Markus Jokela is a Finnish photographer who has traveled the world to shoot the most pressing news stories. But his favorite projects are about ordinary life – those that don’t make the papers that often. For his series Table Rock, Nebraska, he went to the US, first in 1992 and later in 2009-2016, to photograph the people in this tiny town.
This all started in ’92. The newspaper that I work for makes a monthly magazine and they wanted us to do a story about American life. So we took a map of the United States, and my colleague, the writer of the story, closed his eyes and pointed at what he thought was the middle. At the end of his finger was Table Rock, Nebraska.
It was totally by chance. We wanted to find a small place, so this was perfect. At that time it had 308 people living there. Now there are 245.
Everyone has a certain idea of what it is like in the United States, even if you haven’t been there. You have seen it in films or on television, so it felt very familiar to visit Table Rock for the first time, because it was just what we expected.
The first time we visited, I don’t think it took longer than one day before people knew who we were and what we were doing there. That really helped our process because they could prepare themselves in case we might wanted to photograph them. It was easier to convince them to have their picture taken.
It is such a small place, you can’t do any street photography. That would be hard with only 300 people. Working in Table Rock mostly consisted of hanging around, talking to people and waiting for something small to happen. We walked a lot, all the time. If you drive around in a car, you go too fast to see a situation in time; it would be over before you could stop and capture it. No-one else walked in Table Rock, but we walked.
One of the reasons to go back in 2009 was that someone’s relative had seen a picture of her father, a picture that I took in 1992. She asked me about the photo and she told me a bit about Table Rock. I became curious what was happening in that town now, so we decided to do a follow-up story, 15 years after the first one.
There was not really a big difference when we got back – nothing had changed in Table Rock, not in 2009 and not since. It is a place where nothing happens, ever. In ’92 when we first went there, the inhabitants said we were the first significant thing that happened since the bank robbery of ’59.
Photojournalism always tends to overlook the marginal things in life, but I’ve always been interested in photographing the normal, everyday life that most people live. Nothing happens, there is nothing dramatic about it. That also makes it a challenge, to take interesting images about the normal.
This Table Rock story is kind of similar to the stories I have done whether that was in Finland or abroad,. It was always about the mundane, the everyday. This series is a perfect example of that.
There’s no difference in photographing in your own country or abroad; at first you are always an outsider. However, in the United States people are more open and it’s easier to get along with them, whereas in Finland people tend to be a bit more reserved.
What struck me about Table Rock was the sense of community, the way that people take care of each other. When something bad happens to someone, for example when someone’s wife dies, the neighbors take care of the family. That was something that interested me; that feeling of belonging together.