The MAP6 Collective was formed in London in 2011 by a group of photographers based across the UK. Their previous projects have all been unified by what they identify as “a deep curiosity for the complex relationship between people and place”, and have taken Moscow and the concept of home as their themes, amongst others. MAP6’s latest work is The Lithuanian Project, prompted by an interest in Lithuania’s recent accession to the Eurozone and its location in the very centre of Europe. For the project, each member of the collective went to a different part of Lithuania and focused on a location that illustrated some particular aspect of Lithuania’s history. The images they captured – of border fences along hidden enclaves, abandoned former bunkers and modern cities – show the way that Lithuania continues to carry imprints of its complex history. Deep Baltic presents a selection of images from the project, along with the members’ reflections about their experiences in Lithuania.
Heather Shuker, Divided Lives – DIEVENIŠKĖS/ŠALČININKAI
As a collective, MAP6 makes photographic works collaboratively about people and place. Following on from the Moscow Project in 2013, we wanted to create a new body of work in a country that none of us had experienced before. After debating several locations around the world, Lithuania was unanimously selected as the next place to visit.
We were all drawn to Lithuania, as it is not only the newest addition to the Eurozone, but it is also the geographical centre of Europe.
My work as a photographer is generally about people, so I naturally wanted to make a documentary/portrait series. Further, as a collective project, all the works needed to relate to changes and issues around Lithuania’s membership of the EU.
An online exploration ensued, which led me to an old story about villages in the region of Dieveniškės and Šalčininkai which have been split by a border fence. The area is almost an enclave within Lithuania, and is surrounded by Belarus on three sides. This border with Belarus only ever existed as a line on a map until recently. When both Lithuania and Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union, the formerly internal administrative line became an international border, yet neighbours in the two countries could still visit with little in the way of restrictions. However, when Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, the Lithuanian border became subject to the Schengen Agreement, so a fence had to be built and border restrictions enforced.
I was disconcerted to find that villages had been split by the border fence, and I wanted to know how people’s lives on either side of the border had developed now that former neighbours live in different worlds. Not speaking any of the local languages, it was obviously a massive challenge for me. However, I had the help of several Lithuanians who helped with translations, including Greta Kaklytė and Ilona Šedienė, the head of the Dieveniškės School of Technology. Ilona, who speaks the Belarusian local dialect, gave up her free time and arranged meetings with residents in the villages. The Lithuanian military guard were also extremely accommodating, and helped me to visit remote villages on the border that were inaccessible by car.
My project Divided Lives is primarily a portrait series. I interviewed and photographed around twelve people over five days while in Lithuania. I was interested in the stories of lost connections, and memories of family and friends in Belarus, and asked many questions on this, such as how they imagine lives on the other side to be now.
The area felt very cut off to me, and this was borne out by the stories told to me. I recall comments such as “the border fence was the end of everything for the older generation” and “we are on the road to nowhere”. The villagers mourn lost connections and being cut off from friends and family graves. However, at the same time, they are a humble people, and are content living quiet lives in the family houses that have been passed down through the generations. EU membership and the border have brought an end to something, but also a beginning: “it’s the start of everything for the younger generation”, an elderly villager told me.
The Lithuanian countryside in October was absolutely stunning, with beautiful autumn colours, and the capital Vilnius – although being developed – seamlessly mixes old and new buildings. The city has a calmness about it, and away from commuter traffic it is tranquil. The Lithuanian people are helpful and very open and accommodating. I would like to visit again and continue with my project along the Lithuanian border.
Laurie Griffiths/Jonty Tacon, Babochka – VISAGINAS
Having spent some days shooting around the surrounding areas of the type RMBK-1500 Ignalina nuclear power station, hearing the news that we’d been granted permission to be escorted within the station itself was incredible. From entering through armed security border control in the reception to being given complete freedom to photograph all areas, including the highly secure Reactor 1 control room and the reactor core itself was a privilege, as well as an insight into the scale and ambition of these kinds of ex-Soviet power stations.
The fortunes of Visaginas are inextricably linked with the power station itself. Whilst most people today are engaged with the act of decommissioning the station, the impact of its closure goes beyond employment. “There was a time when they used our bodies to cool the reactors,” was how one local described how the hot water generated by the power station used to be pumped from the station via a network of huge pipes to heat the homes of the residents of Visaginas. Cheap energy has now been replaced by expensive, oil-burning sourced power.
In a sense, being in Visaginas is like being on a campus. Designed and conceived around the shape of a butterfly, it feels very much of a time. The lack of new development and the visible deterioration of some of the material aspects of the town are clear to be seen, as are the considerable numbers of leaf-sweepers, who in the summer become litter-pickers, and in the winter snow-clearers. More alarming was the discovery that many of them are qualified to postgraduate level but have fallen into manual jobs simply because of their lack of language skills.
Once we got past the inevitable suspicion of the people of Visaginas when we pointed a lens at them, we were universally met by an enthusiasm and desire to tell their story. We got a sense that the people of Visaginas had felt forgotten and maybe even abandoned. Largely Russian nationals, they are a people with a changing purpose and identity. Russian, Lithuanian or European? In the last couple of decades they have been and still are all of these. Their real identity seemed to be Visaginian – bound by a shared connection and common desire to survive and flourish at a time when their futures are uncertain and unclear.
