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How did you initially decide to move to China to work? What was the process and had you visited before?

Before moving to China I worked in a major photography studio in Vilnius for three good years where I learned tricks of the trade but also realised that the commercial work I was doing was not inspiring me. I wanted to explore the planet and do travel photography work that hopefully would inspire others to travel and discover the world as well.

I had two destinations on my list : Republic of Congo, where I had friends from back in a day when I played lead electric guitar in the all black gospel choir of East London. And China, a place everyone talked about as a new super mega power where I also had a friend from back in day, who generously offered me a couch to crash on upon arrival and showed me the ropes of surviving in China. I didn’t plan to stay as long as I did but my cameras got stolen in the park the second week so I had to stay and get them back, figuratively speaking.

An all black gospel choir? It sounds almost made up!

The gospel part is one of more vivid things that occurred in my life so far. I lived in London for three years and most of it was pretty miserable as I could not get a job as photographer due to the insane levels of competition and mixing with the wrong crowd. But then I met this African dude in an internet cafe (not sure they still exist) who saw me browsing some guitars on the screen and was like, “hey, you play guitar?!”, I was like, “yeah a bit”. He’s like, “you have to come to my church, you have to come to my church, you have to come to my church”, so eventually I did. It’s pretty spooky what happens there looking with the set of eyes that has mainly seen only Catholic church services. They go pretty wild and pray from the bottom of their hearts. I was completely hooked by the gospel music. Totally. After the service I walked straight to the band leader and asked if I could join the band. They said yes and for most of the two years I was the only white boy there, playing a white guitar in a purely african community. True story!

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Amazing- the energy sounds amazing! Are you at all religious?

Religious?! I was on the other side of the spectrum! By the time I reached the age of eleven I was in a punk rock band playing guitar and skipping school. No, I wasn’t religious at all. But you are right about the energy there. I would leave the stage shaking at times and go sit in a quiet place for half an hour after our Sunday performances. I believe in the brain power and the untapped percentages of it. I think religion serves a certain programing of our brain, like an operating system. For better or worse. I was in there for the music, the people and the occasional bowl of rice.

Back to China- how did you end up staying after crashing on your friends sofa?

Well, after my cameras got nicked in the park that sunny afternoon I decided I have to stay longer than planned and make enough money to buy them back. And by that time I started to receive the most interesting assignments from the magazines I could only have dreamed to work for. Its been pretty much life changing.

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That’s one hell of a silver lining to getting equipment stolen. How do you deal with the challenges of living in China?

I wish I knew how to answer that. You just do. I have learned enough Chinese to get in trouble and occasionally get out of it. It’s not easy and I think this is my last year living here. It’s a trade off. You get to live in this melting pot with amazing opportunities (sometimes just because you’re European) and if you are half-way good at something, have some patience and sense of humor – you will prosper. The payback is living in the country that thinks, eats and behaves very differently to what you are used to, so eventually you end up building circle of friends that consist of mainly foreigners or well-traveled Chinese.

Do the places you travel to inspire your series, or do you go to a place with a project in mind?

It became a small tradition for me to go to a strange country every year, get a small local motorbike and see how far I can go. Coming from a small town in Lithuania (Jurbarkas- ninety kilometres due west of Kaunas. When I was in middle school we would hitchhike to Kaunas to buy guitar strings and fancy tobacco) I dont feel very much at home in the megacities. My rule is the shittier the road, the better the pictures, so I try to meet the most local people from the country I’m in. Thats my way of understanding and exploring the place I’m in, I love talking to locals and would almost never take a landscape picture without at least a trace of humanity, its creations or belongings. So when I’m in the country I look for stories I would like to develop and work more in the future, but in my recent series it’s more of a reflection of the place itself and the people I met.

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Do you feel like being a photographer changes the way you travel and if so, how?

Totally, but I split my travel into two. One is like a holiday-with-a-girlfriend kind of travel where I would only carry a point and shoot and the other is a deep exploration of the place I’m in. I usually work pretty hard on those, too. I would wake up for the morning light, sometimes at 5am (something you’d never see me do under normal circumstances), ride and shoot till I run out of daylight. Due to my bad memory I also write pretty detailed diaries on those trips; it’s a fun read after a few years.

