The photographer and his family suffered under the repressive regime, but his images of children find a spirit that escapes propaganda
The photographer Antanas Sutkus was born in Lithuania in 1939 and by the age of five had witnessed more traumatic history lessons than most people experience in a lifetime. His father killed himself in 1940 after being coerced by Soviet authorities to make a public speech in praise of the October revolution. His mother fled to the west and Sutkus lived with his grandparents through first Nazi occupation, then a return of Stalinism. He started taking photographs in the 1950s and wanted to find a way to make his camera “a weapon for the underground” in portraying resistance to the USSR. One way was to take photographs of children, who represented a kind of freedom: “Children have a world with its own laws, rules, its own happiness and sadness,” he observed. “To enter it, you need to feel that you are a kid. Adults and children are different stories.”
This picture was part of a series Sutkus took in the mid-1960s, many of which are now collected in a new book of his portraits of children. The girl staring into his lens, with her severe fringe and incongruous bow, is characteristic of a style that quietly undermined Soviet propaganda pictures, simply by looking hard at the realities of life in Lithuania. The adults in the shot are pointedly faceless and irrelevant. It was not long after that Sutkus took the most famous of his pictures, of a communist “Young Pioneer”, shaven-headed and inexpressibly sad, which caused him to be called before the central committee and denounced as “photography’s Solzhenitsyn”.
Sutkus co-founded the Lithuanian Photographers’ Association in 1969 and remains its honorary president. The children he photographed grew up to witness the fall of Soviet occupation and the re-establishment of independence and democracy. Looking at his pictures, you might convince yourself that you can see that future in their eyes.
Antanas Sutkus: Children, published by Steidl (£41), is out now