M. Plepio nuotr.

Kilometres, steps, terabytes, snapshots, people met, or just ticks on the calendar are helpful ways to calculate the work done during the year of Kaunas – European Capital of Culture 2022 and up to it. We talked to photographers Martynas Plepys, Teodoras Biliūnas, Gražvydas Jovaiša and Andrius Aleksandravičius, as well as to video artist Marius Paplauskas, who have already taken a break after the closure of Kaunas 2022, about the project’s visual chronicles. Even though they all did essentially the same thing, the experiences and legacies of the five Kaunasians are very different. 

Kiemų šventė, A. Aleksandravičiaus nuotr.

Šešeri metai Kaune ir Kauno rajone 

Andrius Aleksandravičius was one of the first to hop on board – his shots of Kaunas were used in the project’s application, submitted in the spring of 2016. His expressive photographs added to the success of the city’s core ideas as a future European Capital of Culture (ECoC) in 2022. 

‘My shots were also used for the first posts on the Kaunas 2022 Instagram account,’ recalls the photographer, much appreciated for his bird’s-eye views of Kaunas city and Kaunas district. Andrius estimates that in almost six years, he managed to attend over 200 events of the programme, which he both photographed and filmed with the help of a drone. The most intense year for him was 2021, with 76 captured events.

‘I remember in 2016, when Agnė Pinigienė, Kaunas 2022’s Communications Manager, invited me to meet the project CEO Virginija Vitkienė and head of the program Ana Kočegarova-Maj. I was just starting out in filmmaking and very naive but brave,’ laughs video artist Marius Paplauskas, who filmed the project’s origins. In total, he accumulated about 10 TB of material; even more of it was buried in his old computer. 

Teodoras Biliūnas considers the starting point for his Kaunas 2022 adventure to be the day the city won the ECoC title, 29 March 2017, when he photographed the anticipation of the decision and the moments of joy in the Town Hall Square. The photographer collaborates with the BNS news service and news portals, so the ECoC program became a part of his routine. It was his photographs from happenings such as the naming of Kaunas Airport as ‘Fluxus’ that were the first to be seen by news portal readers, often before the events had even ended. ‘How to calculate all this – in events, shots or kilometres, I have no idea; it was just a regular part of my daily work,’ the photographer laughs.

Kaunas 2022 Atidarymas, T. Biliūno nuotr.

‘500 events, 200,000 shots, 16,000 photos ready for publication’, Martynas Plepys, who has been working with the camera since 2018 at the invitation of Kaunas 2022, states his personal statistics. One of his first assignments was to shoot a portrait of the then Žalgiris coach Šarūnas Jasikevičius. The legendary Kaunas basketball star reacted: ‘You need my picture? The internet is full of them,’ but in the end, he did not refuse to pose for Martynas.

Gražvydas Jovaiša joined the team of photo wizards at the latest, in May 2022, during the second act of the contemporary Kaunas trilogy, ‘Confluence’. ‘As soon as I returned from my holiday in Greece, I fell into the Lithuanian May shower. It rained all day without a break, and I had to shoot for about 14 hours.’ ‘Hundreds of kilometres, thousands of steps. One day of photographing the Emerald Way objects was exceptionally memorable; I had to travel around almost the entire Kaunas district, exploring towns and suburbs I had never visited before.’

Kultūra į kiemus, M. Plepio nuotr.

Chemistry Between Performers and Observers 

‘Often, the performers, speakers, etc., are the most important at events, but working with Kaunas 2022 community programme Fluxus Labas!, especially during the pandemic, and photographing the project Culture in the Courtyards, I realised that the most fun for me was catching the happy crowd and enjoying participants, and that became a vital accent in my work,’ Martynas states. 

‘You can basically create a press report in three shots – a close-up, a general view and some detail,’ says Teodoras when asked which is more interesting to photograph, the performers or the spectators. For him, at the concerts of bands, which he has attended a lot in the ECoC programme, it is essential to capture the general mood of the event, and the empathetic audience, which creates the atmosphere of the coverage. ‘Even one spectator, captured in close-up, can represent the whole mood.’

Šiuolaikinės seniūnijos – Garliava, G. Jovaišos nuotr.

‘For me, the viewer is also more important. Of course, the work of the performers is enormous, but with their work, they transfer the audience that ‘special something’ that translates into a fascinating emotion,’ Andrius reflects.

‘It’s exciting to photograph people who are not used to posing. I’ve experienced this at community events – I often had to talk to the spectators and tame them into relaxing in front of the lens. As the months went by, I noticed that the people I photographed not for the first time, especially seniors, managed to relax more quickly; they even asked to be photographed; it was very nice,’ recalls Gražvydas. He was just as interested in taking portraits of the more important guests of Kaunas 2022 and getting to know them. 

‘For me, the most meaningful thing is when I can capture the interaction between the performer and the viewer here and now when the so-called chemistry happens. I might lose something in the search for such moments, but it’s worth it,’ reveals Marius, who creates memorable videos. He points out that over the years, the people involved in cultural events have changed and become freer and more involved. ‘I’m unsure if this change is in them or me. I don’t like cameras myself, so I understand that others may not be happy when I get close, but it does affect the quality of the shots. However, I’ve learned to tame people myself, and they seem to have got used to it.’

Santaka, G. Jovaišos nuotr.

What Stays Behind the Camera

All of the interviewees identified the main events of Kaunas 2022 – ‘Confusion’, ‘Confluence’, ‘Contract’, and the ‘Fluxus Festival’ – as the biggest and most challenging tasks. ‘With so much action, it’s tough to decide which way to run and what’s more important to capture,’ reflects Martynas, while his colleagues add that the weather significantly impacts such events. ‘Even though I wasn’t working at the ‘Contract’, I must admit that it was a lot of fun to watch the closing ceremony of Kaunas 2022 in the warmth and comfort of the Žalgirio Arena, for a change,’ smiles Teodoras. 

