Snaking along 98 km of land, the Curonian Spit is a narrow peninsula that stretches from the Sambian Peninsula in the Kaliningrad Oblast of Russia to the southwestern tip of Lithuania. The thin sand-dune spit is bordered by two shores: the Curonian Lagoon of the mainland and the Baltic sea. A special and unique landscape made up of coastal and woodland areas, the Spit has been shaped by the community of people living in it. Dependent on the balanced relationship between nature and man, the delicate site is vulnerable to the threat of the wind and the tide, and the bond between inhabitants and the rich and varied landscape around them is powerful.
Drawn to the near-magical energy of the Spit, photographer Tadas Kazakevičius repeatedly visited the area at the edge of his native Lithuania, observing the land and its people. The outcome of his voyages, Between Two Shores, pays homage to the romance between people and space in this distinct strip of land, with a particular focus on the artist and fisherman community of the area who feel the land in a special way.
In this interview for LensCulture, Kazakevičius recounts his first impressions of the Curonian Spit, a fortuitous discovery he came across whilst researching the history of the area and how to create a photographic approach that evokes a spectrum of different sensations.
LensCulture: Can you describe your first steps into photography? How did it start?
Tadas Kazakevičius: As I say, there was not much romance involved. I do not have a strong memories of red lights in bathroom or the smell of fixer in air. I was not a big fan of photography until I was 23 years old and then it started. Back in 2008, I tried my friends DSLR and I was so mesmerised about the depth of field. It was magic. But it was mostly shooting snaps when I got my own one.
Still, I believe that I fully fell in love with photography and especially documentary part of it when I got my first medium format camera. An old Kiev 88. It became magical, and I instantly wanted to tell people stories—I felt that medium format and film itself is dedicated to it. Developing film, experimenting, enlarging; it was a very quick learning curve afterwards.
LC: Most of your projects revolve around people and their stories. What draws you to the lives of others? Why is photography your chosen tool to explore these interests?
TK: I genuinely love people and interacting with them, even though I feel I am a bit of an introvert in my real life. Photography in this sense becomes a wonderful tool. I think that photography is my best spoken language; it is a great reason to easily approach people I want to talk with and later tell their stories.
I like to find out how other people live, I love to find out about their values and their habits. It’s a wonderful thing to share this. And I truly love visual part of this work. I love portraiture!
LC: A lot of your practice focuses on the people and places of your native Lithuania. What inspires you about working at home? Are the communities you photograph close to you or have your projects led you to discover unknown parts of your familiar surroundings?
TK: When I was 23 until I was 28 years old I lived in London. It was there that I fell in love with photography. That’s where I started to meet people and tell their stories. But time passed, and I really started to fall in love with my country and its people while coming back for vacations, and traveling to the countryside and so on. I came back because of many reasons, but one of them was that I saw so many stories to tell here. And I still have had no second thoughts.
Between Two Shores is created in the Curonian Spit which is almost the furthest part of Lithuania from where I live. But then, it’s a small country so it’s just takes around 350km to get there. No big deal if you have a wonderful theme to work with. I often go to places I do not really know, so there’s almost always a great joy of finding.
LC: Tell me about the beginnings of the project. Did it grow out of any previous interests or was it a move in a new direction for you?
TK: It was a very different direction for me. This series started while I was on a residency in the Curonian Spit arranged by a Lithuanian press photography organisation. The main idea came from there. Even though it is very routine for me to make work about people, I was neither used to the visual approach I used here nor the way I constructed the series—and it felt great. I went there maybe six or seven times during different times of the year, working always very, very early just after the sun sets. So yes, it was a new path for me. Much more poetic.
LC: The very specific geography of the Curonian Spit seems to be the basis of Between Two Shores. Can you tell me a bit more about what drew you there, and how the place shaped the way you approached the project?
TK: It is a place that is so diverse and so touched by history. It went through so many different hands throughout history that it almost feels distinct to the whole of Lithuania. I felt totally different there. It almost has some sort of northern feel to it. Maybe this is why I was so mesmerized by the connection between the land and the people that inhabited this place in so many different ways.
LC: What were your first impressions? How did you go about discovering the area?
TK: The place I did that series in is quite famous for summer vacations. It’s pretty closed; you can only get there by ferry so it feels a bit like island. I had visited it quite often but never in autumn or spring, or winter. And this is exactly why it touched me so much. My residency took place in spring and I was suddenly touched by this place in different light. Serene, slow, calm, empty and so very poetic.
LC: The creative relationship between people and the space that surrounds them is at the heart of the series. Can you tell me about the people you shot? How did you meet them?
TK: There were some gatherings during the residency where local communities of nearby villages gathered so sometimes I just approached some people that I felt I would like to know better. Then these people knew other interesting people like local fishermen and artists. There aren’t too many people there so almost everyone knows everyone. Some of them I met just travelling there.
LC: In your images, portraits of people with their eyes closed alternate with quiet landscapes. Tell me about how you approached these portrait sessions.
TK: Somehow I felt straight away that the portraiture here was not about seeing but about smelling, feeling, hearing and that eyes would just distract from it. I always asked people to try to feel the place. Almost all of the places were chosen by the people; places that they have a special relationship to. It was wonderful to see how they ‘smile’ with their feelings being there.
LC: There is an overarching sense of tranquility and timelessness in your images. Can you tell me a bit more about the atmosphere of the Curonian Spit that you were trying to evoke?
TK: It is a truly magical place. Everyone that goes there feels it. Maybe that it’s the ferry transfer that disconnects you from the real word. This is a place of a slower world, especially during these unpopular times of year when it becomes an island of serenity.
LC: Mixed into the images that you have taken are archival pictures and poems about the area. Can you tell me a bit more about these and the role they play for you?
TK: It was a wonderful part of the work. On one of my visits I felt the need to explore some historical aspects of the land so I was very eager to get into local museum archives. I could not believe my luck— while visiting the Juodkrante Liudvikas Reza museum I suddenly found Elizabeth Pietsch’s notebook from the German years. I wanted to have some archival imagery there. I could not believe it: I had found a ‘love letter’ to the Curonian Spit from a young girl that lived there almost 80 years ago. And she expresses the same love in words as the people that I photograph have in their hearts now. It was a great and very personal find that enriched the series.
Some of the other imagery stands in for things that I talk about but have already disappeared. Like a mystical linden tree that became a kind of confession tree for young local women a long, long time ago.
LC: Between Two Shores wavers between documentary and a kind of folklore narrative. Can you tell me about the interplay between these two elements?
TK: I think that’s a great insight. In some sense, folklore motives structures the whole set of imagery. It’s a mixture between the story and a visual poem. The whole series is almost an illustration to that wonderful poem of dear Elisabeth.