Over the past ten years Seattle born photographer Andrew Miksys has been documenting the village discos of rural Lithuania. Miksys first visited Lithuania to see family in the 1990’s shortly after the collapse of the USSR. He admits having little interest in going there at the time, but was quickly taken by the people and the atmosphere, recalling an immediate affinity with his ancestral homeland. In 1998 he came back with a Fulbright under his belt and started work on what would later become Disko.
“It seemed like a perfect backdrop to make a series of photographs about young people in Lithuania, a crumbling past and the uncertain future of a new generation together in one room”.
We caught up with Andrew to talk about capturing a country in a state of cultural flux, recording the reaction of a new young people born out of a dead empire and the life and demise of the rural disco.
You grew up in Seattle, Washington, but your family roots are Lithuanian. Can you tell us about your first experience travelling there and what it was that kept bringing you back to work on this series?
My first trip to Lithuania was in 1995 with my father and grandparents. They were born in Lithuania, but had left at the end of WWII with a horse and buggy when my father was only two. They ended up in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany and eventually immigrated to the US. This was our first chance to meet with our relatives in Lithuania. I actually wasn’t very interested in going on the trip or even photographing. I thought Budapest and Prague would be much more interesting and went there first on my way to Lithuania. But my preconceptions were all wrong. I really couldn’t connect with anything in those other cities and very quickly bonded with my relatives. Lithuania at that time was still very Soviet and you could feel the remnants of the USSR all around you. This fascinated me and having the family connection helped me orient myself in a world that was very different from where I’m from. I knew right away I wanted to come back and do something more in depth. And once I get hooked on something I try to see it though until I’m satisfied. Usually that means several years of work.
You spent the best part of ten years collecting images for Disko. How did you first come to find out about these dance halls and was it tough work hounding them down?
I didn’t know what I wanted to photograph when I first arrived in Lithuania so I tried many things. I would go for long walks with my camera. Later I bought a used VW Gulf and started driving to small towns and villages. I was just hanging out in one village for the day, when I noticed some kids going into a building with some beer. I followed them in and found my first disco. It was a very simple space with a disco ball and some Soviet decorations on the walls including a Lenin head. After photographing there a few times I noticed other community centers and discos in the villages I drove through on the way home. During the week I’d go on scouting trips to find more discos and try to get permission to photograph on the weekends. I guess if you were on assignment or doing a photo essay, it would be possible to take enough photos in one weekend. But I had a really specific idea about what I wanted to capture, the atmosphere and people. It was a slow process with a lot of trial and error.
Most of these discos took place in small isolated communities. Did you find it difficult infiltrating the crowd, or were you for the most part welcomed?
It varied from place to place. There was really only one place where I couldn’t get permission to photograph. Mostly I was welcomed and people were great hosts. I always had some anxiety driving down very small or even dirt roads on the way to the discos. But once I got there and started working everything was fine.
Constantly venturing into unchartered territory, were you met with any interesting or confronting encounters?
In DISKO there is a photo of blood on the floor after a fight. Over the years, I saw several fights. Usually, the fights end up outside. However, this one took place right in the middle of the dance floor. I was photographing when the music stopped, the main lights went on, and everyone moved to the edge of the dance floor. There were two guys beating the shit out of each other. Really brutal. And at some point one guy cut his hand with a beer bottle he was trying to hit the other guy with. That’s where most of the blood came from. After it was over and the two guys left, I photographed the blood. I took a few frames and another guy started yelling at me. He didn’t think it was right for me to photograph the blood and started smearing the blood with his foot. But I didn’t stop photographing and even have an image of the smeared blood.
There are some really beautiful moments of stillness in the photographs, isolating and engaging your subject while the party moves on around them. How was this achieved? Was there much planning behind the images, or were they shot somewhat candidly?
My idea was to do a series about individuals. The action in the middle of the dance floor wasn’t that interesting for me and there are only a few images of people dancing in DISKO. I would usually look around for places off the dance floor with an interesting background to take people to photograph them. The cultural centers had very similar interiors and most had a stage with curtains. So I would often take people backstage, behind the curtains and photograph them there. It was easier to work without distractions and people felt more comfortable and willing to pose.
Having arrived in Lithuania shortly after the collapse of the USSR I can imagine the country was undergoing a significant cultural shift. You said “Mostly I was fascinated by how strongly these places still echoed their USSR past. All the young people who frequented them were caught somewhere between those memories and an unknown future”. How was it experiencing this push and pull first hand and can it be partially credited for the existence of your subject matter
Throughout the USSR, there had been discos in small towns and villages since the 1980s. They were basically a way for the government to provide a social space for young people on the weekends and to bring some modernity to the villages. But when I was photographing, the Soviet infrastructure was crumbling and people, especially young people, were looking for ways out of the old system. I didn’t exactly realize the pace of the change when I started photographing, but by the end there were fewer and fewer people at the discos. Rural life has changed dramatically and young people have left for other parts of the EU or even the USA as fast as they can. And, yes, all the tension during this transition was one of my main interests.
You mentioned that most of these parties are now fading, where have all the cowboys gone and is there an after party?
All the cowboys and cowgirls have moved to the big city. Just the other night I went to a newish club in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. There were so many bikes outside locked to poles and street signs that my friend and I couldn’t find a place for our bikes. Once we got inside, it felt like we were at a big party in Brooklyn or Berlin. Basically, the uniform international hipster style rules now. I find it incredibly boring and generic. I wouldn’t say village discos are exactly better than what goes on in Vilnius today, but they were definitely more unique and organic. I just appreciate village discos for what they are (or were) and I’m very happy that I had a chance to experience them before they’re gone.
Jack Harries in conversation with Andrew Miksys.