I recently had the opportunity to interview Andrew Miksys for APF Magazine and thought I would share the interview here as well. It was great to chat to Andrew about his work on DISKO as well as some of the newer things that he is currently working on as well.
Tristan: Hey Andrew, and thanks for agreeing to take some time out to introduce yourself and your work to us. Can you start off by setting the scene a little and give us a bit of background about yourself?
Andrew: I'm from Seattle. Jimmy Hendrix was born here. Bruce Lee is buried here. Elvis filmed a movie at the Space Needle called "It Happened at the World's Fair." Highly recommended. And Seattle is the largest city in US named after a Native American, Chief Seattle (Chief Sealth). I only bring these things up because Seattle is a little bit off the radar for most people. And I just like the Space Needle a lot. The photographer Edward Curtis was also from Seattle and I think his 20 year project about the North American Indians had some early influence on me. He took a very artistic and subjective approach to documentary photography. He tried to get as close as he could to his subject, but never lost himself or pretended to be a Native American. He had great respect for his subject and tried to capture their way of life before it was gone forever. Timothy Egan’s recent book on Curtis, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher is great. Also highly recommended. Later I studied photography with Jerome Liebling. He's not as well known as some of his contemporaries, but I think more people should see his work. He was a member of the New York Photo League. Paul Strand was the president. After school Jerry and I travelled together photographing in Mexico and Louisiana. This kind of experience with a mentor really helped me grow as a photographer.
For the last 15 years I've been living and working in Lithuania. I first went there with my father in 1995 to visit our relatives. My father and grandparents were born in Lithuania but left with a horse and buggy at the end of WWII with many other people from the Baltic States who were fleeing the advancing Soviet Army. They ended up in Germany and spent 5 years in a Displaced Persons Camp. Eventually they were able to immigrate to the US. From the end of WWII until 1991 Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Many people who stayed behind were killed or sent to Siberia. We didn't have much contact with our relatives who stayed and it wasn't until this trip in 1995 that we had a chance to meet them. The experience was very profound and I decided that I wanted to return and photograph in Lithuania. In 1998 I received a Fulbright grant and had a chance to photograph there for a year. In the years that followed I received other grants and began my DISKO project. I've been living in Vilnius, Lithuania for the last 15 years.
Tristan: I don’t think I had heard of Liebling before, but I would highly recommend people take a look at that link. Amazing work. Even though very different visually and from a very different era, I think there are some similarities to the 20 year American Indian project by Curtis and your DISKO project. Can you tell us a little about how you came to find out about the discos and what drew you to document them?
Andrew: That first year I lived in Lithuania, I didn't have any specific projects at first. I would just wonder around in different neighbourhoods and photograph. Then later, I got an old VW Gulf and was able to drive to some small towns and villages. In one village, I noticed some kids going into a building with a case of beer and decided to follow them in. I soon discovered that the building had a disco upstairs. The interior was amazing. Nothing much had changed since the Soviet period. There was a simple bar, tables, and a disco ball. On the wall there was even a Lenin head that nobody had bothered to take down. I returned there the next weekend and began the project. The bartender was super nice and helped me a lot. On the last night I photographed there she gave me the Lenin head as a present. The disco was closing for a renovation and she figured it would just be thrown out. I had taken many portraits of people posing in front of the Lenin and she knew I liked it. On the way home I noticed there were other discos in the villages I drove through. In the following weeks, months, and years I found more discos all over Lithuania. I was fascinated by these remote places out in the forest where kids came together to celebrate, dance, make out, and sometimes fight. Lithuania underwent huge changes in 90s and 2000s from a former Soviet republic to an EU member state. The young people were caught somewhere in the middle between the past and an unknown future. All around them in the discos were remnants of the past while they were seeking out something new.
Tristan: I have been looking through some of the other projects on your website as well. Both the Bingo series and the Plastic Flowers series I really like a lot. Are both of these also shot in Lithuania, or do you try and venture out from home as well?
