by Krzysztof Sienkiewicz

© Still image of the book 'Victory Park' from the series 

Victory Park is a park located in Riga, Latvia. Once built to celebrate Latvian independence, this seemingly ordinary place holds a memory of a nationwide traumatic experience. The Victory Memorial to Soviet Army, a monument erected there in 1985 to commemorate Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, reminds Latvians of the past Soviet occupation.
Despite the context of this place, Arnis Balcus creates in his series more of an impression than a description of the Victory Park. What we may see are photographs of seemingly different origins, yet working gracefully together to create a visual unity. This, as Balcus calls it, “playground” consists of just few pictures locating the whole series while the rest resembles daydreaming. Strong, vivid imagery extends the whole narrative much further than the borders of the park itself.

The construction of the book is striking and unusual, as the book seems literally constructed. Some of the pages are uncut along their top edge, which creates several partially hidden spaces. These spaces either conceal another picture or hold a loose print (yet these prints do not fall out), while sometimes they remain empty. This surprising manoeuvre invites the viewer to play with the book. One feels tempted to check what these spaces conceal, to take one of the loose prints out and put it in another “pigeonhole” or even to cut along the top edge of a page. In effect, the viewer receives a chance to contribute to the already nonlinear narrative.

For a Pole the experience of the post-soviet transformation is well-known and almost intuitively understandable. Even though Poland was never a part of the USSR, it got locked behind the “Iron Curtain” for decades. Soviet gifts, like the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, and their influence on the public space remain clearly visible. Over the years we learnt how to absorb these spaces and change their function, just like Latvians did in the case of the Victory Park.

However, in his book Arnis Balcus does not provide any straightforward narrative focused on the transformation of Latvia. Instead, in “Victory Park” he invites us to collect all the puzzles and to play with them on his playground. In fact, it feels very hard to reject this proposal.



© Still image of the book 'Victory Park' from the series 

How has it all started for you?
Arnis Balcus (AB): As a child I was interested in arts, I was painting and drawing. And then I got my first camera when I was 9 or 10 and photography slowly took over. However, lately I am sort of going back to my childhood, experimenting with painting, sculpture and textile.

You are a trained photographer. However, you completed your photographic studies not in Latvia, but abroad. Why? How has that influenced your work?
AB: First, you could not get a university degree in photography in Latvia at that time and second, I just wanted to get away. This experience has mainly given me the perspective to value things back home and I guess that is the reason most of my work has been dealing with Latvian (and East European) identity since then.

Your recent project 'Victory Park' tackles the subject of a transformation of a post-Soviet country. Could you tell us more about it?
AB: It all started because I was fascinated with the history of the Victory Park. Once it was built for Latvian independence, but after the WWII was renamed for Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Also, in 1946 a dozen of German soldiers was publicly hanged there making it the last public execution in the country. All these transformations of the park somehow resemble the tragic history of Latvia and many other East European countries. Today the park is a place where local Russian community gathers on the 9th of May and has a big celebration. But of course, this is just a context, there are not that many references to any facts and events in my work, but rather the park serves as a playground for my own abstract improvisation.

© Arnis Balcus from the series 'Victory Park' 

Your photos in this project exploit strong yet differentiated imagery. Colour pictures mix with black and white ones, flash light contrasts soft daylight and so on. This set looks like an impression or a mind-map. Could you elaborate more on the process of this, as you called it, improvisation? 
AB: There is just one black and white image and it is intentional. I do not see a problem with different imagery and it is actually not that different at all, as I feel it all sits well together. Sure, this work cannot be read as a typical photo-story with linear narrative, but that is what I like about it. It is multi-layered, ambiguous, fragile and even disturbing. And I believe the design of my photobook really helps to transfer that feeling.

© Arnis Balcus from the series 'Victory Park'

Can you name any photographers that inspire you and tell us why? 
AB: There are quite many of them and it keeps changing, but not just photographers, also artists, like Franz Kline, Sergej Jensen and Jimmy De Sana. All their work is visually very powerful, yet the meaning is ambiguous.
© Estate of Jimmy De Sana

You are not only a photographer, but also the co-organizer of the Riga Photomonth. What is specific about this festival and why is it important for you to do more than pure artistic work?
AB: The main motivation was simple - we wanted to have a festival, as almost every European country has at least one. Why aren’t we having one too? The first edition of Riga Photomonth took place in 2014. And when it comes to the content, our objective is to highlight Latvian, North and East European photography. It means having fewer superstars from USA or France, but rather celebrate our own region. This is what can make us special.

FK Magazine is another one of your endeavours. In fact, this is the only magazine on photography in Latvia. Please tell us more about it.
AB: It is a web-based magazine that mainly covers contemporary/documentary photography in East and North Europe, but once a year we also launch a printed publication Latvian Photography to promote our local talents.

What about the Latvian photographic scene? Is it developing? Any Latvian photographers one should follow?
AB: I would say it is growing and becomes more diverse. Even in various international competitions we keep seeing Latvian names more often. I can only advise to follow FK Magazine, both web and our annual, to get an idea of what is going on.

Do you know any Polish photographers? 
AB: Yes, quite a few, for instance, RafaƂ Milach and Joanna Piotrowska.


Arnis Balcus
Victory Park - video of the book
FK Magazine
Riga Photomonth