Who’s Afraid of Bang?

Teksti · words

Kuvat: Touko Hujanen

Heli ”Bang Bang” Mäenpää is a cult figure in the creative industry and is behind many well-known personal brands. We met her in Kallio and Paukkula, to find out where Bang Bang ends and Heli begins

A large black bra hangs off the back of a chair in the kitchen.

“A friend visiting from Dubai left this here”, she exclaims whilst laughing and throwing the bra onto a neighboring chair.

Heli “Bang Bang” Mäenpää opens the large windows of her apartment in Kallio, despite it not being too warm outside. A moment earlier, I noticed a pair of sandals in the corridor, one spelling out boss – the other lady. Her sweatshirt declares BLAH in capitals.

Mäenpää is often referred to without her surname, and instead as Heli Bang Bang. Bang Bang, also tattooed on her calves, is an essential part of her personal brand. It was born in the 1990’s when she ran photography shoots abroad.

“It was common for the crew to rest for a little too long after lunch. Hey, c’mon let’s shoot, bang bang, I used to say”, she recalls. We are surrounded by her small but impressive collection of art photography. Police dogs captured by photographer Jouko Lehtola guard our backs. Her own dogs, Bambi, Leika and Susha, rescued from Romania and Russia, are waiting for her at her summer house.

Above all, Bang Bang means photography to Mäenpää. Everything she does rotates around photography or is linked to it. Nowadays it means that she teaches personal branding to photographers in Aalto and curates the Bang Bang Gallery located in the Aalto Executive Education premises.

In front of the open window she offers me a Marlboro Red. I realize that I am a little nervous. So many words: Bang Bang, Boss Lady, Blah. What is behind them?

Mäenpää initially studied Social Sciences at the University of Tampere in the 1990’s. After a year of studying, she realized that she wanted to do something more creative. She left her program in order to be educated as a commercial drawer. In 1995 she gained an internship in the prestigious advertising company SEK & Grey and moved to Helsinki. At the end of her internship, her superior told her how sorry they were to let her go.

“I immediately said that I don’t have to go anywhere.”

She was supposed to spend a month in the company. A month turned into eleven years.

“I call it positive opportunism”, she says describing her moves in work life.

“I immediately said that I don’t have to go anywhere.”

Mäenpää finished her degree in Graphic Design whilst working at SEK & Grey after which, she started there as a proper employee. After working as an Art Director Assistant she was asked join the Nokia team. A couple years later she was charged with the visuals of the Fashion and Lifestyle categories of the brand.

At the end of the decade, Nokia was doing well, leaving Mäenpää with a lot of work on her hands. In her late 20s she spent four months out of the year abroad shooting campaigns. Between the trips she had to plan all of the campaigns.

“It was pretty rough coming up with high-quality ideas and executing them in shoots. As a young woman, there was pressure to prove to the office and to the customer that I could do it”, she says.

Even though photography means everything to Mäenpää in her work life, her one true love is elsewhere. Her second home Paukkula is located in the area of Uusimaa, near the city of Karjalohja. Six years ago, when Mäenpää was looking for a place to buy, a friend tipped her off on a property with a steep drop. When she bought it it was called Suvirinne. She renamed the place Paukkula (Bang-ville) after Mr. Paukku, a metal worker for Wärtsilä who had built the house in the 1960’s.

“We could take the photos there. And maybe heat up the sauna!” she says cheerfully.

A few weeks later I find myself sitting in a car with a photographer on our way to Paukkula. Naturally, the photographer, Touko Hujanen is an acquaintance of Mäenpää. Encouraged by her, in 2014 Touko executed the most successful crowdfunding campaign of the crowdfunding platform, mesenaatti. me reaching his goal in only six hours.

Curving into the yard, we find Mäenpää surrounded by a pack of dogs. This time she is wearing a cardigan with the words “Work Sucks”. Mäenpää greets us enthusiastically and says that her Marika is also there waiting for us on the deck of the main cottage.

“A beautiful, tall woman, you’ve probably met her in Corona”, describing her friend as we descend the slope. The legendary bar Corona downtown in Helsinki with its heat lamps is Mäenpää’s go-to-place in Helsinki.

The work sucks-cardigan is symbolic. During her time on the Nokia account, Mäenpää was on the brink of burning out. The company’s business operations expanded, spreading the artistic responsibility of the campaigns around the world.

Nevertheless, Mäenpää stayed at the agency for some time and worked with Finnish brands such as Hartwall, Valio and amusement park Särkänniemi. The latter she would rather not talk about.

“Planning campaigns for the dolphinarium is the only thing I regret in my career, looking back at it as a animal rights activist.”

She pauses and thinks.

“Or maybe that’s exactly why it should be mentioned here.”

However, Mäenpää is best known for what she did after her career in the advertising world. In 2006 she took a leap of faith with her colleague Anneli Maatraiva when they left SEK & Grey to start Viewmasters, a photography agency.

“By then we had been shooting with the best people in the industry in Paris, London and New York”, Mäenpää says.

The acquired contacts and a vision of the possibilities of commercial photography made Viewmasters a hot and respected agency. Maatraiva worked as the CEO of the company with Mäenpää as the Artistic Director in charge of building photographers’ portfolios and connecting them with interesting partners. Clothing designer Daniel Palillo and Nokia’s roadshow is an example of her work.

In 2012, together with Nokia, Viewmasters opened Gallery Laboratory on Erottaja, Helsinki. Viewmasters, Laboratory and Creative Hub, which helped other creatives, comprised an ensemble with, according to Mäenpää, a sexy and lively profile.