‘The ConTempo festival was the most creative and improvisational’, says Martynas. He recalls one director asking him to press the button just as the performer was hammering a nail so that the sound of the shooting wouldn’t disturb the audience: ‘These and similar requests made me think carefully about how to create an interesting story in the existing situation, and these were fun challenges.’

Contempo festivalis, M. Plepio nuotr.

Although Andrius is best known for aerial images in this collective, Martynas also had to catch some bird’s-eye shots. ‘I remember a more dangerous incident when, while filming one of the scenes for ‘Kaunas – One Big Stage for Europe, three officers suddenly appeared at the Mykolas Žilinskas Gallery and started questioning who had flown into the military territory with a drone and what they had recorded, fortunately for me it was my colleagues’ drone, but all the explanations and warnings of what was at risk lasted for more than 30 minutes,’ he says laughing. 

Marius, who, together with his colleague Martynas, toured many courtyards during the quarantine period, recalls that avoiding some rather curious situations was impossible. When the two approached to discuss details, they were immediately told to keep a safe distance by the officers monitoring the event. 

Gražvydas shares his ‘baptism’ memory. ‘During my first day working with Kaunas 2022, I photographed the ‘Let’s Celebrate the River’ event, during which people sailed down the Nemunas and Neris rivers in various, even self-made, water vehicles. From Panemunė beach to Žemieji Šančiai beach, we sailed in a large canoe with a capacity of about 20 people, with musicians on board. Live music is playing, good mood is in the air, I’m taking pictures, and everything looks just amazing, but a few hundred metres away, we can see the Panemunė Bridge and its columns! Suddenly there was a scream, and I turned and saw that our wooden boat was about to hit a column. I thought we were going to capsize; the rescue plan was already in my mind… there was a ‘boom’, and then a lot of stress as the boat seemed to have broken in half, but there was enough time to reach the shore and keep everybody dry!’

Kultūra į kiemus Aleksote, G. Jovaišos nuotr.

Personal Discoveries  

‘I loved working with the Memory Office – we filmed Litvaks and listened to their life stories. These were often shocking; the conversations were long. Later on, I realised that the opportunity to witness these stories, to meet these people, was meaningful,’ says Marius, who has filmed not only dozens of events but also many conversations with a wide range of people. 

Marius also mentions ConTempo, a festival he filmed from day one, the organisers of which gave him complete creative freedom. After all, he was a dancer first in his life and a video artist second, so it is only natural to single out the festival from the whole Kaunas 2022 programme. ‘Yes, when I film dance performances, I know what to emphasise and what to take out, but above all, this art has allowed me to film all other moving objects.’

‘My favourite events have been the ones that emit cosiness, the various community celebrations. The concert of Jurga Šeduikytė in Aleksotas stuck out very much – despite the rain, a lot of people gathered, some on balconies, some on the lawn, and even animals seemed to be watching the show. It would actually be possible to publish a separate album of pets,’ smiles Gražvydas. Among the events he cherishes, he mentions the Kūjeliai concert in Panemunė, the Vytautas V. Landsbergis sung poetry evening in Šančiai, the photographer’s home neighbourhood, and many contemporary dance performances.

‘I really liked the inclusion of the Kaunas district in the programme. I think it is quite easy to organise a successful event in the city, but it can be challenging in the district where communities are more self-contained. I took a lot of photographs for the Contemporary Elderships programme; for example, I was very impressed by Lapės town, where people made chairs in a workshop. Everyone seemed to be involved, which was surprising,’ recalls Andrius. 

Teodoras, meanwhile, says he was most impressed by the year-long exhibition of William Kentridge, a Litvak artist from PAR. ‘I would say it was stronger than all the others put together,’ says the Kaunasian. Theodoras also singles out Jenny Kagan’s ‘Out of Darkness’ exhibition, which, according to the photographer, could have lasted longer to reach more people. And what is the most impressive person whose portrait Teodoras had to create? ‘It’s hard to surprise me, but I have to say that it was interesting to work with Yoko Ono’s curator Jon Hendricks, who was organising the exhibition at the Kaunas Picture Gallery – it took a long time to coordinate everything; we only had 7 minutes, but he was an obedient poseur,’ he laughs.

Fluxus festivalis, T. Biliūno nuotr.

‘All the programmes were exciting, and my personal horizons were broadened by participating, but the one that has stayed with me the most is ‘Fluxus Labas!’ community events. I even stayed longer than planned and always left with a big smile. I can’t fail to mention the youth program events either. One of them is the Audra festival, which I chose not to photograph so that I could join the crowd,’ Gražvydas shares his recipe for combining work and leisure.

‘I was first known to the Kaunas 2022 team more as an architectural photographer because, at that time, I was intensively photographing Kaunas modernism, as well as exhibitions and installations, so I was looking forward to the commissions from the programmes Modernism for the Future and Design for Happiness,’ says Martynas, speaking about his Kaunas 2022 experience. 

M. Plepio nuotr.

‘If I had to single out an event that was one of the most difficult in terms of work, but at the same time one of the most magical, it would be Robert Magro’s performance ‘Visions’ in the Kaunas district,’ the photographer recalls, ‘The forest, the night, the heavy rain, which made the acrobats even consider cancelling the performance, the fog, the water coming from the performers’ costumes… and me, in my boots and raincoat. Umbrella in one hand, camera in the other. It was a wonderful performance, and I enjoyed the shots I captured,’ Martynas concludes the talk about the thousands of magic moments he and his colleagues have captured over the last six years.