Photography is a way … to better understand each other.
It is a way to discuss important matters, such as the improvement of the human condition, the defence of human dignity, the preservation of nature and other universal goals.
The Lithuanian city of Kaunas is steeped in history; its stone-flagged streets and charming architecture imbue it with an almost fairy-tale quality. It is a place of significant cultural importance, home to a number of the country’s most significant museums and art galleries. But Lithuania is also a country with a growing knowledge-based economy and an important focus on the development of new technologies. Thus, Kaunas sits at the intersection of tradition and innovation, a place where the past provides a perspective on the soon-to-be. And, situated on the south-eastern corner of the Baltic Sea, it is at the geographic crossroads of Europe.
The city is home to KAUNAS PHOTO. This important festival of photography has built on these qualities of history, culture and location combined with a forward-focused ideas-based approach to create an event that reaches out far beyond the continent of Europe.
The compact scale of the city, the picturesque streetscapes and the convivial atmosphere created by the festival organisers make this a relaxed and unpretentious place for photographers to meet. Its reputation and geographic reach have made the festival an especially effective platform on which new photographic talents first achieve international attention. And its innovative use of online networks has come to ensure it is an important event for photographers, curators and publishers from as far afield as Argentina and Australia.
I recently caught up with Mindaugas Kavaliauskas, the founder and director of KAUNAS PHOTO, as he was preparing for the 2016 edition of the festival. It was a chance to find out more about how this event first came into being and the ways in which international photographers might take advantage of the opportunities it affords those taking their first steps onto the international stage.
Alasdair: When did the festival begin?
Mindaugas: That is hard to pinpoint. But perhaps it goes back to Nida, on the Baltic coast, where I grew up as a photographer and art historian. Here, in 1973, a group of Lithuanian photographers were holding a seminar. There was one thing missing – the audience!
The true origin is in 1995 when I made my first visit to les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie (now called Rencontres d’Arles Photographie) in Southern France. I felt completely in love with the vivacity of the photographic community and a very warm response of ordinary people. The French city took pride in the festival with its flamboyant vernissages, outdoor events, exhibitions staged where they were not ‘supposed’ to be… in former churches, wine cellars and so on…
This was what was missing in my own country.
Is Arles the model for your festival?
Of course, simply trying to recreate the South of France in the Nordic climate would not be a viable project. I went back to Arles several times, but in 2003 I stopped. I started touring neighbouring festivals around the Baltic Sea – in Finland, Sweden and Denmark. I had a plan to launch a festival in Lithuania. And, in 2004, we did just that! Kaunas Photo Days (as it was called then) featured work by some forty artists presented in twenty-five exhibitions across the city from which it took its name. In 2007, the name was shortened to KAUNAS PHOTO and this year  the festival celebrates its thirteenth edition.
How would describe the focus of the festival?
KAUNAS PHOTO has always been a platform for premieres; a place to see the work of talented emerging artists and more mature artists who are not yet well-enough known. Lithuania is a good place to do this because the country is in the geographical centre of Europe; the festival provides a bridge between the photographic communities of North and South, East and West.
I think the festivals also plays an important role in developing the skills of exhibiting photography, which in the early 2000s was still very traditional – some galleries would simply use same hooks to hang every exhibition…
What is the ethos of the festival?
We seek to develop the photographic culture by introducing people to images of high artistic value. It is a way to resist the mass mania for taking pictures that is leading to uniformity, mediocrity and empty photographic gestures.
It doesn’t matter if the photographs we show are fine-art, documentary, scientific or any other approach, what is important is that each image must radiate individuality, professional skill, an innovative technique, stimulating subject matter and thought-provoking ideas.
Does the festival focus on a particular kind or genre of photography?
If we have a special focus, it is perhaps on documentary photography and ‘slow’ journalism. This builds on a human-centred sensibility that is rooted in the Lithuanian School of Photography. But KAUNAS PHOTO is the only annual photographic festival in the Baltic States and so the key aim is to reflect the newest work by photographers and photo-artists from both the international scene and our local region.
Does the festival have special themes?
