Founded in Vilnius in May 2015 by the English documentary photographer, photo historian and campaigner Richard Schofield, the International Centre for Litvak Photography (IC4LP) was primarily active in the field of education and public engagement, where over a period of eight years it provided a rich diversity of photography-inspired projects whose primary aim was to foster a greater awareness and a deeper understanding of prewar European Jewish life in general, and of prewar Lithuanian Jewish life in particular. Officially wound down in June 2023, and superseded by the Data Brigade six months later, IC4LP's history followed a predominantly unorthodox and sometimes serendipitous path, whose highlights have been recorded below in the firm belief that all history, no matter how irrelevant it might appear in the present, may be useful in the future.
A Brief History
Richard Schofield graduates with Distinction on the groundbreaking Master’s Degree programme in Photojournalism & Documentary at the London College of Communication in December 2009 for a body of work that was shot over a two-year period in Lithuania using a 'technically lamentable' Nokia E61i mobile phone, the first time in history that a mobile device was used in such a serious setting. Increasingly aware of Lithuania’s rich and diverse Jewish history, during his final term, Richard interviews and writes about the Lithuanian photographer Antanas Sutkus, who began photographing Holocaust survivors in Kaunas in 1988, when it was still a relatively foolhardy and dangerous thing to do. During the first year after graduating, Richard works on a number of different projects, including spending six weeks taking approximately 8,000 photographs of everyday life in Russia for the London-based Apa Publications.
With funding from the British Embassy in Vilnius, Richard starts working on Pavojinga Teritorija (Dangerous Territory), a long-term photographic project that examines several former Jewish sites and spaces in Kaunas that were transformed into places of Soviet and Lithuanian cultural memory by the vacuum that was created by the Holocaust. In August, Richard is the Guest of Honour at the Panevežys International Photography Festival, where he meets and interviews the photographer Irena Giedraitienė, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor, who at the age of six escaped the Panevėžys Ghetto with her mother shortly before it was liquidated, and who was subsequently hidden in the neighbouring forests by Lithuanian peasants during the German occupation. Richard also works part time for the controversial historian and campaigner Dovid Katz, although the relationship becomes increasingly difficult as Dovid’s politics become more and more extreme.The experience with Katz does however leave Richard with a strong desire to continue using photography as a way of exploring the subject of pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish life and culture in general.
After accepting an invitation to participate in the Brighton Photo Fringe festival in the United Kingdom in October, Richard curates Snapshot Citizens, a small exhibition of vernacular and family photographs featuring everyday life in several different Soviet republics. Among the images on display are two by Irena Giedraitienė. The Snapshot Citizens project is born out of a gradual realisation that everyday photographs, and consequently everyday life, play a hugely important (and largely overlooked) role in the faithful re-telling of history.
An expanded version of Richard’s 2012 Snapshot Citizens exhibition is commissioned by the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES), who display it at the BASEES Annual Congress at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam College in April. On April 22, several of Richard’s photographs from 2011 are used to illustrate an article about Dovid Katz in The Jerusalem Report. Whilst photographing a 1935 Lithuanian telephone directory at the Sugihara House museum in Kaunas for his Pavojinga Teritorija project in September, Richard accidentally stumbles upon a collection of 113 family photographs that he learns were smuggled out of the Kovno Ghetto by an unknown Jewish family in October 1943, a discovery that will completely change the nature and purpose of his working life. Towards the end of the year, 10 images from the Pavojinga Teritorija project are published in dayfour/ten, a limited edition photo book produced by Fiona Hayes, Art Director at Condé Nast International.
Richard refines the Snapshot Citizens project into The Fourth Room, which uses several collections of post-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish family photographs from Kaunas to challenge the myth that Jewish life and culture in Lithuania abruptly ended with the Holocaust, and that it was in actual fact slowly eroded into extinction by the occupying Soviet regime, beginning on the day that the Red Army ‘liberated’ the Kovno Ghetto on August 1, 1944. At the time of writing, The Fourth Room remains a regrettably unfinished project.
