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Estonia through 100 pairs of eyes

The idea to create a photography project bringing together different Estonians

9 min read

It is said that the eyes are a mirror to the soul. They reflect our experiences, our worries, dreams and hopes, what we believe in and what we find unbelievable, the things we like to show and the stuff we’d rather keep hidden. But is it possible to get a glimpse of the soul of a country by looking into the eyes of its people? And can what they see offer some unique insight into their homeland that might otherwise remain invisible? 


“The idea to create a photography project bringing together different Estonians was ticking away in the back of my mind for quite some time,” says Kaire van der Toorn-Guthan, an Estonian graphic designer who has lived in the Netherlands for the last twenty-five years. Typical of many Estonians who have moved away, Kaire felt the desire to do something for Estonia. Over time and in discussions with various people, the idea to create a visual story about Estonia and its people ripened. Until one day, Kaire called Toomas Volkmann, a friend and a renowned Estonian photographer, to ask whether he would be interested in creating 100 portraits of 100 Estonians, a visual memory spanning 100 years, and to wrap it all up as a present for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia in 2018. Needless to say, Toomas was hooked.

This is how the project “Estonia through 100 pairs of eyes” was born. For Kaire and Toomas, the question from the outset was who is this mythical Estonian who, according to Ernest Hemingway, can be found in every port all over the world? Can we capture the essence of being Estonian visually? Is nationality something only to do with physical, cultural or linguistic properties? Or does everything begin with feeling the earth beneath our feet? Seeking answers has taken them and their team on a journey of discovery, photographing Estonians at home and abroad.

The resulting photo book and the accompanying exhibition tell the story of Estonia through 100 portraits of Estonians aged from 1 to 100. Each beautifully composed black-and-white portrait depicts an Estonian born in a different year during the hundred years of the existence of the Republic of Estonia. Thus the oldest person portrayed − lady Linda − was born in the same year as the Republic of Estonia in 1918, whilst the youngest one, baby Jako, only came into this world on the 24th of February 2017. In addition, each portrait is accompanied by a short poetic caption of that person’s story and another photograph expressing their individual emotion relating to Estonia.

Gathered around a long table

Who are the people in the photographs? “We definitely did not want to create an Estonian Hall of Fame!” says Toomas Volkmann. The people portrayed are men, women and children − some living in Estonia, others abroad. They have different ethnic, religious and occupational backgrounds. Indeed, some are famous like Arvo Pärt (composer), Aldo Järvsoo (fashion designer), Ita Ever (actress), Kelly Sildaru (freestyle skier), Tommy Cash (singer), Kriss Soonik-Käärmann (lingerie designer) and Ilon Wikland (illustrator, Sweden) to name just a few. But other equally interesting characters are relatively unknown in the public eye and include a cemetery keeper, a fisherman, the oldest chocolate maker in Estonia, the “world’s nicest saleswoman” from Viimsi, an Estonian language teacher in Brussels, the only female lighthouse guard in Estonia and the Estonian translator in Mali, for example.

In fact, the main criteria for selection was that the people portrayed have diverse backgrounds, that they are interesting, open-minded and positive. Therefore, the actual process of finding people became very organic. “It is like putting together a giant puzzle where finding one piece could lead to the next one,” says Kaire van der Toorn-Guthan. The only complicated task was related to the fact that each year could only be represented by one person. However, as a result, the portraits depict a truly fascinating and diverse group of people from all walks of life, each one’s facial expression and body language hinting at their character, background and field of activity.

A simple repetitive element in all the photographs is the table. People are either seated at a table, stand next to one or have propped themselves on top. After all, the long table is something very traditionally Estonian − whether at birthdays, weddings or funerals, Estonians tend to gather around a long table for most occasions. Metaphorically speaking, the people portrayed have also gathered around one long table, each engaging with the photographer, telling him their own private story. “A table is something solid, something concrete, something to lean on even when one’s feet cannot reach the ground. It is timeless,” says photographer Toomas Volkmann.


