Many recognize you from works of photojournalism and photographs taken in places of political unrest, but how would you identify yourself?
I have always worked as a photojournalist, and I am interested in it when it comes to photography – conveying stories through images. But now I have gotten a bit distant from typical photojournalism and cooperation with editorial offices, and prefer to refer to myself as simply a photographer. Perhaps I have learned enough about photojournalism, and now instead of chasing the news (the reporter’s work that I did for about ten years), I prefer to slow down and get to know those stories on a deeper level, more thoroughly.
What do you think is the mission of a photographer?
Simply put, it is to tell stories with images. We tell the rest of the population about important events, stories or news. When everyone can’t observe this one spot on the globe, photographers go there and convey through their images what is happening in that particular place. It is a mission that requires a lot of responsibility.
We are used to being surrounded by photographs every day. I think we would quickly understand the significance of photojournalists if we lost them, if we stopped seeing photographs next to articles or learning about actions through captured images. Then we would feel their absence.
I am talking about documentary photography here. There is another kind of photography – the conceptual, artistic kind that slows us down, urges us to think, allows new worlds to be opened or encourages new ways of understanding, and it does not necessarily provide pleasure.
Perhaps you could tell us about the topic of your new work which you chose for the 12th Kaunas Biennial. Why did you become interested in level crossings?
When I read the topic and title of the 12th Kaunas Biennial – and I read it while on the train, going to Vilnius from Visaginas – I immediately thought about focusing on the work at the level crossings. For many years I have been guessing about people who work there. Railways have always seemed so romantic to me. I used them a lot in my work when I traveled around Ukraine or Russia. That second, while passing by a little house standing next to the crossing, you see cats, pets, garden flowers. There is also a man standing there and showing some kind of flag. They seem like two loads: the dynamic, which you represent, rushing somewhere, on a moving train and the static – a very slow, calm job and that monumental booth. So, I offered the project about level crossings for the Biennial and was accepted as one of the participating artists.
First of all, it is very interesting to visit these people who work at the crossings and about whom we know nothing about and can only guess. Also, I want to capture it as one of the endangered professions because most likely, in the next few years, they will cease to exist in Lithuania. Currently, there are not that many of them too – around 16.
The guarded level crossings are planned to be destroyed. They will only remain in documentary shots, in history. The temporality accompanying us all the time seems so fragile. What is your relationship with it?
I am interested in the clash between temporality and permanence. During my work in Ukraine, I often thought about temporality. I would meet people in damp, moldy bomb shelters who would tell me about the business, careers and friends they once had. And suddenly it all disappeared. I remember one man saying, ‘I worked hard every day for 30 years, waiting for the time when I would finally have a lot of money and my children would be self-reliant – then we would really start living.’ And when that time came, the war started and everything disappeared. It’s a moral about the appreciation of everyday life, of being here and now. On the other hand, temporality can help us understand eternal and unchanging things. Although everything changes, some things remain the same.
Today, everyone is in a rush. We have all kinds of goals and social norms forced upon us – it’s difficult to maintain inner peace. How do you manage to achieve inner peace and strength? And then to maintain it and radiate it?
I think I was affected by the topics I worked on. Sensitive social themes, the documenting of conflicts, travels in Russia where I encountered people with serious trials and tribulations. All that changed my perception of the problem. I started accepting things more naturally, stressing less. I try to be in nature, to spend more time outside the city. I had moved to Visaginas for exactly that reason – to be surrounded by nature. But I am not calm, I frequent parties, dance until morning and enjoy everyday adventures.
I travel a lot lately. When I visited the first level crossing booths, I looked at the person working there with fascination. How exotic, to sit at the table, listen to the radio, look at the horizon and spend twelve hours in such a state. Of course, it can drive a person mad but, I guess, at this point, it seems like quite an interesting job. And at these level crossings and in the people who work there, I can see and sense special tranquility; they talk calmly, their pauses between sentences and words are longer than usual. Often while talking they look into the horizon because they have to. I believe that such loneliness is in quite a deficit today.
Although this project is still under development, would you agree to reveal how is it going? How do you imagine the final result?
I started to visit the guarded level crossings and actually will visit one today. As this is an endangered profession, I chose to photograph it with a vanishing technique – the photo slide. Many people remember lantern slides from childhood when we used to view them with our parents after returning from a trip. Very recently, Kodak has brought back the old slide and I photograph with it. My aim is to take pictures of the people who work there and their environment as well as to record conversations with them. The final presentation of the project will take place at the Kaunas Railway Station, in a wagon.
What are the challenges of working on this specific project? How does it differ from working with political and social issues?
The biggest challenge is to gain trust and for people to let you in. Social photography is not popular in Lithuania. I see how sometimes people get confused because they don’t understand why somebody wants to photograph them. ‘How can I, working at the level crossing near Vilkaviškis, be of any interest to anyone? Someone comes once, twice, photographs me, asks questions.’ It makes me smile when people cannot believe that someone is interested in them and rather see it as a conspiracy.
The theme of the 12th Kaunas Biennial AFTER LEAVING | BEFORE ARRIVING is a journey. What does traveling mean to you personally? After all, it is an integral part of your life.
I would answer in a banal way: it is perhaps the state that changes us the most, when you travel from point a to b, meet different people, different opinions, cultures, religion, customs. It is enriching. I’m glad I can’t see the final stop in my life yet. The journey through this small photographic experience of mine has turned from this huge romantic thing into a sort of everyday life that I have adapted to. I remember the times when I would be so excited as the day was approaching, I couldn’t sleep. It is a pity, somewhat, that now it has turned into a sort of a routine.
What inspires you to create?
Curiosity. Curiosity to learn, open the door and see what’s behind it, to look through a keyhole. Also, talking to people that we previously knew nothing about. These are the people who don’t go down in history. The story of one stranger is that exciting thing that inspires me. I photograph the people working in the level crossings and am inspired by curiosity.