Richard Schofield is one of the most #kaunastic foreigners we’ve met in Kaunas. The Brit first came to Lithuania in 2001 to work on a travel guide about Vilnius and is now focused in the field of Litvak cultural heritage. In 2014, he was among the nominees for the Sugihara Foundation Citizen of Tolerance Award. Richard’s most ambitious project so far, The Kaunas Requiem, a musical performance, installation and photography exhibition, will be open for public in the end of September in the New Šančiai Synagogue. Find out more about that here.
The interview we’re posting below was done in the beginning of 2016, and we’ve got the chance to finally share the English version!
15 years is a long period. How did you end up moving to Lithuania, anyway?
I was 36 when I came here so I’d already done quite a lot. I played music for a long time. I was thrown out of school originally so I had no qualifications. I had a love for film and I made documentary films all over the world for about 10 years. Then I achieved my goal, which was to produce and direct my own work for television in the UK. I hated it so much that I never made another film again. The last two years I spent in England I worked with a friend that moved people’s houses. I think that was best job I ever had!
Then I was offered a job here to work for In Your Pocket. The company had just received a few million dollars of investment money from a bank in France and they were opening offices all over the place, it was crazy. I had a lot of choices. I chose the one I didn’t know anything about.
When did you start exploring the Litvak culture?
The Litvak stuff started right at the beginning. Vilnius In Your Pocket actually still publishes a section called ‘Jewish Vilnius’. I had a look at it when I arrived and it didn’t look right. I contacted the Yiddish Institute at the Vilnius University and it all started from there.
The stuff that I’m doing now, the NGO called International Centre for Litvak Photography, came out of a long story, which started when I was collecting family photographs from Soviet era.
If you go to the official archives, there’s nothing on the Litvak life in Lithuania after 1944. Because of the way the soviets operated their regime, there was officially no Jewish culture in it, even though 15-25 thousand still lived in Lithuania before relocating to Israel.
The best source to find out more is people’s family photographs. I started doing a Ph. D. on the topic in 2013, lasted a year and a half and quit because it was a nightmare. I think the main problem was that you had to focus on a tiny thing, and I am fascinated about everything.
Your recent work includes performances as well – at least that’s how the event in Ryšių Kiemelis in December was called.
I call them performances, yes. I’m an expert and I hate being an expert. There’s no two-way conversation. I do quite a lot of talking and presenting things, and I usually start by breaking the ice – swearing or saying something stupid. Then I get people involved in things.
The event in Ryšių Kiemelis was quite good fun. We did a mini holocaust in the middle. Everybody stood up and represented the Jewish community. Then people had to sit down because they ‘died’, and in the end there were only 2 of us left standing.
Who were the people that came to the event?
I don’t think there was a single Jewish person in the room. Mostly young people, the usual crowd, people that you see in art events, friends of mine, a few people who went for a drink and realized something was happening. It was a mixed crowd and that was great. The talks went on for a long time. Every time I do it people ask more and more intelligent questions, I think it is really interesting. Some of the subjects that I talk about are quite horrible, and it’s good for people to talk about them. The important thing is the memory and how you remember it, not pointing fingers and talking about blame. I come from a country that ran ¾ of the world; we’re guiltier than anyone. But you can live with that.
How do you feel about people being very cautious about immigrants coming to Lithuania, a country that used to be quite multicultural?
It’s a combination of things but it’s mostly ignorance and being told lies. Social media really doesn’t help at the moment. If you actually study the case, there’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s really simple – integration, patience and understanding it won’t to be easy, like in all new relationships.
I’ve been here 15 years so I think I’m qualified to say I’ve seen a lot of positive change. It’s definitely getting better. The biggest tragedy, ironically, is that all the good people are leaving. They’re exactly the kind of people Lithuania needs at the moment. Some are coming back, though, and this is great. People who come back genuinely love Lithuania and now they’ve got the skills and experience to make a difference.
Last year, you published an e-book about mobile photography called Nokumentary. Will you continue doing that, too?
I did my masters degree on photojournalism in London based on that, too – I graduated with a distinction. The main reason I did that was to show that the camera is not that important. I love the idea that people are shocked by how the pictures are made. I just started doing it again as I bought a new mobile phone with a camera.
What’s your plan for 2016?
I’m the founder and director of International Centre for Litvak Photography. The idea is to educate, we work specifically with young people under 25, mostly Lithuanians but not only. We are working with a group from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Belgium next month. The idea is to develop that.
The biggest thing that I’m planning this year is, on behalf of the NGO, to take ownership of a the New Šančiai Synagogue. We’ve got a lot of support from the Cultural Heritage Department. We want to take the financial burden of preserving the building off their shoulders. The plan is to turn it into a museum, gallery, workshop space and community centre. The Jewish people have always been very community-focused, and we want to keep it that way.
Pictures by Artūras Bulota