In February, Richard is one of four nominees for the annual Sugihara Diplomats for Life Citizen of Tolerance award, in recognition of his efforts in securing the successful prosecution of a young Lithuanian man who he encounters wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform in a Kaunas restaurant several months before. The Pavojinga Teritorija project concludes in March, with a combined exhibition and discussion with local school pupils and members of Kaunas’ small Jewish community at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, the first privately organised exhibition at the site in its entire 60-year history. During the same month, Richard draws a line under his early work when he publishes Nokumentary™ with the New York publishing house, Dutch Kills Press. In April, with the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, Richard acquires digital copies of the 113 photographs that he discovered in 2013, and initiates a crowdsourcing campaign on social media in an attempt to try and identify the photographs’ original owners. At around the same time, a 'lubricated' nighttime conversation with a philanthropist friend in a bar in Vilnius results in the official founding of the International Centre for Litvak Photography. With no known precedent to guide or inspire him, and with little knowledge of the subject, Richard writes the organisation’s first mission, which includes the key words, ‘rescuing … Litvak-related vernacular photographs in danger of being lost to history, and using them in original ways to engage with the public’, themes that continue to drive his work more than a decade later . A short film of one of Richard’s experimental projects is produced to announce the launch of the organisation, and the next two years are spent organising various workshops and other similar events with groups of young people from Lithuania and abroad. In August, Richard wins the ‘Cultural Leap’ category in a photography competition organised by the Lithuanian Jewish Community for a photograph from the Pavojinga Teritorija project, and, in December, he commissions Anton Dehtiarov, a young musician and composer from Ukraine, to write a piece of experimental electronic music in commemoration of the still unidentified photographs that he discovered in September 2013.
In March, Saulė Valiūnaitė, a young historian at the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History in Vilnius, achieves the seemingly impossible, discovering not only the identity of Annushka Varšavskienė, the woman who originally owned the photographs that Richard stumbled upon in 2013, but also locating surviving relatives living in the United States (an article by Richard that tells the full story can be read here). Anton Dehtiarov performs the first movement of The Kaunas Requiem over a seven-day period inside an abandoned former synagogue that Richard rents in Kaunas between September 17 and September 23. The last day of the performance falls on Lithuanian Holocaust Memorial Day, during which a special Reading of the Names event takes place inside Kaunas’ former Gestapo headquarters, the first of four annual public readings of the names of local Holocaust victims that Richard organises between 2016 and 2019. On an unknown date a year or two later, information about The Kaunas Requiem is permanently preserved on a plaque outside the building in which the performance took place. With financial support from the Canadian Embassy in Vilnius, a music CD is commissioned as part of the project, and is later released online. Five days before The Kaunas Requiem begins, on Monday September 12, Annushka Varšavskienė's photographs are ‘returned’ to the surviving members of her family at an informal ceremony in New York.
With the help of a small grant from the Good Will Foundation in Vilnius, Richard begins the Fifty Schools project in January. In May, he begins researching the Back to Shul project, and subsequently spends 12 days in August hitchhiking and travelling by public transport around Lithuania with the aim of visiting and photographing the country’s surviving former synagogues. During the early research period for the project, Richard reads that, in December 1941, the synagogue in the small Lithuanian town of Švėkšna was used to sell thousands of household items belonging to the town’s recently murdered Jewish inhabitants. The cultural destruction and misappropriation of Lithuanian Jewish property during the Holocaust will gradually become a major part of Richard and IC4LP's future work, and will eventually form the foundations for the creation of the Data Brigade six years later.
Back to Shul produces three exhibitions during the year, one at the Ars Et Mundus gallery in Kaunas, one at a small Cultural Centre in the former Lithuanian shtetl of Prienai, and the last one, in partnership with the Lithuanian Jewish Community, inside the empty former Zavl’s Kloyz in Vilnius (a review in Lithuanian of the latter exhibition, complete with several photographs, can be read here). In October, Richard flies to New York to attend the opening of the Lost & Found exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum (YUM). The exhibition is curated by Richard and YUM’s then director, Jacob Wisse, who’s also the great-nephew of the original owner of the photographs. The exhibition runs for seven months.
Together with colleagues at the University of Latvia's Centre for Judaic Studies, the Jews in Latvia Museum in Riga and Paideia in Stockholm, in July IC4LP takes a group of 16 young Latvians and Lithuanians on a five-day travelling summer school. Starting in Riga, and finishing in Kaunas via several Latvian and Lithuanian towns and cities along the way, the trip includes a total of 24 activities, including meetings, discussions, walking tours, workshops with a wide variety of locals working in the field of Jewish heritage and memory, visits to sites of cultural and historical importance, eating lots of Jewish food and, during the Friday evening of the journey, socialising with members of Kaunas' secular Jewish community during their weekly Shabbat celebration. In September, Richard takes four young Lithuanian artists to the German city of Rostock as part of an EU-funded project on art and the Holocaust. During the same month, Richard is invited to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem to visit and learn more about their photo archives, a trip that takes place in October, and that also includes a visit to Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum, whose extensive use of historical photographs increases his belief in the vital role that photography plays in explaining the story of Europe’s lost Jewish culture. Following on from the visit to Rostock in September, in December IC4LP hosts a group of young artists and photographers from Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany, Ukraine, Spain and Egypt for a three-day programme of seminars, presentations, workshops and site visits on the subject of art and the Holocaust.
