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25 July, 2012  ▪  Спілкувався: Bohdan Butkevych

A Chronicle of Everyday Life

For almost half a century Antanas Sutkas, the founder of the now world-famous Lithuanian school of photography, photographed the unattractive daily life of common people in his country
Gallery: Works of Atanas Sutkus (photos: 22)

Clearly, party organs did not approve. As a result, most of his photographs are still in archives. Yet, even those published were enough to create a black and white portrait of an epoch in the life of a nation and bring him worldwide recognition. Antanas Sutkas talked to The Ukrainian Week during his recent visit to Kyiv.

Photography is definitely art. At the same time, it is hugely popular unlike most of what people today call art. What would the world be without it? At the very least, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to watch films because the Lumiѐre brothers wouldn’t have been there. And the modern age would not be the same without cinema. In fact, a good photograph is the cornerstone of this eternal dispute, not an answer to the question.

Documentary photography is the most interesting niche for a true artist today. It allows you to create so-called social documents, or authentic ingots of an epoch in the life of a given society. Actually, Ukraine has a strong school of street photography. Its representatives include Borys Mykhailov, Oleksandr Hliadelov, Oleksandr Chekmeniov, Oleksandr Liapin and many others. And it’s no wonder: you have to take photographs of the streets in Ukraine because that’s where different historical epochs and the past and reality, intersect. It is still possible to catch everything in Ukraine in one good shot.

It is often said that the accessibility of photo equipment is killing photography today. Indeed, we are living in an era of a consumer approach to photography. This is not surprising, as we generally live in a consumer society, with money being the key measure. As a result, photography and everything connected to it have become part to this general consumption process. But common people now have so many more opportunities. They can have photo rather than written diaries of their trips, which is more accurate and exciting than before.

Devaluation of the profession of photography is the real problem. I remember when I first encountered this sad trend. Once, a hotel owner I know, asked me to do an advertising poster and a photo-shoot of his staff. So, I made the poster and waited for the shoot. He never called back. I finally asked him, “When are we having the photo-shoot?” he said, “You know, we decided that it was better to buy two cheap digital cameras and take pics on our own rather than pay for your photo-shoot.”  

Photography should make humans more human. Once, during my lecture at a university, I asked students “What is art?” One gave a brilliant answer: “It’s making humans more human.” Photography is the same. It provokes feelings in people and affects them through these feelings. And through them, people can later change things for the better in their country and the world as a whole.

I have one rule: don’t mess with the shot. There are many photographers who not only shoot, but also try to affect what they shoot. One of my colleagues, for instance, used to shout out “Hey, give me an expression as if your mother died.” If you are unable to persuade people to be natural and express the feelings you need with your communication, appearance or sensitivity, just leave. Luckily, I’ve never had this sort of problem.

You have to love what you shoot. First and foremost, I mean that you should love people. Of course, you can make a career in hatred, particularly if you are a politician. But you have to be loving and decent if you are an artist. It’s very bad that so many people push these things to the background – both in art and in everyday life.

I have devoted my whole life to showing common people. A friend of mine who is a top official in the Lithuanian government once asked me if I wasn’t wary of shooting all these “lower-class people” and putting poorly dressed people on book-covers. To this day, I don’t know how to respond.

I never had the urge to shoot wars. I was a very sickly child, so spent a lot of time in hospitals during my childhood, where I saw pain, death and grief. I came up with the following rule at an early age: don’t take a photograph of someone you can’t help. For me, a war photograph is like speculation on someone else’s suffering. Even worse, it’s often deceit about someone else’s pain that preaches violence.

Some say that you can save a hundred people by photographing one execution by firing squad. But let’s talk about how photographers normally get to an execution. It’s very simple. A huge media resource sends them there with a significant amount of money. They come to some dictator, bribe him or his underlings, and they kill people on camera. I’ve known cases when an execution was ordered. I don’t want to be too critical of many of my colleagues. There are many who go to hot spots with honourable intentions to prevent and protect others from experiencing the same terrible thing. But most of the time, it doesn’t work.

Lithuania is a tiny country, therefore my generation is forced to be patriotic and take pictures of it. We simply had to save our national self-identity, so as not to be called “russkis”. That’s why, from the very start, I and all my colleagues of the Lithuanian school of photography, tried to reflect the life of our compatriots. It wasn’t even resistance, just the only form of creative existence that was possible at that time. At one time, I turned down many opportunities to leave my country. And I don’t feel sorry, because I would never take the photographs I did anywhere else in the world. Our entire generation had a sort of spiritual connection to the state. Every country has its own photo chroniclers who understand it better because they live in it and are part of it. I can go to a forgotten mountain hamlet one time, but a local photographer can be there a hundred times. Everyone should love and photograph the country he knows best.

The more totalitarian the society, the tighter the internal spring that forces an artist to create. And when you have freedom, albeit quasi-freedom, the motivation to photograph life is no less intense – it’s different. Look at how many truly great artists in the sphere of photography and any other art are being swallowed up by the advertising and manufacturing industry. Moreover, there is so much that claims to be art these days that it’s really hard to find true art. Worst of all, real life is not in fashion today, while the standards of TV soap operas are. Having said this, criticism of capitalism is getting in on the act as well. In other words, the spring is tightening again. Although not very popular here yet, this is the trend among Western artists. Even social photography will soon get its second wind.  


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