Talking to Tadas Kazakevičius (in case you are having a hard time spelling that, he’s just as well known as Ted Kozak), a young Lithuanian portraitist, was precisely one of those times when you think you have a million questions to ask. But then you meet him at a restaurant for a glass of cold bread kvass and a pizza only to realize you’ve suddenly forgotten all of them. What do you ask a person who’s work you admire so much, you think he’s one of the future classics of his generation? Where do you start? “Don’t be nervous”, he told me. “Why should you be?” True. Why should I be? But then, whilst talking about his street portraits, he answered his own question: “Even after all the portraits that I took of strangers, each time I attempt to approach a person on the street, I need to bring myself to do it. It’s scary.”
“After swimming”, winner of the 2014 Lithuanian Press Photography “Golden Frame” award
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. There’s so much to talk about – film, digital, people and their stories… And now I answer my question. Where do we start? Well, none of us is born with a camera, and so it is always interesting to learn how it all began for the talented among us.
How it All Started
– Do you mind if I record this? – I asked Tadas whilst he was glancing over his menu.
– Not at all. I do that, too. Not when I take portraits – I remember those. But when I do photographic stories, definitely.
As I was sitting there trying to remember all those things I wanted to ask him, I realized I knew one definite fact about Ted as a person that made me feel a little bit more at ease. His start as a photographer was much like that of many other photographers. Without ever formally studying photography, he got into it purely out of technical curiosity. “I started photographing around five years ago. I’m still having trouble putting together all the things that led to me becoming a photographer. I studied architecture in Lithuania, so that doesn’t have too much to do with photography directly. However, a few years ago while I was working in advertising – it’s what I do now, too – the company that I worked at was sharing premises with a local commercial photography studio, Cyclopes.”
Naturally, when one gets a chance to glance at how a professional photography studio – arguably the most successful one in Lithuania – operates, how photographers work, how they interact with their models and clients, and what sort of gear they use and the way they use it, there’s quite a lot one can get excited about. “At the time, I did not understand a thing they were doing. Not a thing. Observing their work is one, we can all do that. Understanding what they are doing is an entirely different matter. But it did look very interesting.” Now, have a guess. What do you think Ted got most interested in after seeing those professionals work? Out of all the things I mentioned – the creative part, the models, the light, the clothing… Yes. Gear. Cameras, lenses, megapixels and the like. “The technological aspect of it pushed me into buying my first camera. I then started photographing just about everything, but it’s not the artistic, creative part that interested me the most, I was more drawn in by the lenses, apertures, focal lengths and all that sort of thing. Only a while later did my view change.”
In fact, around a year and a half later. And that, too, I found to be extremely normal. It’s not unusual for beginners to get caught up in the technical aspects of photography. Some even fail to ever leave that stage and start focusing on improving other, possibly more important aspects of the art and craft. I know it took me a whole lot longer than a year to stop reading about ISO performance and megapixels all day long… “It’s not that I didn’t experiment. I did, but I did not think those experiments through.” At this point of our conversation and many times later, I remember thinking how much I liked Ted’s honesty. Despite being full of ideas now, having such strong photographs to speak for him and working on who knows how many projects, he bravely admitted having made a tone of rather dreadful images. “It’s quite painful for me to look at them now – what was I thinking? But at the same time I understand I took them all those years ago because I was just getting started.” In other words, it is a normal path for any aspiring beginner. And despite the fact he’s not proud of his early work, which includes quite a few sunsets and bokeh-ish flower shots, he does not hide them. “If anyone were to look at my portfolio on a local online photography community website, they’d find the oldest photographs that I took as well as my recent work. I kept them deliberately. If it’s part of the journey, why hide it?”
Eventually, Ted’s priorities shifted. He dropped the megapixel and lens mania, and moved on to portraits and stories, something that he’s probably best at. But here’s a sort of a paradox. The reason why Ted’s priorities shifted is the same basic reason why he started photographing in the first place – a camera. Only this time not a Nikon D60. Something quite different.
