We are looking into the eyes of a young Pioneer, roughly the Soviet ideological equivalent of the Boy Scouts. His eyes are sad, soulful and anything but childlike. Antanas Sutkus captured this boy’s gaze in 1964 while on an assignment to photograph fishermen in Ignalina, in northeastern Lithuania. But in the early morning of the first of September, the traditional start to the Soviet school year, Sutkus chose to follow school children, not fishermen. In those days, photographers were supposed to provide material for ideological propaganda and most photographs were carefully staged for this purpose. But the choice to follow his intuition instead of the planned program provided Sutkus with the opportunity to capture this child’s dangerously sad eyes.
Antanas Sutkus noticed that an open, direct relationship with reality is best reflected in the faces of children and the elderly. The former have not yet learned how to hide their essence behind a mask, while the latter no longer feel the need to do so. As a result, their emotions are anything but staged. The photograph Pioneer. Ignalina reveals an essential trait of Sutkus’ esthetic: psychologism and the study of psychological states of mind lent themselves to multifaceted interpretations that were often unacceptable to Soviet ideology. In this particular photograph, for example, the contrasting play of light and dark serves to emphasize the pioneer boy’s social isolation.
Sutkus was known for his ability to establish a special emotional connection with his subjects – to feel and convey the subtle authenticity of a moment in time. The daily life of the regular people immortalized in his photographs became an abstracted metaphor for human existence. Indeed, the elevation of humanity as an unquestionable virtue is one of the essential elements of Sutkus’ oeuvre. For this reason, the unique photographic movement established by Sutkus and other acclaimed Lithuanian photographers, collectively referred to as the Lithuanian School of Photography, is often associated with Western humanist photography and its emphasis on capturing “decisive moments” to address existential, eternal human questions: birth and death, love and solitude, celebratory occasions and daily life.
The raising of such questions did not always fit into the framework of Soviet ideology. The ambiguity in this particular photograph, for example, did not go unnoticed. When it was first published in the Sovietskoe Foto (Soviet Photography) Sutkus was accused of depicting an inappropriate image of a young pioneer. After such criticism, Sutkus decided not to publish another powerful photograph, the image of a blind pioneer boy from a series titled School for the Blind, which can be viewed today on MO Museum’s internet collection. In those days, the eyes of a blind person could be even more dangerous than a child’s sad gaze.