress. The ethnic extermination and collective punishment waged by the German Empire against the Herero was the first genocide of the 20th century, occurring between 1904 and 1908. In wild contradiction to their brutal past, the Herero people wear re-customized soldier’s uniforms and Western women’s dresses daily as a sign of de-colonialization and freedom.

A Syrian refugee woman in Lebanon.

Since 2011, millions of Syrians have fled the country ravaged by civil-war, severe human rights violations, and massacres. Many women had to leave their husbands to battles and take their children across the borders to neighborhood countries. Iftikar Hsaiian, 27, came from Syria to Lebanon in April 2013.

Advice for activists- and photojournalists-in-the-making

Meeri firmly believes that social change requires grassroots activism that embodies locals. Her dream is to set up a foundation that supports activists financially.

– There are these young people all around the world who have all the means, but lack the resources to make themselves, or the issues they are fighting for, heard, she explains.

– By financing their expression and activism, we could achieve much more concrete improvements and fight against human rights violations on a global scale.

Photojournalism is about cooperation. Not only with the individuals that exemplify a certain issue, but the local people in the area you’re travelling. The need for co-operation and collaboration also extends to media outlets, non-government organizations and even local governments, in order to gain maximum coverage and exposure.

Children playing on a churchyard, in favela Providência of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

The favelas of Rio De Janeiro are well-known for crime and poverty. In preparation for the football World Cup in 2014, many favelas were mowed down and thousands lost their homes, roots and flimsy hold on society.

When you are working abroad, what you need most is to find local fixers: People who are specialist in their culture and surroundings, Meeri illuminates. Those who can lead you to the right places, to meet the right people.

Choosing topics and phenomena that resonate for you is also crucial. When you find work meaningful, the passion will make you push forward and show in your work.

– Try to make an impact and don’t be afraid of getting politically active on social issues that matter, she concludes.

Meeri Koutaniemis’s kitbag

Meeri’s go-to kit contains a Canon EOS R5 camera, several lenses, a memory card, notebook, and accessories.

A Canon EOS R5 camera, Canon lenses, a memory card, notebook, and accessories.