Tools of Choice
– My view of photography changed after I tried my first film camera, which, incidentally, was an old Zenit I bought at a flea market. I think it’s quite strange to come across a Zenit in UK where I had a job at the time. I didn’t expect to find such a camera there, though there are plenty of them in Lithuania. In any case, it was very inexpensive and my curiosity led me into buying it.
Several times before I’ve talked about how I believe films changes the way you photograph. It doesn’t work that way for everyone, of course, but perhaps there is some truth in it. After having purchased his first film SLR, Ted went on to buy a roll of film at a pharmacy, loaded it and… “Basically, the journey started with that first roll of film. I loved the images that I got out of it. It was so different from what I got with digital, and the process itself was different.”
Tadas got so mesmerized by film photography, he started acquiring other, different cameras, until about a year and a half later he got into medium format. “It was also a soviet camera, an old Kiev 88.” I smiled to myself. I know that camera very well, it’s a copy of the even more gorgeous Hasselblad, only that much more quirky. You want someone to fall in love with film, hand him one of those. Even one look through that waist level finder ought to do it. “There a few people who don’t fall in love with film after trying it properly, I think. It’s just too interesting, too curious. I still love that camera, it’s one of my favorites and that will hardly ever change. Only…” He paused for a second. “It doesn’t quite work as well as it should. Which is a pity.”
Like I said, quirky. Still, Tadas mentioned he started acquiring other cameras after he tried Zenit for the first time, and then he also mentioned the Kiev 88 was one of his favorites. I think you can sense where this is going: “I had a bunch of cameras. I’ve also sold a bunch. Let me think… I have a Bronica SQ-A; a couple of Mamiyaflex C2’s with different lenses mounted on them, but more or less identical in every other way; then there’s another Kiev that has an issue with its focusing screen, so it’s not that easy to use; of course, I have a digital camera, too – it’s a 5D Mark II. What else? Oh, I also have an Olympus OM-10. No, wait… Two of them. Perhaps I should give the second one to my brother.” At this point, I was already chuckling. And guess what… “Nikon FE, too, which is a lovely thing. One I find to be particularly gorgeous is the Zorki I, a copy of an old Leica. There’s also a Polaroid SX 70, very pleasant to look at as well, perhaps even the most beautiful to me. Hold on… Yes. A Mamiya RZ67 Pro II – a pinnacle of precision, however heavy. That said, I find the 6×7 format something than needs getting used to. A square, 6×6 format is something you can just remove from your mind whilst shooting, but with a rectangle – even such a subtle one – you need to really weigh the composition and decide if it’s better to frame horizontally or vertically. For most of my work I prefer the simplicity of a square format. Besides, you only get 10 frames out of a roll of film with a 6×7 camera.”
It’s not like Ted doesn’t use the Mamiya at all – he takes it out for a spin every now and then, but prefers not to carry it around too much. Weight and size is, of course, a factor – the Mamiya RZ and RB cameras were designed for studio use more than anything else, but it’s not the only reason. “It’s just too beautiful, too well maintained to carry around wherever I go. As a carry-around I prefer my Bronica. I don’t always bring it, especially during the winter for two reasons. First of all, the light just isn’t right for me that time of year. Secondly, last winter I somehow managed to fall three times and every single one of those times land on the camera.” One can understand how such a lovely thing can be a little too dear to act as a cushion. And perhaps a little too hard. “That said, I do take it with me whenever I plan to go for a walk in the city and it’s with me now. I have a lovely case for it, too.”
Not all of the cameras get used, naturally. Some of them are just there to be admired as objects for their drop-dead gorgeous looks. Not something most modern DSLRs can brag about, is it? “Whilst I could shoot with the Zorki – why not? – for me it’s not there to be used, it is one of those things that you just keep to admire. Not to mention that it’s not what you’d call expensive, thus I’ve never even though about selling it.” The Mamiya RZ67 Pro II is a different matter, perhaps. “On one hand I believe that unless you have financial issues, it’s best not to sell your gear. On the other hand there is a saying, if you don’t use a particular piece of equipment for a year, why do you own it? I think about it sometimes, but in the end an analog film camera is one of those things that doesn’t lose its value. And I don’t mean that in the financial sense. They seem to become more and more desirable as time passes for what they are and how they are, how they are to use, not for what they are worth in numbers. Almost like a virtue of sorts.”
