In 2019, the UN named Finland the happiest place in the world, and Manuel Vazquez and journalist Ana Alfageme were sent by a Spanish magazine to find out why. Saunas are a big part of life there; the country has more than 2 million in residential and public settings. The pair agreed that they’d be good places to find locals to interview.
This photo was taken on a sub-zero November day, when only six hours of light can be expected. The pair had already tried out a swanky coastal sauna. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do it,” Vazquez laughs. “But it really does liberate the endorphins. It’s exhilarating.” Next, Vazquez wanted to seek out a more authentic, traditional version that used wood. He had heard of a particularly popular one in the Helsinki neighbourhood of Kallio. “In winter, the practice is to alternate between the sauna and a body of water, like a lake or the sea,” he says. “But because this sauna is in the city, patrons just go and sit on the icy street.”
Vazquez was drawn to the retro neon sign, the way the red light tinted the wet ground, and the myriad details. “They create a narrative, tell a story. The empty chairs next to the men seem to be inviting you to sit with them.
“I intended to shoot properly with my digital camera, but first I quickly took this on my Pixel 3, almost like a test shot. Then we went over to break the ice.”