– Arnis, congratulations on the book launch, and thank you for this interview! Let’s start with a general question – how did you discover photography?
– As a child who got his first camera at an early age.
– Please tell us about “Victory Park”. Where does your interest in the subject come from?
– On May 9, 2008, I went to the Victory Day celebrations. It’s like a music festival with a lot of flowers. Then, after a few years, I had a conversation with an architect and we were both fascinated by the controversial character of the place. First, once it was named for another victory – the independence fights in 1919. But after WWII, it honored the Soviet army’s victory over Nazi Germany. Second, today it’s probably the place which, at least for Latvians, symbolizes Russian chauvinism, mostly because of the Victory Monument and the May 9 celebrations. On the other hand, it’s just a nice park in Riga with good infrastructure for leisure activities. So this place was so ideologically, politically and historically charged that I just had to do something about it. I like suppressed topics.
– What does “Victory Park” mean to you personally? What were the questions you’d been asking yourself?
– Well, I’m not sure there’s one clear answer to this. But I can say that I’ve probably had a sort of love-hate relationship with the place. The book helped me break up. But I’m not keen to go into details about my relationships in public. You see, the book has no text. Why should I over-explain anything now?
– In one interview, you said that you now know every corner of the park. But there is not much topography in the final series. How did the project evolve after you started shooting?
– I would disagree and say that there’s enough topography. But I know what you mean. The series is not very descriptive or informative of the place. I guess this is how this project evolved – from very photojournalistic to quite conceptual.
– Why did you decide to make a book for this project? What is “the photobook” for you?
– I felt that this project would suit a photobook, and the result confirms that. But I am not a photobook freak. I haven’t done a dozen dummies, and I don’t think every project should be turned into a photobook. It is obviously a great medium, but it also requires responsibility. You can make a shitty exhibition, because nobody will remember it after a while. But you can’t fuck up a photobook, because it will represent you forever.
– The design of the book is unusual. What was your intent?
– The intent was that the design work to the advantage of the work itself. Every detail is carefully planned, even if it looks accidental at first. And yes, you can manipulate the sequencing by taking out the insert photos or tearing the pages. The book is also very fragile, but browsing through it can even be disturbing. All those tricks also refer symbolically to the context of Victory Park.
– Reflections on the past and present of Latvia is the leitmotif of your work. May we ask you about your next project? What are your interests today?
– I’m interested in the way we form and re-define our national identity. However, I am not talking about some reportage on nationalists in action, and not even my country, Latvia, where this has been a significant topic for ages. Rather, I try to explore it as a wider question. We can all agree that Western society is experiencing some sort of ideological crisis. Multiculturalism has failed, and even countries like Britain, the U.S. or Germany, where national identity has been a complex issue, are struggling to define who they are, where they came from, what they want, and where they’re going. In most cases, there’s some kind of going way back to ancient times. It creates a lot of space for fiction.
– Do you think we can somehow differentiate photography from the Baltics and Latvia in particular? Do you see any tendencies in the work of photographers from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia?
– Yes, of course there are differences, and they come from the historical context. For instance, in Soviet Lithuania, traditional documentary photography was highly celebrated and a well-managed infrastructure was established. It partly exists today. That’s why in Lithuania the photography world is still mainly run by the older generation. However, in Soviet Latvia, so-called fine-art photography dominated, but no serious infrastructure was ever created. In the past 10-15 years, most of the younger photographers have worked as documentary photographers, and the photography scene is pretty much run by the younger generation. Estonia has a bit of a different story. Its photography scene is much more integrated with the visual arts world. As a result, there aren’t that many photographers, but visual artists who use photography from time to time. When we look at foreign photography festivals or competitions, we see Latvian names more often than names from any other Baltic country.
Arnis Balcus (b. 1978 in Riga, Latvia) has a BA from the University of Latvia in Communication Studies and an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster. Arnis teaches photography, edits FK Magazine and co-organizes the Riga Photomonth festival. Arnis’ book “Victory Park”, designed by Tom Mrazauskas and published by Brave Books, was released at the end of 2016.