With kvass glasses barely touched our conversation took a slight turn. “Film photography itself, I think, is becoming more and more desirable. Some might think it’s obsolete, but I don’t. It’s merely a tool, a mean of expression. Much like some artists prefer painting whilst others have a soft spot for graphics, digital and analog photography is also merely two different paths. Neither one is in any way better and as similar as the result can be, the process, the tool itself is a matter of taste, of preference. For casual photography I almost always choose the SQ-A. If I was planning to take a posed portrait that required a lot of precision, I’d most likely use the RZ67. For photographic stories, reportage that often have a lot of unexpectedness about them, I will more often than not choose digital. It’s just better for it, safer in the sense of being quicker, easier to capture movement and emotions with, that much more flexible in ever changing light and surroundings. It lets me immortalize moments I would simply miss with film which otherwise I use quite a bit more often.”
We talked a little about Kodak, about the decline in film use a decade ago and what seems like a sort of a renaissance happening now. “I heard somewhere, can’t say for sure where since I don’t really follow such news deliberately, that film sales have jumped by around 30% recently. Even if certain companies close, go bankrupt, if certain films cease to exist, it will never, ever go away completely. There will always be a niche and thus someone to fill it.” As we talked, I remember thinking about The Impossible Project started by a group of people in love with Polaroid.
“I can’t imagine there not being someone who’d want to fill such niches. The prices may go up, yes – they already have somewhat. At the same time that means there will be a gap for cheaper film. There are factories in China that already produce such films, Lucky and Shanghai GP3 are just two examples.” I haven’t seen many praise the 135 format Lucky, but I do have a few 120 format rolls of the latter in my fridge myself and it’s actually rather good. “I can’t really think of anything bad to say about it and I use it often. More than that, I’ve taken plenty of important photographs with that film, only never in sunny weather. As with every film, it has its strengths and weaknesses that you need to learn and direct sunlight is not one of its strengths.”
Let’s Talk Portraits
– These are not my words, I can’t remember who said them, but I agree with them completely: to me, photography is the person.
Because of certain historic and cultural events that affected Lithuanian nation throughout the 20th century, our photography pioneers have always focused the most on a person – a very specific, concrete individual, who, at the same time, represented thousands and hundreds of thousands of other individuals such as him- or herself. Our photography classics and the founders of what has become knows as the Lithuanian school of photography – Antanas Sutkus, Romualdas Rakauskas and others – have always focused on a social-documentary photography with a very strong psychological take on portraiture. After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, photography, in a way, regained its freedom. For some artists of the new generation such a humane take on the art of photography established by our classics , and the dominance of social-psychological documentary photography, has become alien and a cause for resistance and change itself. The new wave of photographers split and chose not to follow Lithuanian school of photography. The popularity of documentary photography has dropped dramatically.
Ted Kozak, however, is one of those few who admires our classics more than anything and follows somewhat in their footsteps. “I guess I am always curious about the story and that is why I, first and foremost, notice the person. I didn’t actually start with portraits. I think… I think I started pretty much the same way everyone does – photographing everything you come across. That includes kitties, flowers, sunsets. Landscapes is one of those genres that I would like to really learn, but somehow they don’t touch or excite me as much as people do. People, I’ve always found them interesting.”
“It’s difficult to define that specific moment when I switched to photographing people. Perhaps there is no such moment – I’ve always liked photographing people around me, my friends and family. We all do that. At some point I took a few portraits of elderly out in the street and noticed there was a sort of a pattern there, something I could follow and grow into a project, work on it systematically, purposefully.”
