Original text by Ieva Meilute-Svinkuniene
Eighty faces stare right into the camera. Forty double portraits – or portraits of couples, to be precise, sitting side by side. People of different ages, gender, and social status – all holding the same pose, the same neutral facial expression. In some cases, their facial features hint at possible blood ties. But these people somehow appear detached and separate, as if sitting there alone, with no one else on either side: no other person, no emotional contact with the neighbor. What is this?
The answer is prompted by the title “Photographs for documents. Seirijai. 1946.”. It is the year 1946 in post-war occupied Lithuania. The new government is changing passports and in a photo studio set up in the Vozbuckis’ house, a visiting photographer V.Stanionis from Alytus is taking photographs of people from Seirijai and the surrounding area. The requirements for the photographs are not sophisticated: the light from the window will do, and so will the most decent sheet for a background. They sit in pairs by the canvas, husband and wife, father and son, brothers, sisters, neighbors.
The task of each person sitting in front of the camera was to resemble oneself as much as possible. In the final passport photographs, sized 3×3.5cm, there were no signs of the presence of another person, and the film, in which portraits of all those people were captured, was forgotten among other photographer’s archives. The photographer does not even mention this order in his resume, even though it was a substantial one: the money earned in the process allowed him to buy a house, where his son Vytautas V.Stanionis was born later. And he is the true reason behind this project.
In 1966, twenty years after the photo shooting event, Stanionis passed away. Then his son, also named Vytautas, was only seventeen years old. He discovered his father’s archives in about 1984–1985. By the time, he already had some experience as a photographer, and he found that material very interesting. The first time the passport photographs developed from his father’s film were displayed in an exhibition was in 1987 in the Art Exhibition Palace in Vilnius. Later, these portraits were displayed not only in Lithuania, but also in exhibition halls in Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.
Subsequently, since 1987, a new and quite a different story of the same photographs has begun. Some sort of reincarnation of the photographs has occurred, and their new life has commenced. The characters seem to be the same, still in the same photograph, only in a different time, under new circumstances, and in another way. Anonymous images that once served to verify the identity of a particular person, now lose their identity and become a kind of allegories or metaphors of the post-war destiny.
Vytautas Stanionis (father) was born 28 February 1917 in Drisa (Vjerhnadzvinsk). He spent his adolescence and youth years in Kaunas as he lived and studied here. In 1940 V. Stanionis settled in Vilnius, which had been just returned to Lithuania by Russia, and started his career working as a secretary and accountant in the newly established Vilnius Music School.
In 1943 he became ill with a lung disease and went for his treatment to Alytus Tuberculosis Hospital. Later he found a job as an assistant accountant in Alytus, got married and started his photographer’s career. In 1946 he was given a permit to take photographs of Seirijai town inhabitants for their new passports. In 1947 he started working as a photo-reporter in the newspaper “Tarybine Dzukija” and also collaborated with other Lithuanian newspapers and magazines such as the “Švyturys”, “Jaunimo gretos”, “Valstiečiu laikraštis”, “Sovetskaja Litva”, etc.
V. Stanionis published several albums of photography: “Dainava” (1958), “Nemuno vingiuose” (The Nemunas Curves) (1959), “Alytus” (1960), “Žuvintas” (1961). In the first photography exhibition of the Lithuanian Journalists Association, V. Stanionis was granted the first award for his photographs “Dzukas” (A Man from Dzukija region) and “Dzuke” (A Woman from Dzukija region).
In 1959, due to the worsened condition of his health, he went for treatment to the Crimea. In autumn of 1960 he had to go for repeated treatment to the Crimea again, and settled down there. He was employed as Head of the Photography Laboratory of the Nikita Botany Garden, and he was also improving his skills in color photography. While living in the Crimea V. Stanionis took part in various exhibitions of photography and won several awards. He died in Yalta on 11 May 1966, aged 50.
Vytautas V.Stanionis (son) was born in Alytus, in 1949. He was introduced to photography at an early age by being next to his father. As a youth, he was mostly influenced by the rise of the Lithuanian photography in the 70s. He worked as a photographer at the factory, as a press-photographer in various newspapers, as a manager of the Alytus section of the Photographic Art Society. Since 1994, he has been a freelance photographer. Since 1972, he has been a member of the Lithuanian Photographers Association. He has held about 30 solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibitions in Lithuania and other countries. He is an author, a compiler, a designer of photography books and publications, and a curator of exhibitions.