Excursus: Helsinki District Court, 1984

The courthouse.

Nearly four decades ago, fellow law student Eero Hyvönen and I put together a photojournalistic report on the Helsinki District Court for our student law society magazine. Eero was (and still is) an excellent writer, and he would later become a well-known journalist rather than a practicing lawyer. I was (and still am) an okay dilettante photographer. Whatever I may have lacked in camera and darkroom technique, I would compensate for with the enthusiasm.

The reason for our report was that the court would soon be moved from its then existing premises on Senate Square in central Helsinki to a new office building in Pasila further away. We wanted to capture the ‘vanishing District Court’, as we named our report. The court had occupied the neoclassical ‘Empire style’ Bock building on the southeastern corner of the square since the beginning of the 20th century. But by that time, the court’s judicial activities had expanded to such an extent that even though Bock remained the court’s judicial hub and main symbol, satellite courtrooms had appeared in neighbouring buildings in the same block, and office space had been rented in other city districts not too far away, and even in western and eastern parts of the city that already required means of transportation.

The journalist.

Despite its seemingly beautiful facade, the courthouse was not only small and impractical. It was also dirty and run down. Nevertheless, I remember how the people who worked there insisted that they would always prefer the ‘piss stenched’ toilets and corridors of the old courthouse to the characterless new office building that, at the time, was being publicly hailed as a ‘palace of justice’. In the early summer of 1984 a few months after our report, the Helsinki District Court moved to its new ‘palatial’ premises in Pasila. The court has subsequently moved to its current location in Salmisaari west of the city centre in 2004 leaving the Pasila ‘palace’ to the police.

The photographer.

I remember being mainly interested in the people that made up the judicial world of the court: the judges and their assistants, the prosecutors and the bailiffs, the typists and the archivists, the attorneys and their clients, the lay persons who had been summoned to answer for what they had done or to give testimony, and so forth. Everyone was asked for consent before any photographs were taken. But I realise how much times have changed. I haven’t included pictures of people who seem to be shying away from the camera, or of the alcoholics who were escaping from the bitter winter cold in the stairway. I’ve also excluded images of the witty teenagers that we met at the juvenile court who were, perhaps, a bit too eager to pose for me but without fully realising how badly that pose might turn out for them. So if you recognise yourself or a family member in the photographs and you would like the photograph to be taken down, you can email me by clicking here.

What was once a photojournalistic report of an upcoming change is now simplified into a photoessay of a bygone era. As I look at these images today some 40 years on, I notice that I’m drawn to different things. Not to the people anymore. I’m more captured by the degraded state of the once grand neoclassical building, by the peeling paint, scratched wooden furniture and crisscrossing wires. I note how the judicial bureaucracy has been dispersed into inefficient satellite units. I admire the Bakelite telephones and balanced-arm desk lamps. I notice that there are no computers but, instead, shelves full of folders, boxed archive cards and Selectric typewriters. I wonder about the seemingly casual attitude to smoking and to the pinup calendars. And so on. Compared to the Court’s current offices and judicial culture, things couldn’t be more different.

You’ll find the photoessay uploaded into the project’s Tumblr gallery here and here. I’ve tried to resist over-enhancing  the 35 mm black and white film digitally. Monday, 27 February 1984, was a busy day in court, and many of the shots were taken ‘off the hip’ without too much preparation time. So I haven’t reframed what was captured on film. I’ve removed bits of dust and ‘healed’ the worst scratches that became visible during the scanning of the negatives. But there’s only so much one can do. Time will erode the silver halide crystals no matter how sophisticated your home archiving practices are.

The camera was, if I remember correctly, a Canon EX EE, and the film Kodak Tri-X 400 Pan.