Yes, the festival has a different theme each year and, since 2007, the festival logo is each year adapted to reflect that changing theme. This year  the festival focuses on the street photography and the relationship of photography with the public space.
In addition to a theme based on ideas, a number of editions of the festival have also had a part of the program dedicated to a country or region. In 2004 and 2006 we explored Nordic photography; in 2007 it was Georgia; Australia in 2008, Poland in 2009; Portugal and Brazil in 2010. In 2014 we staged a large exhibition of Swiss photography which was shown at the M. Žilinskas Art Gallery of the National M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum.
Where and how do you present the work in the festival?
The first edition of the festival had twenty-five venues (which in a city of just 300,000 inhabitants is quite a lot), but over time we have reduced the number to a dozen or so. These include Kaunas Photography Gallery and a number of other art galleries, and the halls of the National M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum. To these we add a few locations which offer an interesting context for a specific exhibition. A good example would be an exhibition by the Slovenian artist Borut Peterlin, entitled ‘Flower Power’. The work features the kind of floral arrangements you see at summit meetings of world leaders. This exhibition found a perfect home at the Botanical Gardens of Vytautas Magnus University, with the photographs presented traditionally indoors and also as large posters out in the park.
[Left] © Tomas Pospech (Czech Republic) from the series ‘Castle Owners’
[Upper Right] Work by Davide Monteleone (Italy) installed in a public park 2014 © KAUNAS PHOTO
[Lower Right] The ‘Castle Owners’ exhibition by Tomas Pospech showing in the grounds of Kaunas Castle 2014 © KAUNAS PHOTO
Do you show much work in the open air?
Yes, we have shown single large billboards, murals and entire exhibitions out-of-doors. They help us reach into the communities and raise a smile or start a conversation between neighbours who might otherwise not speak with each other. In 2014 we presented an exhibition by the Czech photographer, Tomas Pospech, at Kaunas Castle. The show was called ‘Castle Owners’ and featured portraits of people who have built DIY castles in their own backyard.
Since it began, KAUNAS PHOTO has run a line-up of night-time projection events. These are usually structured thematically. The venue for these ‘slide-shows’ changes from year to year, but one of the most memorable was in Kaunas town hall square. These often attract a wide audience of passers-by as well as those coming especially for the event.
[Left] © Jeffu Warmouth (USA) ‘Pancake Pancake’ from the series ‘Spudnik’
[Upper Right] © Jeffu Warmouth (USA) ‘Spice Walk’ from the series ‘Spudnik’
[Lower Right] Kaunas town square: a cyclist joins the audience during the screening of ‘Spudnik’ by Jeffu Warmouth © KAUNAS PHOTO
What do those passers-by make of the festival?
I remember we were screening a humorous ‘kitchen-cosmic’ multi-media piece by the American artist Jeffu Warmouth, called ‘Spudnik’. People out for the evening began to gather round caught up in the sci-fi narrative. A cyclist stopped and watched. He waited until the end of question time and then asked very seriously if the work was a metaphor for the Soviet versus American space race of the 1960s. The audience just burst into laughter! You could hear all across the old town of Kaunas…
Do you organised portfolio reviews?
Yes, and in 2010 we began KAUNAS PHOTO STAR. This is a competition among all those attending the portfolio reviews at the festival. We usually have a between fifteen and twenty reviewers, most of them from European photo centres, festivals and museums. During the reviewing process, they select the photographer who will win an all-inclusive exhibition at Kaunas Photography Gallery the following year.
How might an international photographer become involved in the festival?
The classic way to make it happen is to attend a festival where I am (or someone from our festival is) reviewing portfolios. Otherwise, KAUNAS PHOTO makes ‘open calls’, which aim to attract the newest, most unexpected works that address the theme of the festival that year. We launch a call for work each January.
The festival has an online platform called folioPORT. Here we invite photographers from anywhere in the world to submit work, which is then reviewed (also online) by between fifty and seventy-five curators and publishers who rate each portfolio. It is difficult to trace the stories of what happens after the reviews, but some curators said they have been introduced to important new work that they have subsequently included in their exhibitions.