During a research visit to Moldova and Ukraine the previous November, Richard learns that IC4LP and the Yeshiva University Museum have been invited by the Israeli and Lithuanian ambassadors to the United Nations in Geneva to bring the Lost & Found exhibition to the Palais des Nations at the city’s UN headquarters in September. Richard flies from Vilnius to Berlin, where IC4LP has several meetings to discuss a number of new projects. Shortly after the plane takes off, the World Health Organisation releases a statement, announcing that the increasingly alarming coronavirus outbreak is now officially a global pandemic. Every meeting in Berlin is cancelled. Later in the summer, the event in Geneva is also cancelled. During the first lockdown, Richard begins making sound recordings of pieces of broken window glass that he collected from 10 abandoned former synagogues around Lithuania during the previous two years. The experiment evolves into a finished piece of music, which is credited to Richard’s occasional musical alter ego, Albert Hall. Unable to carry on with public engagement work for the foreseeable future, Richard applies for, and is awarded, a small research grant from the Lithuanian Council for Culture in October, which enables him to spend the last three months of the year conducting a series of interviews with staff at several Lithuanian State museums, archives and libraries that explores how these different institutions use the pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs in their collections within the context of their everyday work. These often worrying encounters lead to a further period research, which gradually transforms IC4LP from an organisation that works almost exclusively in the field of public engagement into one that becomes increasingly concerned with issues of preservation, and, later, provenance.
With the increasing likelihood of further lockdowns for several more months at least, Richard continues to focus the majority of his activities on research, looking further into issues including the conditions under which pre-Second World War Lithuanian Jewish photographs are kept at Lithuanian State institutions, how these photographs are used to engage with the general public and how they originally found their way into these institutions’ collections in the first place. In July, Richard visits the Bavarian spa resort of Bad Kissingen to discuss a Lost & Found-related project which he plans to bring to the town in 2024. In the autumn, Richard and his project partners in Latvia and Sweden receive further funding to organise a second travelling summer school in Latvia and Lithuania in July 2022.
The results from Richard’s period of research in the previous year lead to the development of several new project ideas, which, with support from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he explores in more detail with a second visit to Israel in February, where he spends several days visiting and talking with archive staff at the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, the National Library of Israel and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Ghetto Fighters’ House in Lohamei HaGeta'ot. An extended version of the travelling summer school, which now includes a preliminary online introduction module, takes to the road again in July. One of the scheduled activities includes a visit to the former Telz Yeshiva in the Lithuanian city of Telšiai, which is now a Jewish-themed branch of the city’s Alka Museum of Samogitian History, and that features a collection of religious artefacts from Telšiai’s former synagogues. Research into the artefacts’ provenance in August indicates that the items found their way into the museum’s collection under dubious circumstances in September 1941. Along with Richard’s earlier research that uncovered some disturbing information about the circumstances surrounding the same museum’s ownership of several hundred glass plate negatives from Telšiai’s former Kaplanskis photography studio, the increasing realisation that a public database of photographs held by Lithuanian State institutions leads to the development of The Untitled Catalogue. With support from the National Museum of Lithuania and the Foundation for Jewish Heritage in London, the first stage of The Useless Archive is quietly launched in November.
IC4LP’s website is rebooted in January, complete with a new mission that reflects the changes that have taken place during the previous three years. A regular online newsletter, The Positive Review, is launched in March, the same month that Richard and one of his technical collaborators works on a project with the Judaica Research Centre at the National Library of Lithuania, producing a series of nighttime projections of 420 photographic images in three windows at the former ORT Technikum building in the centre of Vilnius as part of a larger exhibition that’s held inside the library during April. In May, IC4LP continues to re-establish itself as an organisation with a commitment to public engagement when Richard gives a presentation about IC4LP’s ongoing research projects to a diverse audience of Lithuanian photographers and artists at the Kaunas Photography Gallery. Plagued by a number of difficult local challenges that are impossible to resolve, in June the International Centre for Litvak Photography is forced to close. In July, Richard returns to Bad Kissingen to continue working on the Lost & Found-related project. As the year draws to a close, Richard makes plans to relaunch IC4LP under a new mission and with a new name.
The Data Brigade is officially launched on January 1.