The Big Interview: Ninni West

Mike Pinnington, Laura Robertson, 2023. Credit Ninni West, location, Finnish Art Agency

Vogue, Barbie, and Visual-Kei: after Finnish fashion photographer Ninni West captures our best sides at a shoot in Helsinki, she shares a few secrets about her light-hearted approach, pop-culture obsessions, and how to thrive as a freelancer…

Professional photographer Ninni West was born in Vieremä, in Northern Savonia, Finland, and is now based in Helsinki. After studying BA Arts at LAB Institute of Design and Fine Arts, Lahti, she combined a love of Japanese street-style and make-up knowledge with camera skills to become a fashion photographer, working with slow fashion brand Anni Ruuth and Moomin merchandise brand Nordic Buddies. West continues to work across fashion, promotion, portraiture, and product/still life, and is currently working on a documentary series about Harajuku fashion.

“If I am the biggest fool in the room, my subjects loosen up and tend to trust me”

TDN: First question, Ninni: you create a lovely atmosphere on shoot. You had us relax before creating our portraits at the Finnish Art Agency office (thank you), and made the whole process pleasurable (and I usually find having my photo taken absolutely agonising). You told silly jokes, used props, even had us take our shoes off. Where do you think this approach comes from?

Ninni West: I remember when I first started acting like that, and bringing my real personality to the photoshoots, while taking pictures of people at school. Before that, I didn’t realise how hard it is for some people to be in front of the camera and pose. But if I am the biggest fool in the room, and my subjects see me as a real person (not some cool, mysterious, cold artist) they loosen up and tend to trust me. People often say that they are not photogenic or nobody takes good pictures of them. I don’t believe that.

Quite rarely I plan my props for photoshoots in locations – I just use what I find. It is more fun and exciting that way. A big part of my practice is just working with the constant element of surprise.

Also I got bored of taking photography – and myself – too seriously. I just want to have fun. People tend to see when you enjoy something wholeheartedly.

Tuuli-Tytti Koivula shoot, 2023, image credit Ninni West: Maurine is wearing Cumulus Skirt, Flower Stripes shirt and limited edition Gigantic Flower Bag.

That’s true, the feeling of creative play, of having fun, is clearly visible in the final images, as well as being tangible on set. Another thing I liked a lot about posing for you, was the space you made for us to talk. We shared a lot about our lives and expertise. Can you share with our readers how you got into photography?

Barbie magazine held a photography competition back in 1996 and my aunt wanted for me and my cousin to take part. We just created scenarios for the Barbies and my aunt took the images. It was super fun and I happened to win my first camera; a pink Barbie Hollywood star point-and-shooter. I started taking pictures of my dolls, my mom and my cousin. My late granny always made sure I had a camera and my mom always had my films developed. I had many photoshoots with my cousin where I styled her and we just had loads of fun. It was playing for me. Mom also promised me a DSLR camera if I graduated from high school. I did and took so many pictures for my fashion blog and travels with it.

This is all hindsight, though. I didn’t think photography could be a job, especially not for me. It didn’t exist in my world (being a small town girl from Vieremä). Fashion design was something I was very into. I bought Vogue and just adored the images. I was working as a cashier, I was in a bad space, being clinically depressed, and not wanting to live anymore. One day at the till at work, had an epiphany: someone takes those images in Vogue. Someone took all the images all around us. That someone could be me.

“During Covid, and after having a serious burnout, I started my own business. I had nothing to lose”

Oh boy, did I Google that night. It all seems hazy now, but it just went so smoothly from there on. I got into one school, then to another. Before I graduated I got an in-house job. At this point, I had that art school curse on me; everything is dead serious, you have to be cool and professional. I fought with that a lot. I didn’t think ‘my thing,’ or my type of photography was good enough. In my head documentarists and photojournalists were the ‘real photographers.’

During Covid, and after having a serious burnout, I started my own business. I had nothing to lose. I had given over so much time to jealousy, anger and victim mentality. Why had nobody chosen me to do their amazing campaigns? Well. I had nothing to show them. That’s when I really started doing what felt the most natural for me; back to the roots, just playing with my model, just like photoshoots with my cousin.


You mention the ‘art school curse”… I think anyone who’s been to art school reading this will understand some of that feeling of the imposter syndrome, or that struggle to make practice pay off outside of education. Can you explain this a bit more? In what ways did it hinder your creative practice?

At least for me, ‘the curse’ was that I knew so little about the field and its possibilities. And in school, you only have a few authorities who tell you about how the future of your profession is going to be. Our school was very focused on documentary and photojournalism. Those became a standard for me and because it didn’t feel like something I would like to do, I felt bad for it. I don’t regret going to Lahti Design Institute, not at all! It was the best time of my life, so far. But I believe students in the creative field should have more people coming to tell them how they can work, and do the things they actually enjoy. And how studying photography doesn’t necessarily mean that you will work as a photographer after graduating.

