In the world of Lithuanian photography, Rimaldas Vikšraitis is one of the top names—and one of the most mysterious. Although he won a coveted "Discovery Award" at the Rencontres d'Arles in 2009 (and had a book published accompanied with a warm introduction by Martin Parr), these accolades did not entrench Vikšraitis in the spotlight. Indeed, a few years on and he remains without a website, an email address or even a cellphone. In many ways, he is much the same person who first picked up a camera in 1971 and started snapping the daily, rural life around him...
I nterview by Laurynas Adomaitis
The first time I called Vikšraitis, he picked up the phone and sounded as if he were sobbing. I thought I heard sirens and wild animals in the background. But just a few minutes later, we had agreed to meet at his home, in a remote Lithuanian village, a few hours' drive from any city. His works have been both shocking and inspiring me for long time and I was eager to meet the man behind the madness.
The next day, I took my stand in front of a small brick house illuminated by dim lights. There was one bright beacon, that Vikšraitis had promised to put out, that made it possible for me to identify his abode. After leaving the car behind, I approached the door. His home was surrounded by uninviting wooden fences and intense dog barking. Finally, a small crooked figure emerged from the porch. It was Vikšraitis himself. He greeted me warmly and I entered his hideout: a place of exciting pictures and engaging conversation. We began with the basics.
LA: How did you first become interested in photography? Why not writing, painting or film-making?
RV: There was nothing else I could do. I've been taking pictures since 1971. Mostly out of boredom. Besides, I was not apt for anything else: my drawing is terrible and I'm not a creative writer. My father was also an amateur photographer.
After two years of shooting, I became better than everyone else around me and started publishing my pictures. The local photographers were impressed by how quickly I had advanced. I constructed a darkroom in my attic and bought a Smena at the village store [ Smena-8, a cheap Soviet focus camera]. In just three years, I had become a serious photographer. Since 1974, I have kept all of my negatives. During the winter, when it's hard to shoot, I try to revisit the old negatives and find something interesting that I've missed.
LA: You often take pictures of strange people in curious situations. What is your relationship with your subjects?
RV: Oh, I love them! [ This answer came right away, before I could finish my sentence] Love them too much. The place I'm living in right now is my 12th residence. My parents used to move a lot, and on my own, I've moved five times since Lithuanian Independence [in 1991]. Every time I move, I get acquainted with the people around me. But they don't necessarily know me. For example, I've spent four or five years in this village and even though my neighbors come to visit, they have no idea I'm a photographer or an artist.
LA: What do the people in your pictures think of your work?
RV: I guess you'd have to ask them. In my experience, some of them curse me, others are full of praise.
LA: How did your subjects change during the period you knew them? Did it have any effect on your work?
RV: My very first subjects were local people: my neighbors, some girls I liked. I went to photography school and took photos so that I could make a living. Of course, when I went back to visit some villages I once lived in—30 years later—everything had changed. The young people that I once knew had grown old. Some of the people adapted to these changes; most of them didn't. It's painful for me to think about it. Whole villages are disappearing.
I used to get invited to crazy parties, people wanted to be photographed. Now it's different, nobody needs the pictures. I get the feeling nobody needs anything nowadays. The photographer is the last person on the list.
LA: How do you view your own genre in photography? Do you consider it documentary, or is it closer to surrealism?
RV: It's either of them; it's a mixture. But the bigger part is documentary—perhaps, documentary overlaid with reality. I don't like staging pictures unless it's necessary for my idea.
LA: So it's important for you to preserve the documentary element in photography?
RV : Well, I'm just better at it. I tried to do some abstract shots at a workshop in Poland. Everyone kind of laughed at me and told me nobody needed those.
LA: Who inspires or influences you photographically?
RV: Nobody influences me right now—I am influencing people, I would say. When I was young, I used to analyze photos, watch documentaries. Now I understand that you can't re-stage or represent anything that you've seen. Photography is very situational, circumstantial. You have to act on what you have around you.
LA: But you've also mentioned that Fellini had an early influence on you? Can you say more?
RV: Yes, I like his phantasmagoria. He has very unconventional models. I watched him at an early age but it was hard to access his works. Under the Soviet regime, I had to obtain illegal video tapes if I wanted to see his films—it was the only way.
In general, my exposure to literature and films was very limited, especially in the villages. I used to walk 15km every week to get the (only) Lithuanian photography journal. And even after all that walking, I couldn't just buy it—I needed connections to get it. But in the end, it was worth it. After all, I was learning to shoot naked girls.
LA: Do you feel your photography is, somehow, essentially Lithuanian?
RV: In the past, maybe, but since I've had more experiences (for example, visiting Georgia, China, Spain), I understand that I can take really good pictures in other places. In Georgia, I must have taken 50 photos I'd like to print. I've only developed 15 so far—I'll get to the rest when I have the money.
In Georgia, I found that the people were honest and inviting. 15 years ago, I felt very comfortable shooting in the Lithuanian villages. But these days, the locals will curse you if you try approaching them. It can actually be quite dangerous—you might get whacked if you photograph the wrong guy.
LA: So who are you taking your pictures for? Just yourself?
RV: Every artist does it for his or herself. I am the same way. Recognition is the very last thing on my mind. If I like something, I will do anything for it. I'll give anything for a photograph I like.
At the end of the conversation we ended up looking at Vikšraitis's unpublished work. He was telling background stories and sharing sentiments. There are few artists in photography that can keep you on the edge of your seat for hours: "What's next? What insane, degenerate, gnarly, laughable perspective can this small man throw at me next?" I was driven on by a child-like curiosity to hear more. The pictures become alive in his hands.
—Interview by Laurynas Adomaitis