Meeri Koutaniemi

A black and white close-up portrait of a female inmate of Ilopango prison in El Salvador, taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Canon Ambassador Meeri Koutaniemi.

Marielas De Los Angeles Montenego, 35, was sentenced to six years in Ilopango prison, San Salvador, for extortion. The prison, in the capital of El Salvador, is designed for 200 inmates but often holds more than 2,000 women. Photojournalist Meeri Koutaniemi aims to connect with her subjects and their emotions, and to translate this into her imagery. "I want to be as close as possible," she says. Her work has taken her across Latin America, Africa and Asia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 4000. © Meeri Koutaniemi

Photojournalist Meeri Koutaniemi likes to get as close as possible to her subjects – and their stories. "I always think that an individual is the window for larger phenomena," she says. "It's my strength as a photographer to go near people, and I want to stay in the moment. Sometimes I am so fascinated by the person that I forget to take a few steps back, and it blinds me from what else is happening."

Based in Helsinki, Finland, Meeri focuses on human rights issues, often through the lens of identity and activism. Across more than 70 countries, she has documented compelling stories of resilience and survival, including covering the humanitarian side of conflict and displacement, from the Syrian civil war to Myanmar's Rohingya crisis.

If she were to sum up her wide-ranging work, Meeri says she gravitates towards questions around identity, along with freedom of expression, speech and movement. "Freedom and methods for survival and resistance are very important to me," she says.

Born in Lapland, Meeri grew up in a photographic household – her mother took family snaps and her father photographed nature and showed his children slideshows on a projector. Meeri was 15 when she first seriously picked up a camera, starting with black and white film. "The first years were research, investigation, and experimentation with light and shadows," she says. "And a more artistic way of seeing the world." She spent many hours in darkrooms developing her photographs – at the same time, she was also developing her political consciousness.

"I got very politically active and involved with social issues," explains Meeri. "I started to think about how I could combine this artistic hobby of mine with the activist within me. When I came across photojournalism, it was clear I should be a storyteller." Drawn to human stories of change, and with a desire to understand the world, when she was just 19 years old, Meeri packed a bag and her first digital camera, a Canon EOS 350D, to spend a month in India investigating child labour and the caste system.

A black and white headshot of Canon Ambassador Meeri Koutaniemi.
Location: Helsinki, Finland

Specialist areas: Photojournalism, human rights

Favourite kit: Canon EOS R5
Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

"I always say that was the crossroads of my career," she says. "I understood at that early age that I could work as a journalist if I pursued it persistently, practised and studied, and didn't give up because of my age or gender." Later that year, she spent three months in Central America. Empowered by publishing work from her trips, despite her lack of formal experience, she applied to study journalism at Finland's Tampere University.

A portrait of a Syrian girl, wearing a patterned headscarf and looking directly at the camera, taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Canon Ambassador Meeri Koutaniemi.

Although she doesn't consider herself a conflict photographer, Meeri has been drawn towards documenting the echoes of violence from war, including the lives of those displaced by the fighting in Syria. Fatima, 12, photographed in 2013, witnessed violence towards her family and relatives during the Syrian civil war. When the battles got worse, her mother took her to Lebanon. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 42mm, 1/640 sec, f/4 and ISO 640. © Meeri Koutaniemi

A portrait of a Syrian woman, wearing a patterned headscarf and looking directly at the camera, taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Canon Ambassador Meeri Koutaniemi.

Meeri is driven by a desire to shed light on uncomfortable truths about social injustice around the world. Since 2011, millions of Syrians have fled a country ravaged by civil war, and severe human rights violations. Many women had to leave their husbands and take their children across the borders to neighbouring countries. Iftikar Hsaiian, 27, came from Syria to Lebanon in April 2013. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 41mm, 1/500 sec, f/4 and ISO 800. © Meeri Koutaniemi

Throughout her studies, Meeri continued to travel and photograph global human rights issues. "Every year, I took a period free to do my own projects," she says. "It was always part of my process." This included documenting house demolitions in the West Bank. "The scale of human rights violations in Palestine is huge and serious, and influenced my own will to dedicate more time in the future to human rights and social issues as a photojournalist. The stories really affected me personally, and strengthened my activism."

The traditional path of rising through the ranks, from small newspaper to national news, was never Meeri's dream. She wanted the freedom to pursue her passions, and when she graduated she became a full-time freelancer. Having upgraded to the Canon EOS 5D on its release, Meeri's burgeoning career almost ended before it started, when she had all her equipment stolen on a train in Serbia. Determined not to give up, she borrowed money from her parents to replace her gear and make a go of photojournalism.

Focusing on women's rights, Meeri soon started to work in conflict zones. "I have never been a war photographer, but I've always been interested in the echo of violence in conflict," she says. This has taken her to the border of Syria, documenting the first significant numbers of refugees crossing into Lebanon and Jordan, and to photograph the peace processes in Somalia and Colombia.

A black and white portrait of a woman hanging clothes on a washing line, which are billowing in the breeze, taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Canon Ambassador Meeri Koutaniemi.