In the early 2010’s the industry started to change. As the economy plunged, so did the advertising budgets of companies. Photographers started selling their services straight to clients, meaning that middlemen like Viewmasters became obsolete. These new businesses offered a complete package of pictures, videos and social media campaigns for the same price Viewmasters charged for for one still photography session. Mäenpää, Maatraiva and Viewmasters struggled to keep their noses above water.

“At that point I thought, that if it wasn’t my own company, I’d quit. We did in a way a very non-Finnish move and decided that we wouldn’t eat up all of our savings, go bankrupt and take our photographers down.”

When Viewmasters closed its doors, it came as a surprise to everyone. After 2013 Mäenpää decided to change her way of working.

“It took me a year before I wanted to do anything”, she says.

Fed up of the stressful life of running an office, she wanted to be responsible for only herself and dependent on nothing but her laptop and wifi. Now she is free to spend all the time she wants in Paukkula.

So that’s why. Work sucks.

The cardigan flows off Mäenpää’s shoulders as she gives us a tour of her breathtaking kingdom. There is a steep drop from the terrace to Nummijärvi bay. In the winter the ice climbs past the terrace under the cottage.

Leika, Bambi and Shusa frisk around and bark when we walk around the property. Mäenpää shows us the guest house. On the walls there are dozens of cross-stitch works and a collection of porcelain dogs.

After spending the summer in Paukkula, Mäenpää will continue teaching in Aalto ARTS and Lahti Institute of Design. After Viewmasters had shut down and Mäenpää had gotten into the mood for working again, she asked Jyrki Parantainen, Professor of Photography at Aalto, if he was interested in allowing her to lecture about building a portfolio. Excited at her suggestion Parantainen brought her on board giving her a course worth six credits to teach. This year will be Mäenpää’s start fifth consecutive year teaching personal branding in Aalto.

“When I held my first course I realized how much these people needed me.”

Many artists and researchers are put off by personal branding because the term has a commercial and calculated tone to it. She admits that many people despise the term marketing, even though it is about finding and highlighting your best parts.

“When I held my first course I realized how much these people needed me.”

“Forget about marketing and self-promotion and think that it’s about informing others about your great work.”

However, one shouldn’t start to do personal branding at any time.

“If you don’t know what your strengths are, you should go forward with modesty.”

Mäenpää specializes in finding and cultivating the personal brands of talented photographers and people in the creative industry. She has, for example, cooperated closely with Susanna Majuri, Lauri Eriksson and Meeri Koutaniemi, all photographers. Restaurant mogul Richard McCormick has also turned to Mäenpää for consultation. Presented for the first time in Gallery Laboratory, Perttu Saksa’s exhibition Echo won the Fotofinlandia award. Especially young creatives are close to her heart. She only presents work from photograpgers in the early stages of their careers in her Gallery Bang Bang.

The night falls in Paukkula. Mäenpää appears around the corner wearing a sweatshirt that says awesome. She seems much more relaxed now than earlier today. Mäenpää is at her most natural state when directing a production or helping photographers. Previously, sitting on the deck waiting to be photographed her confidence disappeared and her non-stop blabbering began.

“Crab-Jussi lives there. I think he is coming this way. Should we wave to him?”

“This angle would make a great photo but you must know that already.”

Pointing at the surface of the lake and the sky she says: “This would be a reflector and this a diffusor.”

“This is horrible”, she finally admits.

Later, the photographer compares the nervous blabbering to dogs that bark to calm themselves down.

I see Mäenpää through a new lens, a different one than the last time in Kallio. There she gave me a brief introduction to the basics of personal branding. According to her, a personal brand consists of, in addition to your actual work – your appearance, name and posse.

Bang Bang and big curly hair. Corona, Paukkula and Marika.

Echoes from my circles give an impression of Mäenpää’s own personal brand being alive and well. When I talk about meeting her, people who have taken her courses or worked with her, say the following things about her:

“Heli knows everybody and everybody knows her.”

“I’m a little scared of her.”

“Whenever you see something cool happening in the city, it turns out that Heli has been a part of it.”

“Heli saves street dogs – and street photographers like myself.”

I can’t help but wonder how deliberate and calculated her brand is. An exile from the advertising world faces a burnout and changes into a more meaningful life. It makes a good story, doesn’t it?

Mäenpää couldn’t disagree more.

“Everything I do is based on emotion. It would be strange if I had planned my career systematically.”

A personal brand builds on an already existing base – it is therefore impossible to come up with a new identity for someone.

“Bang Bang and Paukkula come from me. They are not carefully thought through or constructed and that’s why they are authentic and real.”

We have been to the sauna and eaten. The adopted dogs circle around our feet. The shyest lies next to me. Mäenpää is content as she is looking for a permanent home for Susha.

Marika tells us that Paukkula is a life saver for her too. Marika and Heli’s friendship has lasted for almost twenty years and they talk about each other in a respectful manner. Paukkula is not just a haven for Marika but Mäenpää’s whole group of friends. When Mäenpää’s friend from Dubai was visiting Paukkula years ago, there was no proper window in the sauna. The beautiful lake scenery could only be seen from a small gap in the wall. Mäenpää had just finished renovating the rest of the house and decided that the sauna had to wait. Her friend said that if there is something that she would like to have in Finland, it would be a window for the sauna in Paukkula.

“She withdrew a grand from the ATM at the airport and asked me if she’d have a window of her own the following summer.”

We sit on the terrace in front of the very same window under the heat lamps. At the end of the night I find my way to the guest house with the porcelain dogs. The wall of the house has a sign reading “Corona Street”.

“I really don’t fucking miss Corona right now”, Mäenpää said, when we came to Paukkula.

However, here is something similar to her second home, Corona bar in Helsinki – the red heat lamps and Marika.

Alterations 28.9.2017 at 10.00: description of Mäenpää’s cooperation with photography artists