He has sought the same simple and timeless, even iconic, quality in the portraits. Volkmann’s aim has been to find the emotionally tensioned zero point. We do not know what precedes or follows the moment of capturing an image. Will the singer burst out into a tune, the grey-haired dame take a nap, the mischievous looking child pick her nose or hide under the table whilst giggling hilariously? Everything is possible. And this is exactly what turns the photographs into a timeless and dignified collection where a twinkle in the eye, a grimace and even a huge smile all possess the kind of gravity that goes beyond the banalities of daily life.

As the name “Estonia through 100 pairs of eyes” indicates, the portraits are always focused on the eyes. “A portrait in itself can be one-dimensional,” explains Kaire van der Toorn-Guthan. “But once you lock eyes with another person, it becomes personal and you begin to enter their world,” she adds. Whether dignified, mischievous, tired, naughty, pensive, playful, angry, intriguing or inviting, the eyes tell a story even when lips remain closed. This focus on eyes lends the portraits a kind of immediacy and intimacy and speaks volumes about the level of trust and communication established between the photographer and his subject. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that, Toomas Volkmann with all his years of experience did not find it difficult to have his subjects ‘open up’ in front of the camera. However, what he did find surprising was how people’s way of physically expressing themselves becomes more ‘closed’ the older one gets. “Children have no fear of form. It is a different story between the ages of 40 and 60,” he explains. Therefore, it was a unique challenge to bring people of such different ages around the metaphorical table, whilst keeping the images stylistically and compositionally compact.

Estonia is an emotion

Through each person portrayed in the project, we also get a glimpse of how they see Estonia as a country. Everyone was asked to share the main emotion they have when they think of Estonia, be it a moment, an object, a place or an event. What is Estonia? Is it the sweetness of wild strawberries or the chewy texture of freshly baked black bread? The scratching of the woolly national skirt against bare legs on a hot summer day at the song festival? The piercing shriek of seagulls as they dive into the mirror-like sea for their catch of the day? The summer evening light? The cobbled streets of the Old Town of Tallinn or access to wireless in the woods whilst picking mushrooms? Whatever the emotion, two talented photographers Tõnu Tunnel and Tõnu Runnel have captured them in 100 colourful images which form the second part of the gift book and exhibition.

The portraits and emotional images are linked together by captions of text. Although it was never the primary aim of the project, the link between the people portrayed and their stories has in fact showcased Estonia as the small country it is, known for some great things such as Skype, TransferWise, e-Residency, LetsDoIt campaign and choir music to name a few. However, the photos do not only provide an idea about the country’s culture, cuisine, nature, traditions and technological progress to those who have never been to Estonia and offer a sweet sense of recognition to everyone who has. Through these images we get a sense of the soul of Estonia.

Their hearts and souls in the project

A project of this calibre would not be possible without an amazing team which, in addition to the abovementioned people, includes writers Piret Jaaks, Miriam Matiisen and Tiiu Suvi as well as make-up artist Liis Piksar and sound designer Sven Sosnitski. Many other people have supported the development of the project with their advice and skills. “The team is everything!” says Kaire van der Toorn-Guthan. “It is amazing how many great people we have met and how many people have shown their support for this project.”

But have the people behind the project also learned something new about Estonia in the process? “It is incredible how different we are! Estonians are not only shy, introvert and blue-eyed! Also the wave of supportive energy we have experienced has been amazing. Being involved in this project has been a true gift!” says Kaire van der Toorn-Guthan.

Certainly, the 420-page photography book and exhibition will be a wonderful gift to Estonia. The  exhibition will open on the 2nd of February 2018 at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu. It is no coincidence that this date marks the anniversary of the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920, signed by Estonia and Bolshevist Russia, which made Estonia a de jure independent state. The exhibition will then travel to Stockholm, Berlin, Madrid, Rotterdam, Brussels, Luxembourg, Toronto and San Francisco.

Source: Life in Estonia

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