The population of Visaginas is in sharp decline as young adults travel further afield to secure work, yet those that remain, work hard to create an environment where children are nurtured and developed in order to be equipped to deal with the changing fortunes of their home town. Wherever you wander within Visaginas, you are never more than a 100 yards from a children’s play area. Every block and sector incorporates play areas. Some are new and some clearly date back to the 1970s. Often there will be a nod to the atomic age in which they were built and today it’s not uncommon to find large rusting hulks of play apparatus in the shape of atomic structures.
The main road, Taikos prospektas, that runs through what was conceived to be the horizontal centre of the town, actually has remained the upper limit of Visaginas. The demise of the power station put an end to any plans for completion of the town and today the wooded area’s only inhabitants are walkers, cyclists and drinkers who gather to consume cheap alcohol under the privacy of the dense canopy of the pine forest.
The marshy surroundings of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Station give visitors an insight into the planned result of the decommissioning of the plant itself. While new structures are in construction by European contractors to house the contaminated nuclear waste removed from Ignalina, the plant itself is destined for complete and absolute removal. We were told by locals that the ‘end game’ was to return the site back to the nature from which it came – a mixture of woods, marshes and lakes.
Mitch Karunaratne, Middle Europe – PURNUŠKĖS
Once every two years, the MAP6 photographers travels to a location none of us have been to before. It’s important that we all experience the location for the first time together – drawing on no previous memories, histories and experiences. In the context of the current politics at home, we chose Lithuania, as one of the newest additions to the EU, for our most recent adventures.
For many years I’ve been working with the question: how can the stories held within the landscape be revealed, retold and reimagined? My practice always starts from the ground up – literally seeking the soil, the dirt, the concrete that is holding something more than meets the eye.
A very small patch of land to the west of the village of Purnuškės, about 16 miles north of Vilnius, is currently defined by the Institut Geographique National as the geometric centre of this abstract and shifting concept of Europe.
It was a very obvious place for me to journey to – to the very heart of Europe.
Barry Falk, System of Absurdity – NEMENČINĖ
In October 2015 I visited Lithuania as part of the MAP6 Photography Collective. I was aware that there had been two dominant political and military forces that had shaped and misshaped Lithuania during the 20th century: the Germans, including Nazi Germany, and the Russians. For the purpose of this project I was interested in exploring the impact of the Soviet occupation on the country between 1944 and 1991. I had heard about the Soviet Bunker, which staged re-enacted performances of what it would have been like in the former Lithuanian SSR. This seemed like the ideal location to explore the effects of the long Soviet occupation and how this is remembered today.
The Soviet Bunker is a staged environment, a fabricated space constructed from the leftover paraphernalia of the Soviet occupation. It is set within a former Soviet telecommunications centre, one of many such back-up stations, part of the Cold War stand-off, designed to keep broadcasting in the eventuality of a nuclear war. It was built between 1983 and 1985, and abandoned in 1991. However, when the Russians left Lithuania they stripped the space clear, leaving the bare concrete cells of an extensive bunker.
The bunker covers a square grid of 2,500 m2. It has been adapted into a place of theatre, the rooms filled with salvaged Soviet paraphernalia, each room meticulously arranged. Within this set space is the re-enactment: an actor is employed to issue a torrent of abuse at the audience. It is a one-man tour de force, a piece of absurdist theatre designed to highlight the absurdity of real events. Its purpose is educational: colleges send students here to learn from the experience. Afterwards, the actor, in full KGB uniform, asks the audience whether they like their freedom – the implicit message being that the absurdities and horrors of the past need to be remembered so as not to be repeated.
Paul Walsh, Bokštas 25 – VILNIUS
From the beginning I knew I wanted to make a positive series of photographs, one that was celebratory, due to Lithuania’s recent joining with the Eurozone. During my cursory research I came across the story of the Televizijos Bokštas (Television Tower) and was captivated by its history, as well as by the tower’s distinctive appearance. As the tallest structure in Lithuania, the tower can be seen from almost anywhere in the capital city of Vilnius. After the night of January 13th 1991, the tower has for many, become revered as the ultimate symbol of Lithuania’s struggle for independence. On the night of the 13th, Soviet tanks and army personal encircled the tower, in an attempt to silence dissenting voices within the media. There was gunfire and tanks rolled into the crowd of over 1,000 protestors, killing fourteen people and injuring hundreds more. The events that took place 25 years prior were tragic, but had gone on to shape the country in a positive way.
On the 25th anniversary year of the siege, I decided to circumnavigate the tower 25 times on foot, each circuit heading further out into the city. For me, walking around an object can create a deeper understanding of it, express feelings of reverence towards a place, and pays homage to the events that have taken place there. So I began my walk and covered over 170km in six days. As I walked I photographed the tower and those I came across, using a mixture of street photography, street portraiture and landscapes. As I photographed the tower, once a signifier of Soviet control and dominance, I began to see it as a beacon of liberty that made reference to past events. The tower appears in all of the landscape photographs I made, like a metaphorical backdrop positioned somewhere within each scene. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to include the tower in each photograph and it kept me excited about making the work. I hoped that once completed, the photographs would help to draw attention to the story of the tower and the significance of the events that had taken place there.
The six days I spent in Lithuania went fast and I passed all of my time in Vilnius walking around the tower. I didn’t have much time for sightseeing, but the people I met were incredibly friendly and I always felt welcome. The memories I have of Vilnius is that it is largely green, has wonderful architecture, is strangely quiet, and is perhaps the most relaxed capital I have visited. I very much want to go back.
The Lithuania Project is currently showing at the ONCA Gallery in Brighton, England, part of the Brighton Photo Fringe festival. You can see more of MAP6’s work at their website.
Header image – Paul Walsh
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