“I’ve had my ups and downs. There have been times when I came back with not a single image to show. There have also been times when I forced myself to go out and look for that elusive portrait.” Eventually, he would find it. “There are certain locations where there’s always something to be noticed – a supermarket might not be the right place unless, of course, you have a specific project that requires that environment. But a bazaar or a railway station is the sort of spot where all kinds of people happen to be. Bottom line is, it’s good practice to get yourself to all sorts of places, you never know where you might come across someone who’s story you’ll find worth telling.”
I was very curious to know whether there is a difference, whether the grass really is greener somewhere else. “I have to admit now that there is a difference. It lies in the person himself, the photographer. I can honestly say that, after coming back to Lithuania, it was as easy to find interesting people here as it was in the United Kingdom, as easy to talk to a stranger. However, the longer I stayed here, the harder it became. And it was no different when I started in a foreign country and lived there for a bit. It gets harder not because the people you come up to change – they don’t change. You change. With time, you adapt to your new environment and notice it less, you get used to it, things that would have been interesting a few months ago – that are interesting – don’t seem that way anymore. I guess it’s a natural thing to happen.”
Does he actually mean to tell me one can meet such colorfully-dressed elderly men with flower bouquets off to a date in Vilnius, too? “Oh yes, certainly. It’s just that once you come back home after a long time away, you are that much more excited to find yourself in this environment. It becomes new and fresh, and you are that much more observant and attentive to it. You notice the subtle things.”
As I listened to Ted, I suddenly realized he made it sound easy. Is it? “No. It’s never, ever easy to just walk up to someone and start a conversation. They are different, you know? Everyone is different, so each time is like the first time. Perhaps you could get used to it… for a day and after the first few times. It does get easier if you do it again and again and again. But at some point you’ll have to go home and stop meeting people. Which means that, if you try it the next day or a week later, it’s as difficult as it’s ever been.”
So there’s no trick, no secret how to do it and not get nervous. “There have been times when I’d be so nervous I’d just follow that person around trying to bring myself to walk up to him. I’d imagine things I could say, I’d walk in circles around him or her changing my mind. Some of these times, I could not bring myself to do it, I’d miss the opportunity by being so nervous and they’d just walk away.”
Naturally, it’s something you regret later, but some things are even more unpleasant. “When I see a scene that really resonates with me, something that I really want to capture, I know I’ll dare to walk up to that person and ask. But it is very tough to hear them decline the offer, that’s when I regret about not being able to take that photograph the most.” To me, Ted seems to be a very easy-going, charismatic person, but apparently these sort of situations happen rather often. “That, again, is a very natural thing, not everyone wants to be photographed. I’d go as far as say that not every photograph needs to be taken, other moments will come. So eventually I just deal with it and move on.”
– I remember the first portrait that I took of a stranger, the one that served as a start for the series. Back when I lived in UK, I took my wife to this small city by the sea, I think it’s called Bangor. There was a bridge leading into the sea, but you had to pay to be allowed on it. There was a man sitting at the cash desk. I saw him, grabbed my digital camera and asked him if he’d agree to step out so that I could take his portrait. That is the first time I thought that perhaps there could be a continuity to this portrait. Why not approach a person on the street, talk to him, get to know him a little bit and ask if I could take his portrait? I also remember asking my wife some time ago whilst in doubt – I asked her, who’d want to know about these people? Who’d be interested? She used to joke about it a little, about me thinking these portraits and these stories would not be interesting. As it turned out, a lot of people found them to be just that.
The first portrait that started the series
“The Unknown” is a portrait series Ted started back in 2009. It also happens to be the reason why I kept a close eye on Ted’s work for the last four years or so, it’s how I found him. In the series, the author captures portraits of strangers he met out on the streets and other public places. You will notice Ted’s familiar calm and static composition, beautiful light and a very simple, non-dramatic take on a person’s look and expression. At first glance, these portraits are very straightforward, but that is where, I think, lies their beauty.
As with Lithuanian classics Ted admires so much, it’s not the event itself that matters – it’s almost as if there is no event. If anything, it’s hard to imagine what happened before or after the image was taken. What matters is the person we’re seeing, nothing else, and as soon as you stop and spend even a couple of seconds looking at the photograph absorbing the way the people are dressed, their posture, their features, you start to look deeper, start to see an individuality, a life behind the portrait. One single image at a time, one single person to get to know.
