Vika Eksta: unearthing the folkloric power of Latvia’s Devil’s Lake

The Devil’s Lake seeks to capture the peculiar magnetising force of a lake with intensely green water located in the middle of a forest in the Aglona district of Eastern Latvia — the subject of various myths, secrets, and stories

28 November 2018
Interview: Liza Premiyak

After receiving a wide range of entries from 26 New East countries, the New East Photo Prize 2018 is back with a new set of 16 finalists, with projects exploring modern-day witchcraft, graduation albums, legendary cosmonauts, contested territories and more. We caught up with the photographers to find out what drives their work. The exhibition is on display until 2 December at Calvert 22 Foundation.

The Devil’s Lake by Lativan photographer Vika Eksta seeks to capture the peculiar magnetising force of a round, deep lake with intensely green water located in the middle of a forest in the Aglona district of Eastern Latvia. Also known as Velnezers and Čertoks, various myths, secrets and stories surround the lake, yet there are no records of it in the Archives of Latvian Folklore.

How has the place where you grew up affected your work as a photographer?

I grew up in a small Russian-speaking village called Graveri in the Aglona district in eastern Latvia. It certainly affected my life and work; I still find a lot of inspiration there. I didn’t experience much art or media until I was teenager. I spent a lot of time in nature, playing in the forest with my friends, mushroom picking, helping my family weed the gardens, collecting hay, planting and digging potatoes. My best memories are connected with a horse, Orlik, who was owned by our family and neighbours. I was often sent to go and bring the horse from their place to ours or vice versa. Nature resurfaces in my project Dievs Daba Darbs, where I re-enacted the life of a country woman in an abandoned house. I shot this project over two years, and during that time I observed how nature takes over spaces discarded by human beings.

Where do you find inspiration for the themes of your projects?

From my everyday life and all the small details that create it; from my family and childhood; from the performative behaviour of random people in public spaces; from naturel from cinema; from movement.

What do you think makes a compelling photo story?

Interest in the subject, a curious eye, the ability to make contact, attention to details, luck, personal style, longer research period and, of course, editing.

Pick one photograph from the project you submitted and tell us something we would have never known about it.

This image with two priests next to the Devil’s Lake was taken on Good Friday. The older priest decided to show his younger colleague from Riga some of the beautiful local places, right after delivering mass in the small church of the nearby parish. I was really surprised to meet them that day.

What was the last photo story/film/book that touched you?

I’ve been reading Robert Bressan’s Notes on Cinematography. I liked the photo series The Splitting of the Chrysalis & the Slow Unfolding of the Wings by Yorgos Yatromanolakis. And I’ve watched Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

How do you think Instagram is influencing photography?

I like Instagram, but it really matters how you select what to follow. Maybe in the future “Instagrammer” will be a more significant career than photographer. My mother started to use Instagram recently and now it is her favourite hobby.

Was there a moment you ever regret taking a photo? How about a moment you didn’t take a photo but wish you had?

I don’t regret taking any photo. But there were many times when I regretted not doing so. One particular case happened during the Devil’s Lake project. There was a man who lived quite near to the lake, just at the edge of the forest. Some years ago, for a couple of months, he worked as the guardian of the site, but he was fired because the commune did not want to spend money on this anymore. I went to his place one Sunday afternoon; he said that I should come back in the morning because he was too drunk to be photographed. But the next morning I had to be somewhere else, and some days later he passed away.

Interview: Liza Premiyak
Image: Vika Eksta