As Janina Sabaliauskaitė’s new photo series goes on show in Sunderland, the Lithuanian-born photographer talks about finding and photographing her “pool of queer artists” in Newcastle
“I just opened two exhibitions, so I’m reflecting,” says photographer and curator Janina Sabaliauskaitė. These two shows – a personal project titled Sending Love and a major survey of the documentary artist Rimaldas Vikšraitis – recently arrived at Sunderland’s Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art. Both engage with ideas about gender and Eastern European perspectives; the former focuses on making queer-feminist lives visible, while its sister show examines the changing daily rituals of a village between 1975 and 2012.
Leaving Vilnius for the north east of England 11 years ago, Sabaliauskaitė studied photography, video and digital imaging at the University of Sunderland, choosing the school on account of its facilities. “I knew I wanted to learn darkroom techniques, and I got really lucky,” she says. She had initially become interested in the medium while still a teenager in Lithuania, where she got her start digitising her family’s archives. “I found loads of rolls of film that weren’t in our family albums, so I went to the lab and just fell in love with the quality of film.”
A different kind of love story emerged when she moved to Newcastle after graduating. “I fell in love with a woman for the first time, and we started collaborating, taking pictures with each other,” she recalls. The relationship, and subsequent images, feature in and spurred much of the making of Sending Love, which ultimately helped Sabaliauskaitė meet a wider pool of queer artists. “At university, I learned about Claude Cahun and Robert Mapplethorpe, but it was never really in-depth,” she says. “Then, for the first time I was making the work I'd always wanted to.” Learning about Phyllis Christopher, the American photographer and former photo editor of On Our Backs (the first erotic lesbian magazine, which ran from 1984-2006), was a particularly significant moment for Sabaliauskaitė.
“I was in Glasgow and saw an exhibition called No Right Way 2 Cum,” she explains. “Back in Newcastle I told Jade [Sweeting, her partner at the time], and she went straight to eBay. We found a copy and got really inspired. We showed it to everybody – it was beautiful, like nothing I’d seen before.” Through a friend they learned that Christopher had left San Francisco and was living in Gateshead, from which a creative relationship formed, spawning further exhibitions and, eventually, Christopher’s first monograph, Darkroom: San Francisco Sex & Protest, 1988-2003. “It was only after seeing the rest of this queer feminist photography [via the magazine] that I felt the huge gap in the history of photography,” notes Sabaliauskaitė. “Those women don’t really have visibility.”
Sending Love subsequently became a more urgent project, while Sabaliauskaitė’s broader practice – which leaned towards the intersection of her identities as a gender non-conforming lesbian and an immigrant – meant the series serves communities beyond Britain. “Being an immigrant and living in the UK, I’m exposed to other problems,” she says, alluding to the queer community in Lithuania, where she runs an untitled LGBTQ+ magazine. “My work is about how I can make queer voices heard that are from where I am from. There’s a lot of talk around the UK, but let’s listen to what else is happening.”
The series, which spans 2013 through to today, is predominantly depicted in black and white and features a mixture of self-portraits and pictures of loved ones. In one image, Sabaliauskaitė’s partner Dovilė Lapinskaitė stands firm, dressed in a leather vest, a bold ‘DYKE’ tattoo flashing on her right bicep, while elsewhere there are nudes. “I’m attracted to people,” says Sabaliauskaitė, describing the photographer-subject relationship. “I’m part of their life, they’re part of mine, and we collaborate. It’s an exchange. That’s why it’s important for me to photograph myself in intimate moments, so people can see where I’m coming from.”
This sense of familiarity extends to her work managing a darkroom – where she shares her tools and helps other film-based practitioners – as well as her participation in projects within her immediate community, like a forthcoming exhibition from the photographer Roman Manfredi: We/Us is an intergenerational photography and oral history project celebrating butch and stud lesbians and non-binary people from working-class backgrounds around Britain. “That’s really important for me, to take part in other photographers’ work,” Sabaliauskaitė says. “I’m so happy that me and Dovilė were asked.”
Sending Love is on show at Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art until January 15, 2023.