Man kann durchaus mit Berechtigung sagen, dass die Fotografien von Andrew Miksys anders sind. Die Personen, die der US-Amerikaner in seinen Serien zeigt, scheinen von Raum, Zeit und Kamera völlig unberührt. Offensichtlich wurden seine Portraits nicht dazu geschaffen, den Beobachter einzubinden – dazu sind sie auffallend wenig integrativ. Vielleicht wirken Miksys’ Bilder gerade deshalb eher wie der Spiegel einer dokumentarisch festgehaltenen Wirklichkeit.
Seine Serien sind insbesondere eindrucksvolles Symbol einer funktionierenden Interaktion zwischen Fotograf und Subjekt. Davon zeugen vor allem die Bilder zu „BAXT“, einem Projekt, das sehr nüchtern und zurückhaltend alltägliche Momente aus der sehr eigenen Welt der Roma in Litauen dokumentiert. Seither musste Miksys sich vielen Fragen stellen. Erklärungsbedarf bestand vor allem, weil er doch eigentlich ein externer Zuwanderer war; einer, der nicht dazugehörte zu dieser kulturellen Minderheit. Man fragte sich, wie er es geschafft hatte, in diesem eiszeitlich geformten Land im Nirgendwo eine solch vertraute Bindung zu jenen fremden Menschen aufzubauen.
Tatsächlich verband er mit Litauen und den dort lebenden Roma anfangs nichts außer einigen Verwandten und Vorfahren seines Vaters. Das, was ihn im Endeffekt dazu bewog, in das ferne Osteuropa zu reisen, war lediglich der Wunsch seiner Mutter, seine eigene Geschichte nachzuverfolgen. Miksys erzählt, dass er weder Sprache noch Konventionen kannte, als er sich der ersten Konfrontation mit der Kultur der Roma stellte. Offensichtlich aber war er jemand, der es nahezu wortlos schaffte, Zugang zu einer ethnischen Gruppe zu finden, deren Identität nie wirklich im Zentrum öffentlichen Interesses stand. Wie das passieren konnte, weiß der Künstler selbst nicht so recht. Antwortansätze hat er, vollständige Erklärungen jedoch nicht.
Was am Ende unabhängig von sämtlichen Erklärungsversuchen bleibt, sind Zeugnisse einer ungeachteten Kultur, die in ihrer Aussage fast vielsagender sind als deren Entstehungsgeschichte. Trotzdem verdient auch die Geschichte es, erzählt zu werden. Und das kann natürlich niemand besser, als derjenige, der sie selbst erlebt hat.
Andrew, you decided to join your father who returned to his native country Lithuania after more than 50 years. Was that a spontaneous decision? For which reason did you leave Seattle?
I never gave much thought to visiting Lithuania before I came here for the first time in 1995. It was actually my mother, who is Italian-American and not Lithuanian at all, who planned the trip. For my mom, family is everything, and she thought it was important for us to meet our Lithuanian relatives. And I only agreed to go because I could also visit Prague and Budapest (places that I imagined where much cooler than Lithuania) on the way here. In the end, though, having a family connection and relatives here made a big difference. Somehow it made things “real” and accessible in a place that was very different from where I grew up.
You now pretty much split your time between Lithuania and Seattle. What made you come back to Lithuania after you had been there for the first time?
The 1990s were very interesting in Eastern Europe and Lithuania. The fall of the Soviet Union offered the hope of creating something new and, for some idealists, maybe even something different from what already existed in the west. Some of those hopes were naïve, of course, but a lot of the experimentation was interesting. At times it seemed even more alive and interesting than much of Western Europe and the USA. I felt like it was a great chance witness history and rapid cultural change.
You took several portraits of gypsy families who are commonly said to have a suspicious attitude towards outsiders. Can you also tell that by your own experience? How did you manage to overcome the cultural boundaries and gain entry to their most intimate environment?
Ignorance is bliss. When I first came to Lithuania I had very little understanding of Roma people and their history in Europe. Basically zero. I’d never seen or met a Roma person in my life. I also didn’t speak Lithuanian or Russian. And definitely not Romani! One day I was walking around with my camera in Vilnius and came across a Roma family. They looked interesting in their colorful clothes and dark hair. I approached them with my camera. I had no way of communicating with them. I used hand gestures, pointed at my camera, they nodded and agreed to be photographed. It was only later after I showed the photographs to friends that I discovered they were Romani. I was surprised by my friend’s shock that I had survived the encounter and returned with all my belongings and camera. I was unfazed by their concerns and decided to visit the Kirtimai, the oldest Romani neighborhood in Vilnius. This time things didn’t go so well and I had a roll of exposed film taken from me by a man who was very angry that I would try to photograph without being able to explain who I was or what I was doing. As I learned later, most journalist who photographed in the neighborhood only showed the worst parts of it. I went back later with a social worker who knew many of the families. This was a big help and I had a chance to photograph and come back with my photographs to show people what I want I had done. The people I photographed were incredibly generous and accepting of me. I can’t tell you how many times people invited me into their homes for coffee and cakes. Too many to count.
