Commentary to Tears/No Tears

Before you read my commentary, you need to check out these two links:

14 Powerful Portraits Of Men Reacting To New Mandatory Army Draft In Lithuania by Neringa Rekasiute

and

No Tears: Estonians Respond To Lithuanians Who Weep For Mandatory Military Service by Kaupo Kikkas.

It's easy to quickly position yourself and say "I like this one" and "I don't like the other" and it's kinda hard not to gravitate towards either series - depending on your view of the world. The photographs are very polarizing, taken together. But once you look deeper, things get more complicated (and I might even not be able to reach all the layers).

I'm starting from Neringa's work as this is what obviously appeared first. It's fashionable for men to look good, it's fashionable to show men's emotions (after all, satire about men not showing emotions was a huge hit on the net lately), it's fashionable to be against war, free will is one of western society's backbones, etc. I can relate to these statements in some context, but Neringa puts it all together and takes it well over the top, photographing crying hipsters in military uniforms Crying because Lithuanian government introduced mandatory military service.

I'm seriously wondering what is the reaction to her work in Lithuania - it may well be that it's actually so much over the top it even drives more men to sign up voluntarily to the army, more men wanting not to be unmanly, cowardly, disgraceful. That is, could it be that her work has the opposite effect to what we think she wanted to accomplish. I don't even want to get into the fake-looking tears, it seems to make the work ridiculous. I'm somehow  pretty sure crying men times fourteen is not the best way to portray pacifism. But lets honor the photographers decisions and try to focus on the message, not the messengers and not the style of writing.

Kaupo's work is a reaction to Neringa's. Once again it's easy to dismiss the photographic qualities and take a stand as heroic, patriotic and proud person. Again, values one can easily relate to, given the context (war in Ukraine, Russia modernizing it's army and taking aggressive positions). Kaupo's portraits are strong, of strong persons showing high self-esteem, smiling in military uniforms. I like to think they're smiling because they like their country and they're proud of it, not because of disrespect to Neringa's models. I do wonder if and to what extent were they aware of the purpose of their portraits taken, what made them smile? To me at least Paap seems to have the expression of person looking at a shameful moment in bad comedy :) "Hey, think of a crying hipster going to army" - these are some low, but honest associations. Kaupo is balancing on people's level of emotional intelligence here, there will be part of audience who thinks they're laughing at Neringa's guys and there'll be part who sees it as love of freedom and self-respect.

Both works are simplistic, in a sense that I'm quite sure both groups could have been assembled from either Lithuania or Estonia, both sentiments exist in both countries, it's just that Lithuanian anti-military thinking skyrocketed in the wake of government passing the mandatory service bill. Neringa sets the tone here, Kaupo follows, but to his favor, doesn't do it in a completely black and white manner - imagine if he chose some hard-line tattooed combat veterans as his models, instead of these nice proud citizens. The important difference between the two series, however (and I'm pretty sure that this is something only Estonians could notice), is that Neringa's models cry because they're deprived of their free will due to mandatory military service, while Estonian Defense League to where Kaupo's models belong is completely voluntary organization. So we might be comparing two very different situations here, one that very much favors Kaupo's models (although yes, they have most probably been to military service and maybe even the Russian one - before Estonia regained independence that is).

Neringa's work stands on it's own, while Kaupo's point seems to be stronger in relation to hers (something like an argument and counterargument). I think Neringa's photos certainly succeed in being provocative, which, as some argue, is the whole point of art. But at least for me, she would be more persuasive if she had shown different angles of the same topic, just like you expect from good journalism. Kaupo reacts to the provocation and takes his stand, but in all honesty, I wish I could have had a look at his photos without any context and see it more as proud individuals loving their freedom than poking fun at Lithuanians.