Tika Mann seeing to her cows, she still wears the same blue mourning colours everyday since her husband died years ago. Mediadrumimages/Anne Helene Gjelstad/Dewi Lewis Publishing

By Rebecca Drew



INCREDIBLE portraits of the last matriarchal society in Europe, where older women are in charge of the land have been revealed in a new book.

Gritty images showed the elderly female residents of the Kihnu and Manija islands in the Baltic Sea as they went about their daily lives in their kitchens, bedrooms and farming the land.

In one image, an elderly woman tended to her cows, whilst another embraced the elements to work on the vegetable patch.

Lohu Ella, one of Kihnu’s most respected handicraft masters. Mediadrumimages/Anne Helene Gjelstad/Dewi Lewis Publishing

Another shot showed a woman sitting down in traditional dress and knitting on the edge of her bed.

One moving image captured the community spirit which spans the generations as a group of women gathered around an open coffin for a ceremony in the deceased person’s kitchen just three hours after she had passed away.

The eye-opening pictures were taken by Norwegian photographer Anne Helene Gjelstad and feature in her new book Big Heart, Strong Hands which is available on Amazon for RRP £38. It is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

A snow covered Kihnu cemetery. Mediadrumimages/Anne Helene Gjelstad/Dewi Lewis Publishing

Anne has spent 11 years photographing the lives of the older women on the Kihnu and Manija islands and hopes that her book acts as a record to help preserve the future of the islands’ unique culture.

“For eleven years, since 2008, I have worked on portraying the lives of the older women on the small Estonian islands of Kihnu and Manija in the Baltic Sea,” said Anne in the book’s introduction.

“Colourful, interesting and friendly – they represent a culture and a way of life that is changing despite the strong anchor of tradition.

The funeral of Koksi Leida that Anne photographed in 2008. Mediadrumimages/Anne Helene Gjelstad/Dewi Lewis Publishing

“These robust women are used to working hard and take care of almost everything. They bring up the children, make the clothes, plough the fields, drive the tractors and take care of the animals.

“The men spend much time away from home, fishing or working on the mainland or abroad.

“Life is often hard. This is normal here. Nobody asks questions. You do what you must. This is how you get a big heart and strong hands. When I understood that, my project had its title.”

Sauendi Mann in her home. Mediadrumimages/Anne Helene Gjelstad/Dewi Lewis Publishing

On the islands of Kinhu and Manija, men historically left the islands for months at a time to hunt for seals and to fish.

In their absence, women became the people who tended the farms, governed, and maintained traditions. It is thought that the islands are Europe’s last matriarchal society.

Published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, Anne Helene Gjelstad’s new book Big Heart, Strong Hands is available on Amazon for RRP £38.