Those portraits seem to prove that gypsies are completely uninfluenced by any Western habits and conventions. Was that also your impression while you were visiting them in their homes as you say?
I wouldn’t say they are completely un-westernized or in any way primitive. While they attempt to hold onto their traditions more than most, I think my photographs actually show that the Roma aren’t so different in some respects. They are very religious and in Lithuania they are Catholic or Russian Orthodox just like the rest of the population. Weddings, funerals, and Christmas are basically the same in Roma and Lithuanian families. Like a lot of my projects, I am drawn to people that are often a bit out of step with mainstream culture and have built an organic culture that has its own lexicon and codes: the Roma have closed themselves off from European communities for centuries, have been culturally beaten and yet retain some sense of pride and tradition.
Do you think it’ll become harder for them to preserve common aims and convictions considering the all-encompassing influences of globalization?
In general, I think the modern world is a very hostile place for traditional cultures. I’d say survival forces the Roma to be modern and traditional at the same time.
Were there any sociocritical intentions involved in your “BAXT” work?
My personal goal was to get as close as I could to the people I photographed and an understanding of their lives. But, of course, this kind of intimacy becomes political when you are dealing with people that are often dehumanized by the media and governments. It’s no so easy to deport people or destroy their homes when they become familiar and less alien. But I think a photographer has to be careful not to make some political goal dominate at the expense of his or her artistic or subjective freedom. Political correctness will kill a project. Better to indulge in you own interests. If it’s honest the political message will be obvious without any extra effort. I never set out to create a detailed ethnographic project or anything like that. I just let me curiosity and intuition lead me around looking for a subjective point of view. Hopefully, there are some elements in my work that inspire people to be more sympathetic to Roma culture and learn more about their unique history.
You usually work extremely long on your different projects, it seems as if you give them a lot time to develop and to take form. The “Rome people living in Lithuania” project took seven years. How do you notice when a project is finished?
I’m not very good at determining when a project is finished. I probably work of them longer than is necessary. Perhaps it’s just difficult for me to let go. I don’t know. But the BAXT project was great because after a while it took on a life of its own. While I was photographing people, I would sometimes give them copies of their photographs. Later I gave them copies of the book. Then as I continued to visit them I was surprised to find that sometimes my photographs were hanging in their homes altered in ways I could never have imagined. Some of my subjects even tore out their photographs from my book and hung them on their living room or bedroom walls.
What do your portraits represent in the end?
I’m not sure anyone can say definitively what a portrait represents. Of course there are elements of reality in almost every photograph. You can see approximately what a person looks like, the color of their hair, etc. However, photographs are also an extremely edited version of world mostly determined by the photographer and what he or she decides to include in the frame. And very rarely do people appear the way they imagine themselves when they see a portrait of themselves. In the end, portraits exist somewhere between a portrait and self-portrait.
Would you agree with the claim that getting to know people is necessary to take a real good portrait in the end?
No, not necessarily. The unpredictability of photography is kinda cruel. Sometimes you meet a person for only a minute and their portrait turns out great. And the freshness of seeing something or someone for the first time can also help. Once you get to know someone you might stop noticing the things that makes them unique.
Would you say it takes less empathetic capabilities to take pictures of landscapes than portraits?
No, I think all things are equal. Whether you are photographing people or landscapes you still need to be in tune with your subject.
What do you think is the most important thing concerning this interaction between the photographer and the subject then?
There aren’t really any rules. The best thing a photographer can do is to find a subject (or people) that genuinely interests them. My own curiosity seems to help me figure out how to interact with the people I’m photographing.
How important is experience to you and your work as an artist? Do you think that both life and work experience are important?
I’m a big believer in gaining knowledge through life experience. Sometimes this happens while your photographing, but sometimes not. I think going to art school or photography school is great, but it’s usually not enough. My own ideas for projects usually come from sources outside of art and photography.
Okay, the last one might be the most difficult, probably: What do you think makes your own artistic work unique? Because I really do think it is, I think it’s just pretty hard to define. Any ideas on that?
…Hopefully, my answers to the other questions will help you with this. Ha! I couldn’t really put my work in the context of all the other photography out there.
Das Besondere an Miksys’ Portraitserien ist vielleicht, dass sie in ihrer eigentlichen Neutralität gleichzeitig politisches Statement sind. Die Bilder benötigen keinen Vermittler, der Bildsubjekt noch zusätzlich interpretiert. Miksys’ Leistung liegt darin, dass er sich in seiner Subjektivität fast vollkommen zurücknimmt. Man kann sich kaum vorstellen, dass die fotografierten Personen sich in irgendeiner Form anders verhalten hätten, hätte es keine Kamera gegeben.
Nach Betrachtung der Bilder hat man das Gefühl, man weiß, wie diese Menschen wirklich sind. Man ist erstmalig Zuschauer einer Welt, die einem trotzdem nicht fremd ist. Ehrlicher und zugleich kritischer kann Portraitfotografie kaum sein.
All images © Andrew Miksys