Have you ever thought about pursuing a project in Lithuania?

I did, and started one last year. Something that is very different from my travel portfolio. I started shooting nudes in nature with a large format camera on black and white film. Maybe someday I will make myself a pseudonym and publish it!

I feel there are a few problems regarding shooting at home.  Firstly I”m always come back in the summer and after a year of being away I dont want to do anything work related. Just keeping the schedule to meet all the friends I want to meet is challenge enough. I also have an old car that always needs repairing and an enduro bike, you know the one with knobby tires, so I try to ride as much with my friends as possible. Very little time for shooting. Secondly, I think of multiple subjects I’d love to explore photographically at home while I’m away, but after a month or two at home you get so used to it, it becomes familiar territory that’s much harder to be surprised by. I have seen amazing project done by foreigner photographers in Lithuania, it’s much easier when you dont have prejudice and approach the subject as an outsider. If you are shooting people they are more open and interested to give you their picture, too. I feel that way a lot while traveling. Even if its just across the border in Kaliningrad, you are treated very differently in a positive way.

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Did you ever find it challenging approaching strangers for their photographs?

It’s a positive challenge. I realised that if you approach people with a certain openness and positive energy (helps having a good story behind the reason of wanting to take the picture) – people usually agree. Another thing I realised is if a person looks really threatening from outside and you manage to approach him/her without fear and doubt – they would most often agree to stop for a picture. It takes practice though. I shot a story in Mongolia where I had to go to the outskirts of the capital Ulanbator and shoot the life of ordinary people living in the gers. It’s rough out there. Before going I heard a few stories of my friend receiving a knock-out punch in the face in bright daylight, or a photographer friend almost killed because he had good footwear. So I learned to approach people I’m intimidated by before they have a chance to approach me. I think its called having an upper hand, and it’s a win win!

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What’s been your most rewarding personal body of work or series that you have pursued? 

It’s always the one that’s in the pipeline!

What do you think you would be if you weren’t a photographer?

I would probably run a car scrap yard. The type people can come and buy a second-hand gear box for their car.

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What advice would you give to yourself five years ago?

I don’t know, everything seems to fall into place quite perfectly and at its own pace. I’d probably advise myself to do more yoga.

Probably the most techy question of this interview- what equipment do you take to shoot with whilst travelling?

I love shooting film and my personal trips until now are all shot on film. I started shooting the cheapest plastic 35mm point and shoots upon moving to China and have since grown to shooting 4×5 which I would sometimes use for shooting editorial portraits. My best travel buddy is a Bessa 3, 6×7 camera that folds down and fits into a belt pouch. Perfect for traveling on a motorbike.

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Finally are there any projects you’re working on right now?

Yes, a few actually. One project that’s about to take off is related less to photography and more to helping people. Me and my friend Gedmis will be traveling to Nepal mid March to help the earthquake survivors in the more remote areas. Here you can see what it’s all about. Basically I sold 3000 bottles of donated Lithuanian beer in a week riding a cargo bike around Shanghai and now we are trying to raise additional funds before we leave in March so we can do more good.

Another project is sort of a funny one. I start noticing the trend of Chinese people wearing clothes with English writing on them. Most of the people don’t have a clue what it means which is really comical to me. It’s like this trend of foreigners having Chinese characters tattooed on them without knowing what it means – just the opposite. A lot of these funny notes are already floating on the internet, mostly shot with the ultimate instant cameras of nowadays – mobile phones. Not being a fan of easy, I decided to take a different approach and am shooting this project on the medium that is a mother of all instant photography – Polaroid. So for the last six moths or so I have been lugging around a Mamiya Universal – the 60’s press photographers camera of choice, with this big flash on top and loaded with polaroid (which is now a fuji FP100) peel film wherever I go and I keep my eye peeled for these funny messages. I started releasing shots on my instagram @bakaspictures. I call it “Confucius Notes”.

I’m also planning to ride a motorbike back to Lithuania at the beginning of summer, crossing China and Russia where I have ideas to shoot more focused project.

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