Tulips, by Andrew Miksys, offers a fascinating insight into a country that borders both Putin’s Russia and the West. Joe Faulkner asks Miksys about his methodology and creative process behind Tulips.
JF: Do you think being born is the US has impacted your work in a former Soviet state?
AM: Yes, I think it had a very big impact, actually the USSR had a lot to do with why I was born in the US. My father was born in Lithuania in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War and left in 1944 with my grandparents to escape the Soviet occupation. The fear of the USSR and nuclear war was a nearly unavoidable aspect of growing up in the USA in the 1980s. I remember very distinctly seeing the film Red Dawn in a theater with my friends when I was in junior high. One of the first scenes is of Soviet paratroopers landing in the fields of a school in Colorado during the invasion. The movie is an amazing artifact from the Cold War. The USSR is definitely a subject I wanted to understand.
JF: How did you begin this project and from where did the concept for this book come?
AM: I planned my trips to Belarus around the Soviet-themed holidays and parades like May Day, Victory Day, and October Revolution Day. The first time I went to Minsk to photograph Victory Day I felt very open without any big expectations or plans to start a new project. But then I got caught up in the parade and the spectacle. I took pictures of everything. With all the war veterans, tanks, people carrying signs with Lenin and Stalin portraits and red tulips it felt like being in the midst of a Soviet fantasy world. It reminded me of the times when I was a kid and my parents took me to Disneyland in Los Angels. A very different kind of fantasy world, but also one where you are not quite sure what is real and what is fake.
JF: There is a strong focus on women with in this project, can you explain why you chose to photograph them the way you have?
AM: The women in the nudes all worked as exotic dancers in strip clubs or as go go dancers. At first, I didn’t think any of the photographs would end up in TULIPS. I photographed the women in their apartments. Even though they were not at work, their poses were the work poses they used trying to fulfill the fantasies of the men who came to the clubs. Allowing people to pose the way they want without a lot of direction has become a theme in a lot of my work. But in Belarus it was on a completely different level. Everything was a façade with no intimacy. Again, like the photographs I was taking in the parades, the fantasy presented by these women was quite compelling. There was no direct connection, but it worked for me. While I was editing the book, I liked how the nudes disrupted the flow of the book. They’re almost jarring. Why is there a nude next to a statue of Stalin? How does this relate to the story? It felt a bit risky.
JF: Colour seems to play a major role in both Belarus national identity and your work. Could you talk me though this?
AM: Almost as soon as you cross the border into Belarus from Lithuania you experience totally different colours. The super efficient border guards enter the train in perfectly pressed green uniforms, out the windows is a freshly painted train station, painted benches and no garbage anywhere on the platforms. Then when you arrive in Minks there are large boulevards with tons of Soviet-era Stalinist architecture with ornate facades with neutral colours. For the holidays, the streets are lined with multi-coloured polyester flags. There is very little international advertising and you are really entering a world with its own very controlled colour scheme. This along with the hyper cleanliness started to feel oppressive and even claustrophobic. It was unavoidable and I started to look for ways to use the colours in my project.
JF: Stones and flowers seem to be used as anchoring points throughout the book, can you explain this a little further?
AM: At the very end of TULIPS, I reprinted an image from a postcard made by a Lithuanian photographer in the 1960s. It’s just red tulips, but right away you can see and feel that it was made to celebrate a Soviet holiday like Victory Day. Many years ago, I re-photographed this postcard along with some other Soviet postcards, fascinated by the simplistic colour and visual language of Soviet propaganda photography. Red tulips were one of the main ways to celebrate communism, spring, and rebirth after war. There are even official varieties of tulips named for Lenin and Victory Day. For the most part, this Soviet world was quickly disappearing when I showed up in Lithuania in the 1990s. Nobody was celebrating Soviet holidays and the Lenin statues were long gone. But when I went to Belarus, you could still see all this Soviet style stagecraft right in the streets – elaborate parades with war veterans and pioneers, tulips lining the streets and commemorations of October Revolution Day at the Lenin and Dzerzhinsky monuments. Having spent a lot of time looking at Soviet imagery, I almost couldn’t help but photograph in a similar style.
Before the parades and holidays in Belarus, there is an intense effort to clean the streets. This is often most notable along the parade routes where the president’s car drives. Grass is cut, flowers planted, and almost everything else is given a quick coat of paint. As I discovered, large rocks and stones are also given a fresh coat of paint. If you look at the rocks closely, you can see other colours of paint from previous years below. I thought these rocks had such great personality and character. In a way, painting rocks might just be an innocent and cheap way to add some colour to a drab Soviet landscape. From another side they were a constant reminder of state control of everything in Belarus, all the way down to the rocks on the street.
JF: Within the series of work there are a lot of re-enactments and a feeling of nostalgia. Why is this?
AM: There is no doubt that WWII had a defining impact on Belarus. Some of the biggest battles of the war were fought there, cities like Minsk were completely destroyed, and 25 percent of the population was killed. But somehow Belarus survived and Belarusian heroism during the war is well documented. But while Belarus’s neighbours like Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, and even Ukraine see the war as a victory over Nazism, they also view it as a great national tragedy leading to 50 years of occupation by Russia. The current Belarusian government, though, has turned a very nostalgic and glorified interpretation of the war into the main aspect of Belarus’s national identity. All the holidays I photographed for TULIPS help reinforce a rather uncritical view of the war.
JF: Why do you choose to continue down the route of self-publishing and Kickstarter campaigns?
AM: I will definitely continue with self-publishing my books. The process can be challenging and you have to manage every little detail. But I like how self-published books can be an expression or reflection of your own esoteric, personal, and subjective point of view. Making your own book puts you in the middle of the process and all the struggles that eventually help make your book unique. My printer in Lithuania always thinks I’m a bit crazy when I show them the design for my books. Luckily, we have a great relationship. They laugh at me and then we collaborate every step of the way working through the challenges. TULIPS has an embossed decorative tulips drawing on the cover that the printer thought would be impossible to produce, but we tried it and it worked.
Kickstarter has been great for me and I’ve been able to fund two books. Being able to use Kickstarter to reach an new audience to help pre-sell books and pay for production costs is amazing. I had the freedom to make a book exactly the way I wanted to make it. Even if a book has imperfections or eccentricities that’s a good thing. There are so many perfectly made and professionally designed books out there that just feel flat and cold without any of the photographer’s personality.
— Joe Faulkner