News in English

2013.07.30 11:00

In his own words: A photographer speaks

DELFI|The Lithuania Tribune2013.07.30 11:00

Andrew Miksys is a US-born photographer of Lithuanian descent who divides his time between Seattle and Vilnius. His photography has been shown extensively at various international exhibitions, and has been published in renowned publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, Exquisite Corpse and Newsweek. More recently, however, a feature on his DISKO project was printed in British tabloid the Daily Mail and subsequently received negatively by the Lithuanian press. The Lithuania Tribune is proud to present the following interview in which Miksys discusses his DISKO project in his own words.  The interview was conducted by the Managing Editor of the Australian Office, Rachel Croucher. 

Andrew Miksys is a US-born photographer of Lithuanian descent who divides his time between Seattle and Vilnius. His photography has been shown extensively at various international exhibitions, and has been published in renowned publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, Exquisite Corpse and Newsweek. More recently, however, a feature on his DISKO project was printed in British tabloid the Daily Mail and subsequently received negatively by the Lithuanian press. The Lithuania Tribune is proud to present the following interview in which Miksys discusses his DISKO project in his own words.  The interview was conducted by the Managing Editor of the Australian Office, Rachel Croucher.

The Lithuania Tribune (TLT); You have been working on your DISKO photography project about village disco life in Lithuania for the better part of a decade. What first inspired you to dedicate so much of yourself to documenting this aspect of life in the country?

AM: The DISKO project started when I was in Svencionys and saw some teenagers entering a building with loud music playing inside.  I followed them and found a dark room with a disco ball and a Lenin head on the wall.  I wasn’t really sure where the project would lead but my instincts told me there was something interesting going on.  In general, it’s pretty amazing, almost magical, to drive through the rather empty rural Lithuanian landscape and find a small building somewhere in the dark with coloured lights coming out of the windows.  The spaces feel very organic and unique, moulded by the people of those communities.   I also like that the local disco is a place you go with some hope and expectation.  There’s a special energy.  Sometimes things work out, sometimes not.  But then there is always next weekend and the next disco.

TLT: You stated in an interview with LANDSCAPEStories that most of the discos you have documented are located in Soviet-era community centres. Are there any particular venues, which stand out in your memory?

AM: The Diskoteka Laguna in Pabrade was one of my favourite places to photograph.  The DJ there (DJ Playboy) welcomed me like an old friend, introduced me to all his friends and helped me photograph.  We’re still friends and a few years ago he moved to Vilnius and started working at a hospital across the street from my house.

Eišiškės is also amazing.  I did a lot of work there for my book, BAXT, about the Roma of Lithuania and ended up going to the discos there.  One of the discos used to be a synagogue.  Before WWII Eišiškės had a vibrant and important Jewish community.  Tragically almost the entire community that had lived there for 900 years was murdered in just two days.  There is a great permanent exhibition of photographs of pre-WWII Jewish Eišiškės at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.   I can’t say that this history directly influenced my DISKO project, but I did feel some weight and urgency to photograph in these places that have such fascinating histories, but that have been mostly forgotten.

TLT: Uproar ensued in Lithuania after the recent featuring of your DISKO project in British tabloid the Daily Mail. Given that the Daily Mail is largely perceived as possessing negative attitudes towards eastern Europeans, how do you personally feel about their portrayal of your project and all that you are hoping to achieve with it?

AM: I don’t read the Daily Mail and don’t know don’t know if they have an anti-immigrant policy or not.  They do weekly features on art photograph and I know and respect many of the photographers they’ve featured in the past.  This is why I agreed to be in the Daily Mail.  The text that appeared with my photographs was flawed.  They didn’t ask me any questions before the feature was published and they just took bits and pieces from various things they found online.  I wish this had been done better, but it didn’t really bother me.   My work has been in many magazines and blogs and you can’t control what people write.

If there is something specifically anti-immigrant in my feature you would have to point it out to me.  It’s my hunch that the Daily Mail journalist would even be confused if you told them you thought it was an anti-immigrant story.  I even liked the photographs they selected to go along with the story.  I think the main problem is that some Lithuanians and people involved in promoting Lithuania abroad just didn’t like what they saw in my photographs.  It didn’t jive with their vision of Lithuania as a prosperous EU member state. This seems to be a symptom of a small country worried about how it’s perceived by its bigger neighbours.  But, of course, this is a sign of a rather weak cultural environment when one small photography project is perceived as such a great threat to Lithuania’s national identity.

In reality, I got a lot of support from other parts of the art community in Lithuania that thought all this stuff was really silly.  The “controversy” was mostly fake and being stoked by Lietuvos Rytas.  They traffic in sensationalism not journalism.  I think you could make a pretty good argument that even after 20 plus years of independence Lithuania doesn’t have a free press.

TLT: The Lithuanian press responded mostly negatively to DISKO after the Daily Mail feature. You are alleged to have depicted Lithuania as merely bleak and grim, nothing more than a post-Soviet backwater. Lithuanian-based British entrepreneur Nigel Deoweneley even went so far as to publicly accuse your project of being designed to prevent Westerners from investing in Lithuania, and that your works were forgeries lifted from social media sites. Why do you believe such negative conclusions were reached, and how would you like to respond to them?

AM: I have a Lithuanian last name, but that’s about it.  I didn’t grow up in a Lithuanian community in the US or even speak the language before I came here.  So when I arrived I saw everything as equal.  Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Jews Gypsies were all the same to me.  I couldn’t even tell them apart.  I thought the first Gypsies I photographed were just some dark skinned Lithuanians.  No joke.

But Lithuanians still seem to have a problem finding empathy or sympathy with minority groups of any kind.  You see this in the tensions between Lithuania and Poland, the efforts to stop the LGBT Pride parade, the neo-Nazi marches on Lithuanian Independence Day, insensitivity to the Holocaust, the demonizing of Gypsies by politicians and journalists …. the list goes on and on. ­

Many of the places I photographed for DISKO were in towns and villages with diverse ethnic populations, Lithuanian, Polish and Russian.  I thought this was cool and something to celebrate.  But the press seemed to think not.  The British entrepreneur claimed that I took all the photographs in “some village at the state border with Belarus.”  This seemed to be a not so subtle suggestion that my photographs don’t represent “real” Lithuania and must have been taken in some grimy poor Russian-speaking region.  Personally I found the places and people I photographed quite beautiful and heroic just the way they were.  No need to renovate or change the cultural centers.  It is what it is.  Why does Lithuania have to look like Western Europe?  Boring.  These kinds of critiques are more about a desire by some to erase the entire Soviet past in Lithuania than anything to do with my photography.

TLT: Last of all, if you are successful in raising enough funds to publish the DISKO series as a book, do you have any plans for further projects in Lithuania?

AM: Right now I’m just focused on finishing my DISKO book. In general, I don’t like to talk about projects I haven’t finished.  It’s a long difficult process and you never know where you’ll end up.

  

0