Johannes Romppanen, Lilja

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2019 (here). Softcover in a slipcase (21×29 cm), 132 pages, with 125 color and black and white photographs. Includes writings by the artist. In an edition of 350 copies. Design by SYB. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lilja is an intimate photobook by the Finnish photographer Johannes Romppanen. Lilja is the name of the artist’s daughter and youngest child, and the book documents the first four years of her life. When Lilja was born, Romppanen and his wife learnt that their daughter had had a lack of oxygen during the last days of the pregnancy. The doctors were unsure if she would survive, and if she did, how it would affect her. She survived, but sadly the oxygen deficit caused a cerebral palsy birth injury. Romppanen shares that today “she does not speak, she does not walk, she needs full assistance and will be needing assistance for the rest of her life.” The book tells the story of the family, “a story about when life with surprising hospital visits becomes the new normal.”

The photobook immediately stands out as a thoughtfully crafted object. It comes wrapped in a paper decorated with flowers, which opens to a poster showing a colorful unicorn-shaped balloon up by the ceiling, with the colophon text appearing in the lower left corner. The book is hosted inside a slipcase with flowers, and the title of the book is cut out in the center. The first thing we notice is its open spine and its asymmetrical binding with white thread. The pages are cut rather rough, forcing the viewer to pay more attention separating them, and ultimately to spend more time with the content of the book. The photobook immediately feels personal and comfortable.

Throughout the book, Romppanen’s photographs of Lilja and the family are occasionally interrupted by a short diary-style writing. A black and white photograph of a hand holding a lily flower appears on the front of the book. This flower is often associated with fresh life and rebirth, and it also echoes the name of Romppanen’s daughter Lilja. The opening sequence of images shows us the newborn: peacefully sleeping, lovingly held by her smiling mother, in a stroller, on a bed looking straight at the camera, yawning next to her father. It is an endearing portrait of a child in a happy family. This sequence is followed by a picture of a tall baby chair in an empty room, perhaps a shower room, commonly used in hospitals. This photograph, cold and distant, signals that something is off. A few pages later, Romppanen’s diary entry reveals that the story of his family is different. “This is a story of the warrior princess and her family. She is a fighter. For many months now, it has been looking good, almost too good to be true.”

As the narrative unfolds, Romppanen’s photographs depict the everyday life of his family. He shares with us the family’s fragility and vulnerability, the unpredictability of life with a disabled child, but also the many precious moments of pure happiness and joy – Lilja between her two brothers on the sofa as they play computer games; Lilja on her highchair in the kids’ room with piles of folded clothes on the chair handles; a family selfie portrait with Lilja in the middle; a brother gently holding his younger sister. There is a lot of care, cuteness, tenderness, and love in these moments. 

These family photographs are interspersed with the scenes documenting another side of the family’s life. One photo shows Lilja in a pink outfit sleeping with a breathing tube. “Epilepsy sucks. Tetraplegic CP is ok but epilepsy sucks.”, reads the text on the next page, reminding us about the nights the family has had to spend at the hospital. Constant visits to the hospital became part of the family routine. Another image captures Lilja in a hospital room, with a sleeping bag and a pillow on the floor for her father. Later in the book, there will be a similar image, with Lilja a few years older, the scene repeating itself. Photographs of flowers, both fading and blooming, add pauses to the visual flow.

As we watch Lilja grow into a toddler, Romppanen’s photographs start to document more sides of his daughter and the many emotions she is experiencing – we see her happy and curious, tired and upset, funny and playful. “It feels brutal to see how your child is being examined only through things she cannot do, or observed in relation to the so called “normal””. Romppanen’s short yet sharp comments add more emotional depth to the already heartfelt visual flow.

One of the last images in the book captures Romppanen holding Lilja as she smiles and radiates happiness. It is a beautiful and tender portrait of a father and a daughter. It is followed by a note reading: “The diagnosis does not determine us as people. I know that this might be challenging for many, but I am happy to be here and to challenge.” Lilja is a carefully crafted photobook that shares a moving and beautiful story of a family raising a child with a disability. It stands out in its intent to turn this experience into a brave and confident narrative, challenging our perceptions and fears about handicaps, and ultimately, showing us that love is a far greater human force than any disability.

Collector’s POV: Johannes Romppanen does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked above in the sidebar).

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