Andrew: The bingo series is a project I shot in the USA in the late 90s early 2000s. My father had a bingo newspaper when I was growing up in Seattle. It might sound like a strange business, but it was pretty good for him and he published his newspaper for 25 years. All the bingo halls in Seattle and the surrounding area advertised in the paper. When I was 16 and got my drivers license I had the job of delivering the newspaper to all the bingo halls and convenience stores that carried the paper. That's how I got to know a lot of the regular bingo players and the managers. It was all non-profit bingo to support charities like veteran’s organizations, sports teams, and churches. So about 10 years later I was back in Seattle visiting my parents and decided to start the project. Then in the following years I took trips around the USA to photograph in other states. The Plastic Flowers series is from Lithuania. It's a combination of photographs from bus windows and some of the windows in the houses near where I was photographing.
Tristan: I know previously I asked you about having a new book project on the go at the moment. Is the Plastic Flowers series a teaser for this at all, and if not are you able to tell us a little about what’s in store for the next book?
Andrew: My next book project is called Tulips. This is from a series I shot in Belarus the last five years. Belarus is a land-locked country sandwiched between Russia and Europe with a fascinating history. It has strong ties and a shared history with Lithuania and Poland, but also with Russia. Many of the large battles in WWII were also fought there. And since the 1990s the political situation has been quite complicated as Belarus has been pulled both east and west. Some of this has been amplified by the current crisis in Ukraine. I'm not specifically interested in the politics, though. I find it more interesting as a place with a unique atmosphere and traditions that exists in a world of its own a bit out of step with the countries that surround it. I have created a website just for this project - www.thetulipsproject.com. It’s a “making of” website where I’ve been posting photographs, videos, and texts. You have to register to see the site. But this is just because I'm not quite ready to show the work and make it public on the Internet. Your readers are welcome to register and see what I’ve done so far.
Tristan: I get the impression that unlike some of the more available lighting images in the Plastic Flowers series, with some of the images in DISKO there was a bit of gear involved for lighting and things. Did you have to lug much stuff around with you to these places when you were shooting? And if so how was this accepted by the patrons?
Andrew: I usually work with two 6x7 cameras, a Pentax for close up stuff and a Mamiya 7 for everything else. For lighting I use a battery powered strobe on a stand, usually with an umbrella. It's a lot to carry around and maybe not the most efficient gear to use in a disco, but I that's the kind of lighting I like and I made it work. Mostly people were fairly cool with having me in the disco. I wasn't really shooting in the middle of the disco and would ask people to come over to the side along a wall or in another room to make their portrait.
Tristan: I think that with any documentary style project like DISKO, as well as Tulips by the sounds of things, one of the hardest things is to build the trust of your subjects. Is this something that you struggled with and can you tell us a little about how you managed this?
Andrew: Gaining access to photograph is always a challenge and there is never an easy formula to use. Every situation is different. And photography is a very intrusive activity. You're inserting yourself into other peoples' lives with a big camera and a flash. Sometimes it's helpful to bring along some examples of your work. Or after photographing once come back and give people the photographs you're taken of them. This tends to open up more possibilities. It also helps to be persistent when you find a subject your really want to photograph. Keep talking to people and explain your project. Many people will say no. But if you keep at it you'll find enough yeses to complete your project.
Tristan: Thanks a lot for your time Andrew. It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you about your work. As a final question do you have any words of wisdom for our readers on photography or anything else for that matter?
Andrew: If you have a project you really care about, see it through to the end. It's easy to get discouraged along the way. The final effort needed to finish a series or book can be the most difficult. But usually, it's much worse to live with something that's incomplete. And until you're finished, you're audience might not even understand or “get” what you’re doing. But a cohesive body of work that shows the full range of your ideas can be very powerful.
Tristan: Andrew has been kind enough to donate a copy of his book DISKO for us to use as a prize. We ran a competition on the APF Street Photography Group using the theme ‘A Night Out’. The submissions were very strong, and were shortlisted to 5 finalists. These were sent to Andrew for the final selection. Mario E Dominguez’s image below was selected as the winner. Congratulations Mario on a great image that fit the theme to a tee. [/two_thirds]
Andrew: Sometimes the best photographs are incomplete and leave the story open to the viewer’s interpretation. In this photograph I want to know more. Who are these men or women? Is that their truck in the background? I would love to see this developed into a project and see where it leads.