Yes, while judging folioPORT last year I saw very interesting work by two American artists, Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen. This led me to take a look at their website, where I saw their newest project, which was perfect for a show I was curating for the Pingyao International Photography festival in Shanxi. That new series had only been completed earlier in the year, but, through the folioPORT link, I was able to discover the work and show it to a whole new audience in China, just a few months later.
Since 2014, we have not only been presenting folioPORT as platform for sharing work with curators worldwide, but use it as one of the main resources when selecting work for the festival. International photographers are welcome to propose their work. The unique aspect of folioPORT is the way it provides photographers with an evaluation of their work, based on a great variety of experts around the world… And, of course, the analytical part of the system was perfected with your help, Alasdair.
So, what are you looking for?
If the work is authentically individual, professionally made and has something to say about important things in life, then it has a chance to appear in the KAUNAS PHOTO program… not necessarily immediately, though. Some works have waited years in my computer database before they found their perfect place in a particular curatorial project.
If a photographer is selected for your festival, who pays for what?
As a general rule, if work is selected for showing at KAUNAS PHOTO we draw up an exhibition plan, prepare a venue and print the works locally from digital files supplied by the photographer, all at our expense. That almost always applies to intercontinental participants who live too far away to ship work back and forth.
Unfortunately we are unable to cover an artist’s airfares, though sometimes we are able to make a small financial contribution. If an artist comes for the openings or on agreed dates to give a guided tour of their exhibition, then we cover their hotel accommodation for at least two nights.
Do you work with other festivals?
Yes, of course. Festivals are a vibrant part of the photographic movement, so there is a demonstrable need to exchange projects, co-produce exhibitions and so on. Many directors and curators participate in the portfolio review sessions of each other’s festivals. But, beyond that, we have exchanged exhibitions with a number of festivals in Europe and as far afield as Australia and New Zealand. In China we have collaborated with Pingyao International Photography Festival.
Do you have one special memory of a past festival?
Personally, for me, the highlight of the 2015 edition was the ‘Sweat-Off Photo Night’, combining meals, a sauna and a novel photographic process called ‘Sweat’ developed by the Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler.
How did that work?
Reiner Riedler has been working with scientists at the Fraunhofer Research Institution for Modular Solid State Technologies in Munich. They have produced a special colourant that is sensitive to sweat. The image is made by pressing a cotton cloth impregnated with this chemical onto the sweating face and body of the subject. The resulting impression is used as the negative and a pigment print positive is made of the result.
That sounds fascinating… and a lot of fun, too!
It was! [laughs]
What makes your festival different from other festivals?
I am convinced that the idea of art and photography ‘for its own sake’ is just a temporary fashion. Like cinema, music, theatre and other creative expressions, photography is a way for the people of the world to better understand each other. It is a way to discuss important matters, such as the improvement of the human condition, the defence of human dignity, the preservation of nature and other universal goals. Kaunas Photo festival is about these things and about introducing talented emerging photographers onto the international platform.
…But we do not forget to smile! [laughs] and humour is recognised as an essential element of KAUNAS PHOTO.
Mindaugas Kavaliauskas was born in Kaunas in 1974. He studied photography at Kaunas School of Photo Art, subsequently receiving a BA in Art History and an MA in the History of Architecture from Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania; followed by postgraduate study at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. In 2003, he founded Šviesos raštas (‘Photo–graphy’, in direct translation from Lithuanian) an NGO promoting photographic art and, in 2004, he established F Galerija [photo gallery] and KAUNAS PHOTO festival. Aside from his role as director of KAUNAS PHOTO, he works as photographer, curator and educator, and writes on art issues with a particular focus on photography and on urban culture. In 2013 and 2019, he was decorated by the city of Kaunas for his promotion of cultural activities in the region. In 2018, he was awarded the Gloria Artis, a state award of the Republic of Poland. In 2019, Mindaugas Kavaliauskas became the director of Lithuanian Aviation Museum.
Established in 2004, KAUNAS PHOTO is an annual festival of photography held in the city of Kaunas, Lithuania. Website temporarily unavailable.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.