“We don’t get too many opportunities to express ourselves and take up space. For me, fashion is for that”

I chose subjects that I thought were serious enough and important enough. I love using colours and bright lights, and all the tricks I learned while working in cosmetics as my side job. But I had an inner critic who told me it’s not convincing, and people wouldn’t take me seriously as a professional if I’m just myself. I tried to tone down my own clothing style and keeping, for example, my love for Japanese street fashion as a separate thing away from photography.

Now, this could not be further from the truth! I am making a social documentary portrait series about Japanese street-style fashion lovers in Finland. The more I meet the people who dress up in Harajuku fashion, the more I understand what a life-changing thing it has been for them and for me, too. So it is worth documenting.

Mike Pinnington, Laura Robertson, 2023. Credit Ninni West, location, Finnish Art Agency

It is so good to hear you say that, and especially good advice here for recent graduates. I certainly felt that “not good enough” feeling at multiple times after graduating. Starting your own projects, understanding your field, these make you feel tons better about your own voice. 

And on the new work, the Harajuku series, what have you learned so far?

I have noticed how much I like talking to people. One-on-one interactions with my subjects have been amazing, and some of them have left me in tears. I have learned that I have a lot of empathy. There is no such thing as a subject that is not worth photographing – especially when it’s somebody’s passion – and how life-altering and healing something like dressing up can be. We don’t get too many opportunities to express ourselves and take up space. For me, fashion is for that.

Will you share some of the styles that you’ve covered in the studio during this current project? Old favourites or new surprises?

The younger people give me so much. They are so innovative with their style and they make a lot of their own clothing. I rediscovered my love for Visual-Kei [informed by 1980s music and Glam] and Gyaru [‘gal’ style, circa 1990s, epitomised by dyed hair and fake nails]. I love how these styles are making a comeback with all the other stuff from the 2000s. I am super inspired to combine Lolita fashion [Rococo and Victorian influenced, sweet, punk, gothic] with my everyday looks. It’s not possible every day, since I have a toddler, and in photoshoots I need comfy clothes.

“You need sleep, hobbies and a social life outside your work, and photography is no exception”

You work a lot with upcoming fashion designer Tuuli-Tytti Koivula (who has just won Nordic talent incubator ALPHA’s 2023 Award at Copenhagen Fashion Week). I love that one of the images here was actually shot in your apartment as you were moving out. What’s special about the ongoing collaboration, do you think?

We just really clicked. I saw her works on Instagram, I follow Aalto University and saw her there as a graduate. Her aesthetics and visual language are similar to many of the things I admire, ultra feminine, big flower prints… I met her over coffee and she was wearing full pink and crocs. We connected, our energies, personally and professionally. She gives a lot of freedom during shoots, to see what we can find and do together. In the apartment shoot, we were inspired by my kitchen and the moving boxes, and it was a proper mix of ‘this doesn’t belong here’ so it therefore seems right. It was so much fun. We are already planning more projects so stay tuned. 


Now that you’re self-employed, have you got any advice for those wanting to be a photographer full-time?

I can only speak mostly on the commercial side, but I have few things.

1. Make sure you can make the ends meet financially. Make a budget of your minimal expenses and calculate how much money you have to earn every month. Remember, not all you bill will be in your own wallet. Find out if you are entitled to any benefits or start-up money. Also grants or loans can be helpful. This isn’t very sexy or exciting, but necessary.

2. Have a good work-life-balance and time limits. You have to be able to get work done before the deadline and within reasonable hours. You need sleep, hobbies and a social life outside your work, and photography is no exception. It is a job. It might also be your passion (it sure the fuck is mine), but burnout is not worth it.

3. Showcase in your portfolio only the types of things you want to make. If you don’t want to shoot weddings, don’t put wedding photos on your website. If you don’t have clients, just make them yourself. I started building my fashion and portrait portfolio in my bedroom having a sheet as a backdrop.

Really generous advice, Ninni. 

Laura Robertson

With thanks to Laura Köönikkä and Mikael Pessi at the Finnish Art Agency

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Image credits: all courtesy Ninni West. From top: Mike Pinnington and Laura Robertson at the Finnish Art Agency, 2023. Tuuli-Tytti Koivula shoot, 2023, Maurine is wearing Cumulus Skirt, Flower Stripes shirt and limited edition Gigantic Flower Bag. The belly – The hill, 2022. Self portrait in nature – In my garden, 2021

Posted on 16/10/2023 by thedoublenegative