In my opinion, this holds true for most of Ted’s portraits. But there are two aspects that make “The Unknown” different and stand out as a series. First – the subjects themselves, they are all mostly elderly men. “Even when I take a portrait of a younger man or woman and add a story to it, I would not want to mix that portrait up with “The Unknown” series. To me, elderly people come form a completely different world, they are just too unique. And I like that sort continuity in a photographic series, sticking to a specific subject, to specific rules rather than just including any portrait with an interesting story to go alongside it. It takes a lot of sensible self-criticism to be able to sort through your work and choose work systematically. Throwing everything into one single pile is the easy way to do it, I think.” He then chuckled a little: “Perhaps it’s a slightly German view on how to work on a project, I hear they like that sort of orderliness.”
But there’s also something else that makes “The Unknown” stand out from most of his other portraits. “I think a lot of photographers do this – come up to people on the street, talk to them, get to know them a little bit, take their portraits.” What might not be as common is taking the time to write something about the person you meet, quote him, tell a story not just with the image, but with words as well. “In no way do I mean to say I invented this sort of thing, oh no, it’s not exactly unheard of or original in any way. Even in newspapers, there’s always a sentence that goes with an image. Perhaps that is where I caught the idea.” At this point I also remembered the huge effect a project called “Humans of New York” made all around the world. “It came very naturally – that first man that I took a portrait of, he moved to Bangor from London in search for a quieter life. I found that interesting and different from what most people strive to do, so I wrote his story to go with the portrait. At first, I was very comprehensive with what I wrote, but as time went on I notice I got interested in only a very short story, just a couple of facts, a couple of sentences to compliment the photograph.”
“I’ve met a lot of photographers who are strongly against adding text to an image, they believe a photograph should be strong enough to speak on its own and with that I agree. Perhaps there is a risk in writing something and thus making the photograph look weaker on its own, as if it needs those words to become powerful, but I don’t believe that, I don’t think words necessarily devalue a piece of art. Merely change it.” Sometimes a little additional context can enhance it, help one get to know the person photographed, spur the viewer’s imagination a little bit. “I remember this portrait I took of Juozas in Vilnius. Had I not talked to him as much as I did, he’d just be someone who makes wooden spoons and sells them. But because I talked to him, I now know about his daughter, his apple-trees and where those spoons come from, how they are made. I shared that story and now I’m not the only one who knows it.” Personally, I’ve always found the text bit very interesting and involving. Like a surprise treat – after having a chance to admire the work itself, I then have a chance to read something very interesting about it.
Taking the portrait and writing a story is often not the end. It’s also a very interesting experience for the photographer and the person being photographed even after the fact. “Whenever possible, I try to give them their portraits enlarged on paper. To some of them, I send the photograph by mail. Others I meet and hand them their portrait in person. It’s a fun thing to do, and it’s fun for them.”
“Not many people want to listen to the elderly. They need a chance to tell their story, someone who’d listen, and I want to listen, to take their portrait. So we just click. My acquaintance with a man named Shmuel actually grew into something bigger than a single portrait – I made a photographic story about him.”
My Little Muse
– I was walking home after work, reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” and saw this little girl on the street. You can image the feeling – reading about someone, and then meeting her on a street. I met Anne Frank. To me, that girl looked exactly how I imagined her. It was absolutely bewildering.
Photographing children in United Kingdom is a very tricky thing to do. The girl was with her mother at the time, they were waiting for a bus home at a bus stop. “I did not know how the mother would react to a stranger coming up to her to ask whether he could take a portrait of her and her daughter. More than that, there was a police station right next to the bus stop. Such a position towards photographing children was new to me and, I have to admit, I really was nervous.”
Eventually he did walk up to the young mother and ask if he could take their picture. “We then got to talking and thought that it’d be fun to meet again, make a few more portraits. And so we did, three or four times. Naturally, we became friends in no time, we still keep in touch.”
