Swedish artist Johanna Heldebro on her work “White Death”

Johanna Heldebro

Get acquainted with HIAP Open Studio resident artist, Johanna Heldebro. Johanna is a Swedish artist, currently based in Canada, whose work explores the notions of obsession, photographic representation and personal boundaries. In her ongoing project, White Death, Heldebro is creating an installation of photographs and sculpture inspired by Finnish Winter War sniper Simo Häyhä. Examining the conflicted character of Häyhä - everyman, soldier, killer, and hero - Heldebro juxtaposes these traits up close.

Night Watch II from To Come Within Reach of You..., 2009, archival pigment print, 16 x 20 inches

My work explores notions of obsession, photographic representation, and personal boundaries. This has often been accomplished by working with very personal narratives – obsessively, and, seemingly, futilely, researching and making a work about a person’s life. This tension between the obsessive and the futile has become essential to my practice. In past works, this has included following and photographing my father without his knowledge (“To Come Within Reach of You…”, 2009), and creating a photographic archive of all of my husband’s possessions, including his seminal fluid (“A Good Year for the Roses…”, 2012-2013), which I collected, weighed and photographed for a year.

Objects (misc)
 (detail) from A Good Year For the Roses..., 2013, digital c-prints, mounted on board & framed, 32.5 x 33.5 inches

Objects (misc) (detail) from A Good Year For the Roses..., 2013, digital c-prints, mounted on board & framed, 32.5 x 33.5 inches

Clothing (black) from A Good Year For the Roses..., 2013, digital c-prints, mounted on board & framed, 25.5 x 25.5 inches

For the past five months, I have been working on an installation of photographs and sculptures; entitled “White Death”, it is a piece inspired by the life of the Finnish Winter War sniper, Simo Häyhä. I came across a photograph of Simo Häyhä a little over three years ago. This cropped image showed a man (from the shoulders up) in a military uniform, and with a partially disfigured jawline that looked almost unreal. After some research, I found out that Simo Häyhä was a Finnish war hero who, as a sniper, killed 542 Russian soldiers in less than 100 days during the winter of 1939-1940 – a “record” which has yet to be surpassed by any other sniper. During the war, Häyhä was given the nickname of “White Death”. At the end of this short war, Häyhä sustained a bullet wound to his jaw which, despite several surgical procedures, left him with a permanently disfigured jawline. He was defined by this injury and feat of war for the rest of his long life. Simo Häyhä lived on his own in a small community in Eastern Finland where he worked as a farmer & landowner. He never married.


Häyhä was a man of conflicting character traits, and I am examining and juxtaposing these traits up close — the everyman, the hunter, the soldier, the killer, the hero, etc. — including the realities he was faced with (the imminent threat of Russian occupation and the subsequent loss of land and home).

Interspersed between photographs of landscapes and domestic interiors, I am incorporating quotes by Häyhä in which he reflects on his life and his role in the war. They are accompanied by several sculptural pieces, such as a floor piece of an enlarged map, as well as different materials that Häyhä used in his daily life, such as earth, fur, felt, cotton and gauze.