Aya Brace is influenced by 90’s realism, an inspiration that she uses to capture other subjects, whether they are designs or humans. Those subjects, often possessing some slightly off or imperfect details, she portrays in a simple and beautifully structured way. The Finnish Ghanian photographer has released her debut book, The Banquet Years, a collective of works featuring collections from six Finnish fashion designers Anna-Mari Leppisaari, Elina Määttänen, Piia Emilia, Sophie Sälekari, Elina Äärelä & Heini-Maria Hynynen and Antti Peltoniemi. Helsinki, Aya’s hometown where the six collections were shot for the book, plays an equally big role in the images. Yet the photos are so well balanced that the surroundings complement the garments, keeping them as the focal subject. Aya told us about the ideas behind the book’s subjects and her take on Finnish fashion.
You decided to focus on Finnish designers of your generation for this first collective work. How did you choose your subjects/designers? Was there an aesthetic you were going for?
Going into the project, my personal knowledge of the industry in Finland was very limited. I talked to a few people and started contacting the designers whose work excited me. Aesthetically, 1990's realism in fashion photography has been a big influence for me for a long time. In my work I want to try to present fashion in its natural breathing ground. I started to think of everyday life in my hometown of Helsinki and the long dark winters. Most people prefer functionality over looks. Then I went back to these garments and there was a massive disconnect in my head. How did these clothes fit into the very place they were created in? Finnish movie director Aki Kaurismäki's aesthetic and especially his movie 'The Match Factory Girl' were a big influence on setting the mood for the book. The areas of Helsinki, then working class and now gentrified Kallio and Punavuori, are the settings of the movie and my images as well. The movie’s main character, Iiris, was a big influence on the casting as well. All the girls are shot without hair and makeup, I wanted them to look a bit rough. It is a mix of agency models, street cast and friends.
Did you come across any surprises while exploring these designers and their collections for your work?
The craftsmanship and attention to details of the garments was phenomenal. Finland had a thriving textile industry in the 1960's and 1970's and I think the heritage of that has stayed.
You said you wanted to photograph your own take on the subjects. How much involvement was there of the designers themselves in the production of the images?
When I started this project, I had quite a strong vision that I pitched to the designers. They were not a part of the making of the images. I worked with a stylist, Fanni Lyytikäinen, to bring the vision to life.
Working between Helsinki and London, the latter a very international scene, how do these two locations influence your work?
Having been brought up in Finland, the mood and aesthetic of the country influences my aesthetic a lot: nature and its elements, and functionality in its many forms. At the same time, that's contrasted by my love for London's multiculturalism, architecture and urbanism.
Since you also live and work outside of Finland, do you have a sense of how Finnish fashion is perceived by other markets?
The sad fact is most people do not have any kind of perception of contemporary Finnish fashion. Researching for this project, I asked this question to a lot of people, mostly people working in creative jobs. They had no associations; some mentioned Marimekko, a few Samuji, but that was it. The talent is critically appraised, and rightfully so, but we cannot yet talk about a fully fledged industry. There are some very talented people and it will be interesting to see the industry growing in the near future.
What role do social and digital media play in your professional life?
I've been brought up in a generation where you accept new digital inventions without questioning them too much. In my early teens I had a blog that I used like an online diary. Since then, I am much more critical on what I put online. I think social media is a great way to 'street cast'. Whereas before you literally had to be on the streets, Instagram and Facebook are a great way to find interesting subjects to shoot.
Who are your favourite designers of today?
I'm a big fan of JW Anderson and Jacquemus at the moment. From the Finnish designers, my current favourites would have to be Lepokorpi for its fresh and innovative ideas and R/H for having a fun approach on functional everyday clothes.
Do you have a favourite camera to work with?
Anything light and easy to use. I'm not too fussed as to what camera I work with. I shoot analogue and 35mm most of the time because I enjoy the process, from shooting the images to developing them. I tend to carry a snapshot camera everywhere I go and I think the barrier to take images is lowered when the equipment is easy to use and light. I think on my feet and even though I plan my shoots a lot in advance, I think the best ideas are created on the spot. I don't see everyone’s access to photography as a threat, I love going through my friends phone pics.
Do you see yourself pursuing the focus or exploration of Finnish designs further and in future works?
I would love to shoot more Finnish designers. After finishing this project I have discovered so much more amazing talent. A lot of the fashion photography is quite safe in Finland, the industry is very small so it’s understandable a lot of editorial work is quite vanilla. Also I'm very proud of what’s coming out of Finland and would love to show that through my work continuously.
What would be a dream subject to shoot?
I would love to shoot Lineisy Montero. I think she is one of the most exciting models around at the moment, representing natural black beauty.