“There aren’t all that many photographs, but some of them are very important to me. I see different things in them, relive different memories. I am glad I risked it.”
Latitude 55 and Photographic Stories
– It’s a place me and a friend of mine, Darius Chmieliauskas, started for photographic stories. A website, yes, but also a sort of an archive for anyone who does documentary in Lithuania. It’s there to preserve the things that are soon to disappear in our ever modernizing society. We help the authors with their stories, curate them a little, give them a place to showcase their work.
Latitude 55 (which, by the way, stands for Lithuania’s geographic latitude) is one of those websites – however young it may still be – where each and every story gets a significant, deserved amount of attention and does not get lost in a sea of other work. Perhaps that’s a side effect of showcasing your photographic series in a very specialized environment meant for documentary photography, photographic stories and articles. “Printing 25 photographs and then framing them, finding a gallery, providing at least a little bit of catering for the exhibition – it’s all very expensive. Latitude 55 gives aspiring documentary photographers a place to show their projects among enthusiasts such as themselves.”
What I find most interesting about this project is the diversity of stories and a very sensitive position from the authors. “Children of Silenai” is perhaps one of my personal favorites (you can find this story with notes in English on Ted’s website), but then there’s also Karolis Kavolelis’ series about fishermen poachers and their struggle to provide for their families. There’s no judging – how you see the story is merely your choice.
Children of Buchenwald. Shmuel’s Story
– Buchenwald was one of the worst concentration camps established before the World War II. I think most people who were taken there would die there, it was not a camp one came back from. Not what I’d call a pleasant place.
Shmuel was one of those people who were taken into the camp, but he didn’t spend all his life there. “He was extremely lucky to get out, if, under those circumstances, you can call anything luck anymore. In 1945 the British government agreed to give refuge to 1000 children under the age 16 found in the camp.”
Finding and giving refuge to a thousand children was not such a simple thing to do – there weren’t all that many children left alive since they were not as useful for work. In the end, 760 were brought to Britain and Shmuel was one of them. “He was treated, got better and lived there ever since. He’s over 80 years old now.”
That’s quite a life, especially considering the shape he was in after the concentration camp. “His lungs had nearly disintegrated.”
“If I remember right, he was one of those few people I first took a portrait of and then walked up for a chat. I met him at a railway station, our stops were very near one another. After I took his portrait and we got on a train, he ended up telling me his story and our friendship began.”
“I’d go visit him every Sunday, we’d talk for a couple of hours, he’d show me around his studio, show me lots of photographs and just talk. It was quite something. I will never, ever forget that man.”
(Click here to see “Children of Buchenwald” and read about Shmuel Dresner)
Hardening the Steel
– I have this theory that I always tell photographers when asked how to come up with a really brilliant project. And it’s quite simple – before you fly off to Iraq in search for a great story, take a look around your backyard.
As we were sitting there for over an hour now, Ted told me how he felt sad that a lot of people search for something big and meaningful in distant countries, somewhere “exotic” and far away. “Of course I understand that the excitement, attentiveness that I talked about earlier plays a big part here. When you find yourself in a new place, you take better notice of the things around you. But I think one can learn to analyze his surroundings and find a story worth telling somewhere right around a corner.”
With “Hardening the Steel”, that’s pretty much how it happened. Ted went out looking for a gym somewhere close to his home, a place that would be within easy reach. At the time he already knew he’d want to photograph a story about it, he just didn’t know what he’d find. And what he found was really rather special.
The boxing gym, called “All Stars”, was opened back in the 80’s by Isola Akay. At the time the goal of the young immigrant, who had just moved to London, was to give his son, Tee Jay, a place to practice boxing. It was still a big problem in those years for black people due to racism.
Even though Mr. Akay’s son passed away some time ago, it’s admirable how the goal hasn’t really changed – “All Stars” club is still a place for young people – any young people – to find family, friends and a goal in life. A a shelter of sorts to keep them away from streets and crime, teach them discipline, help them choose the right path. The doors of the club are always open to everyone.