Elizabeth Nkere escaped female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage when she was just nine years old. Later, Elizabeth became an activist and started a safe house for girls who have escaped their homes because of female circumcision. Meeri has documented FGM in 12 countries so far. "The practice has been done differently and for different reasons in every country," she says. "It has been really eye-opening. We cannot generalise social, historical or political issues for women." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 24mm, 1/3200 sec, f/9 and ISO 400. © Meeri Koutaniemi

A turning point came when she got a commission to cover female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya, spending a week in a safe house. "The theme really got under my skin," says Meeri. "I spent the days thinking about what else I could do." She decided to dedicate herself to the subject, creating a visual encyclopaedia around FGM. Over the past 11 years she has regularly returned to this long-term personal project, which now encompasses 12 countries and has become the core of her work.

Having exhibited her images in 50 shows around the world, Meeri has also won recognition at home and abroad, including being awarded Photographer of the Year in Finland in 2012 and 2013, and winning the Visa D'or Daily Press Award at Visa pour l'Image the following year. She was selected to participate in the Joop Swart and VII Masterclasses in the same year, has directed documentaries for Finnish TV, and is a writer and journalist for an arts programme.

Looking to the future, she wants to finalise her work on FGM, and then continue exploring human stories, getting as personal as possible.

What is so rewarding about working on a long-term project, such as FGM?

"Working on long-term projects enables a much wider understanding of a topic. It also enables you to continue to document a person, community or phenomenon and witness how things are evolving. I have been focusing on local activists in my FGM project, so I'm interested in how things are pushed forward by local change-makers. Many have become friends, who I have visited many times. That's the most rewarding thing – seeing how activism is changing people one by one."

When do you choose to shoot in black and white versus colour?

"I fell in love with black and white, and learned to think in black and white when it comes to light, so, for me, black and white is much more natural. On the other hand, I live in a colour world. So when digital cameras came in, I also became fascinated with colour. For each project, the style selects itself. I make the decision by observing which style best suits the story. The first FGM work I did in Kenya, where I was documenting the actual ritual, I decided to do in black and white, so it would be easier to approach and also more peaceful. I didn't want to shock with colour."

What motivates you in your work and in covering the subjects that you choose?

"Understanding humanity, sharing stories of change and bringing awareness to as many countries and cultures as possible. Many human rights and violation issues are issues for everyone. If you are a man, for example, you should still care about and take action on women's rights. These things cannot be achieved alone, it requires an international movement in which people do their part. The same applies to the climate crisis. When will we collectively start defending the rights of nature as we defend human rights? That is our next common goal."

Where do you think the line between journalism and activism lies?

"I have always been an activist. I was an activist before I was a photographer, so it's a big part of my personality, motivation and inspiration. But professionally, you have to put aside your own beliefs, aims and remedies when you are working on a topic. It's extremely important to be responsible in photojournalism, and show many aspects, angles and perspectives. In activism, you have to get to the core of the issue. It's not only being for or against something, but trying to understand it. My activism is not to change minds in a predetermined direction, but to provoke discussion. I don't see a conflict between journalism and activism because they are aiming for the same purpose. Sharing stories and information forces us to ask critical questions and identify bridges through which we can create more acceptance, solidarity and understanding."

One thing I know

Meeri Koutaniemi

"As storytellers, we can move people through personal stories. I prefer to get as personal as possible – I'm not afraid of showing the scale of a human or their emotions. It's also our responsibility as journalists to bring out natural contradictions in our stories, to try not to summarise people into black and white characters, but to really show the greyscale and nuances – the small details that make all the difference."

Facebook: Meeri Koutaniemi Photographer

Instagram: @meerikoutaniemi

Twitter/X: @meerikouta


Meeri Koutaniemi's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Canon Ambassador Meeri Koutaniemi's kitbag containing a Canon camera, lenses and accessories.


Canon EOS R5

A full-frame mirrorless camera with a 45MP sensor and unparalleled image stabilisation. "It's practical for photojournalism," says Meeri. "The picture quality is amazing."


Canon RF 24-70mm F2.8L IS USM

A fast RF zoom lens with the popular 24-70 mm focal length, plus a fast and constant f/2.8 maximum aperture. "My normal lens that I can do a wide range of things with," says Meeri. "From wide-angle to zoom, and portraits at 50mm, 60mm or 70mm."

Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM

The ultimate 50mm lens, delivering a new kind of optical performance in full-frame photography. "This lens is for special occasions, mainly with portraits," says Meeri.

Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM

Fast and bright with superb optical precision, and a f/1.2 aperture, Meeri's other portrait option is her 85mm lens, which is superb in low light and offers incredible sharpness.


LED lights

"I have my own studio in Helsinki, so I use flashes there, but I don't carry them around when I'm travelling," says Meeri. "When I travel, I use a few LED lights."


To create a studio setting on the move, Meeri packs a piece of fabric which can be hung as a backdrop for portraits whenever she needs it.

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