Stuart Abelson Research Grant Proposal

Although the United States has embedded the idea of happiness into its national character, all humans share the collective hopes and trappings of the pursuit of happiness. The progression of my photographic practice led me to question — What is the “happiest” nation in the world? Since 2012, the World Happiness Report has conducted an annual survey that attempts to quantify subjective well-being and ranks nations by the life satisfaction of its citizens. The report is produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, draws data from Gallup International surveys, and utilizes over 30 years of happiness research to support their claims. The study asked citizens to “value their lives today on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as a 0 and the best possible life as a 10.” In 2018, the report concluded that Finland is the happiest country in the world.

The artistic vision for the proposed project, Finding Happiness, is to travel to Finland and explore the theme of subjective well-being in a thriving social landscape. The questions that create the conceptual framework for this proposal are -- Why are the citizens of Finland so happy? What does a photograph of happiness look like? My approach to solving this interesting challenge for the medium of photography is to make deeply personal engagements with people and the spaces that influence their well-being. Interviewing members of the community will reveal the elements of their life that make them happy. Although happiness sounds abstract, it could be manifested in a number of tangible ways, such as family, places of vocation, the inside of a sauna, celebrating nature, or even access to medicine. Allowing people to define their own personal narrative will break down the barrier of being an outsider and give agency to the person being photographed. In addition to photography, personal writings and found documents will be collected to support the project.

Building a significant body of work over the course of six weeks requires a sound strategy. Approaching random strangers on the street could be interesting and useful, but this project needs a better entry point into the community. I’ve been introduced to a personal friend of Margaret Denny who is a Finland native and practicing photographer working on an art-based doctoral thesis. Collaborating with a colleague in Finland will allow me to schedule an initial round of at least 8- 10 portrait sessions and interviews with mutual friends. Having the sessions scheduled before I arrive in Helsinki will provide a real structure to the beginning of the project. I would encourage each person I photograph to act as a liaison, introducing me to more people. In gratitude to their time, I will mail the participants an archival print when I return.

Many people in Finland use the word “Sisu” to describe their cultural identity. The word can’t be translated into a single English world and even the Finnish admit that the idiom represents a number of traits. “Sisu” comes from a Finnish root word that implies “inner” or “inside.” The concept is described as stoic determination, the prevalence of purpose, and willpower over adversity — a gritty, gusty, white-knuckle approach to life. The purpose of Finding Happiness is to observe the socially co-opted signifiers of subjective well-being in Finland to gain a deeper understanding of the community involved. Learning from this community could reshape cultural values that constitute the pursuit of happiness and how to achieve it. This conversation is meaningful to a global audience as well as the challenging social landscape of America today. This project could benefit the public by igniting a dialogue about the human right of the pursuit of happiness through an engaged connection between the subject, audience, and community.

Completing the series Finding Happiness will help answer questions at the core of my photographic practice which requires more than an American perspective. All humans are looking for happiness and I could spend my entire life’s practice searching for evidence of this in various communities. This project will help me fulfill a calling to create a socially engaged fine art photography series relevant to a global audience. I believe my proposal embodies the spirit of the Stuart Abelson Graduate Research Fellowship by pushing my current photographic practice forward, engaging in meaningful research, completing a site-specific project abroad, and commenting upon a timely social dialogue.