Ted told me how someone called the story a “reportage” and chuckled: “I have to admit, I felt a little offended, even if for just a short while – you don’t work on a reportage for half a year. What’s interesting is the amount of paperwork involved. I had to acquire a bunch of permissions before I could start working on the story, British government has very strict laws about photographing underage children.”
“After I got all the permissions sorted, I started looking for what to tell. That’s the thing – I did not know what I’d find there, did not know specifically what I’d show. I had to look for a story. I’m not certain how well I succeeded, I feel like there something missing, a story line that’s not finished. Be as it may, in the end it was all about the club and the people in there.”
Mr. Akay is a very important and well known person. A few years ago, he was really struggling financially and one of his clients – lead singer of British rock band Razorlight – organized concert fundraiser to help “All Stars” out. It proved to be a very good start. “The club has always spawned great interest. Mr. Akay carried the Olympic Torch during London Olympics and received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his work. He is loved by everyone who knows him and, even though he’s 79 now, you’ll find him training his children at the club every single day.”
“As amazing as that experience was, as incredible, heart-warming the story turned out to be, the really brilliant thing is it’s not all that unique in the world, there are more than a few places like that.”
Children of Silenai
– Silenai, yes?
– Ooh… Yes. – Ted chuckled and went quiet for a second.
For someone like me who’s lived here all his life, Lithuania didn’t seem all that special. We get tourists, sure, but I’ve always wondered a little – why? It’s just a country, there are no volcanoes here, no mountains, no kangaroos, tigers or elephants. And I figured it out. It was not that special to me simply because I was looking for all the wrong things. “In the UK, there’s not a big difference between the people in the countryside and the people in the city, in one way or another they are all interesting, but similar. When I came back to Lithuania, I notice the diversity between those who live in a bigger city, say – our capital Vilnius, and those who live somewhere more remote, in a village. They are completely, completely different.”
The first time I saw “Children of Silenai” (pronounced “Shi-le-nai”, by the way), a photographic series created by both Tadas and his friend Darius, I was both shocked and mesmerized. It almost seemed – no, wait, it absolutely seemed – as if those photographs were taken half a century ago. “Trust me, me and Darius were shocked, too. But that was also the goal, find a place that’s frozen in time, a place where people live the same way they did fifty years ago.”
“Now, finding it was not all that difficult. Back when I was studying architecture, I had an assignment there and spent two days in the village. I remember this little girl who approached me, curious about what I was doing, while I was measuring houses and drawing the plan of the settlement. Me and my lecturer noticed her and gave her a sweet, she ran off to show it to her grandmother. The old woman didn’t let her have it, though, because the girl was so young.”
“A while later I was talking to Darius about going on a trip in search for a secluded place to photograph the people living there and I remembered Silenai. That’s how we found this story to tell. Finding a way to approach those people took more effort, I think.”
“The first time we went there, it had just stopped raining. We were walking down the main street and there was not a single person to be seen. Everyone was in their houses, we thought. Then, out of nowhere, we came up to this terrace that was full of people. So what do you do? You go over there and start talking to them. That’s what we did.”
“The atmosphere itself was very friendly and trusting and although a lot of the grownups had quite a bit to drink, everyone was very respectful and polite. We were met with warmth.”
“At first the goal of our project was to photograph the villagers on a Sunday afternoon, after Church. Obviously, we were hoping to find some very interesting people among the crowd, too.” In no way did they expect to find this, though. “When you have eight or nine children in one place – people are very social among themselves in such villages – and realize that the parents are already on the cheery side of things, too, it gets easier. It’s easy with kids, you know how they are. The way they play and romp, they play every day like that. It just so happened that we were there to catch them do it.”
“We were in awe to find that place, absolutely stunned. It was so puzzling, so hard to believe, it felt as if we traveled back in time, it really did. And the kids, they played so hard, it was so fun to watch them… I think they broke someone’s fence at some point, it actually got scary. But good scary. Fun.” As we laughed, I felt my cheeks hurt. I realized I had been smiling for the last fifteen minutes at least.
“Went we got in the car to go and get some ice-cream, they’d run after us, laughing and screaming. When we’d come back, they’d have our names written on the road. They’d make grammar mistakes, of course, or write a completely different name and then correct it. After eating the ice-cream, they’d take us to show a horse in the field. There’s just so much action there, all the time. After a while, parents would come over, tell their kids to behave. So the kids relax a little bit, wait for their parents to leave and start it all over again.”
The next day, Ted and Darius came back to Silenai to take the series of portraits they were planning to do from the beginning. “That was the goal that brought us there, after all, but, certainly, it was not what we enjoyed the most. So we took those portraits, we sent them out to the people so they’d have a picture of themselves, and then we took portraits of the kids.” It’s interesting how things you don’t see coming, things you can never hope to find, end up being the best memories you are left with.
“My favorite photograph is the one with all of the kids standing together. You can never pose such a shot yourself, you can not force one boy to tense his arms, the other – to hunch. And they are all barefoot.” A sort of a metaphor for childhood and days of old, isn’t it?
(Click here to see “Children of Silenai”)
Loving the Old
Whilst going through Tadas’ work again and again I noticed something. In one way or another, he always seems to be drawn towards that which is old. “The Unknown” is a series of portraits of elderly men. “Children of Silenai” is a photographic story about children from a place frozen in time. There’s a sort of nostalgia to all of it.
“People changed. I was still very young in the 90’s, but I remember a little bit. You won’t find many people like that anymore, the interaction was different. First of all, we didn’t have mobile phones. A mobile phone is like a cocoon, it hides you, encloses you. Even though you think you are socializing with it, in truth you’re actually removing yourself from socializing. Have you noticed people dive into their phones on the street? They don’t notice anyone around them, no one notices them. Same thing on public transport, no one wants to talk. It’s so much easier to just look down and hide behind a mobile phone.”
Perhaps this is where such a humane take on photography comes from, from the need to get to know a person directly and not hidden by all the modern gadgetry. “At first glance, yes, we do seem to chat to people more than we used to. But we chat to those far away, we don’t talk to someone who’s right next to us.”
“I know I’m romanticizing the old days, I fully realize that. In twenty or fifty years, I might be interested in all of this, I might feel nostalgic about the mobile phones and people avoiding each other. I might find the overly-expressive clothing interesting, too. Perhaps then it will seem like a very photographic time for me, when I’m older myself and times will have changed again. But right now, it’s just chaotic. I prefer to search for the old.”
Talking to Tadas was one of those great experiences. It was also calming. Hearing his stories made me realize there are no secret shortcuts to becoming photography artists who’s work someone admires. Everyone struggles, but what’s more important – everyone struggles with the same basic things. At the end of our conversation I thought once again how I admired his honesty, he really did not hold anything back.
The last bit of conversation I remember was when Ted told me about what drives him. After all, he’s done so many projects with so much more yet to happen. “My wife, of course, always supported me, whatever I did, and I am extremely grateful for that. I also admire most of Lithuanian classics. But the reason I photograph is not a specific person. A specific person can help you make the next step, but the reason you start walking in the first place can find you anywhere. I don’t remember who said it, but before I came up with the “Children of Silenai” idea, I heard someone complain that you can’t find old things in Lithuania anymore, things worth preserving. That it’s changing too quickly. And I felt this strong urge to prove that person wrong.”
“Everyone should want their work to be noticed. Doing something just for the hell of doing it, I don’t think it’s the right motivation, at least not for me. If you are not planning to show your work to anyone at all, why do it? I guess doing it for yourself is one way to go, but I don’t think it’s ever fully satisfying. Of course, wanting to be noticed was far from the first reason why I did “Hardening the Steel”. The first and most important reason was my need to find a story as sensitive, as grabbing as it turned out to be in the end, for myself. I wanted to feel it, to be affected by it. But I also wanted to share it. When you get an approving nod from someone you admire, when your project receives even a little bit of attention, it acts as a huge encouragement to keep doing what you do, keep growing. One project turns into many.”
Click here to see some of Ted’s other work. All Images Copyright ©Tadas Kazakevičius, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.