Berta is the kind of person you would love to run into and spend some time with when you travel. She explores the world with an undeniable curiosity for people and often emphasizes the connection between humans and nature. Berta Tilmantaite is an award-winning Lithuanian journalist, photographer and videographer whose stories have been published in various media outlets, including National Geographic, and Al Jazeera. Transterra Media talked to her on the go in South America in April, 2016.
“I am in Ecuador at the moment and experienced the first earthquake in my life. I was far away from the epicenter, but felt it quite strong anyway and it wasn’t pleasant. Now I’m waiting for the situation to stabilize on the coast, where the earthquake hit and hope to go to work or volunteer in the area for a while.”
Can you describe this photo? (Kenya, February 2, 2016)
This photo was taken by my colleague Karolas Pilypas Liutkevicius while working on the story about Lake Victoria. The man behind me is Michael, one of the main characters in the story. And the man next to me is Evans, one of the people who helped us with translations and organizing the work. We were laughing because Evans is from Masai tribe and he doesn’t know how to swim, therefore was quite afraid to be in the boat. The boat was quite unstable and also Michael’s stories about crocodiles, hippos and water snakes didn’t help. So I was trying to make Evans laugh and relax.
How old were you the first time you had a camera in your hands and took a picture?
My dad was photographing my family and me since I was born, so photography was a part of my life all the way along. I used to take photos since I remember. But I only saw it as a way of documenting our family life, keeping a record. Only when I was about 21 years old and went to study photojournalism at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, I realized it could actually be something I would love to do for a living.
What is the importance of the ethical approach in your work as a journalist?
I believe that having an ethical approach is essential to journalism. As well as empathy, tolerance and respect. I was raised in this manner – taught to respect and treat everyone in the way I would like to be treated. Putting it simple – don’t treat people in a way you wouldn’t like to be treated yourself. There is always a threat to slip and overstep the line and treat people you are telling the story about like objects. I notice this in other people’s work sometimes and it really makes me worry. So I try to be cautious at all times, analyze situations I am in and myself, my approach to people and how I treat them. It’s important to be hard on yourself and always remind the purpose of the work and why you do it.
What do you think is the main character trait that helps you in your work everyday?
I think that ability to easily adapt and accept everything the way it is, is the most important. Otherwise it would be really hard to work.
What are your sources of inspiration? Book, music, film and other photojournalists you follow?
The biggest inspiration is everyday life – long and in-depth conversations with friends and family or small talks with random people; details, emotions, unexpected things, relationships, overheard conversations, etc. Intense traveling also gave me and taught me a lot of things. Also, movies and books – at the moment mostly documentaries, biographies and true stories, but I also love some good mind-twisting fiction or magic realism. Also, I’m very inspired by different athletes, especially freedivers and mountaineers, explorers, travelers and other crazy human beings, who push the limits, go wild, do what they love and don’t give a damn about anything else. Speaking of photographers or photojournalists, the list would be long, but to name a few it would be Martin Parr, Paul Nicklen, Graciela Iturbide, Tomas Van Houtryve, Evgenia Arbugaeva, Stephanie Sinclair, Mishka Henner.
What was the last book you read?
The last book I read was “No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks” by Ed Viesturs (Among the 10 great books for explorers). I absolutely love reading about all kinds of hardcore expeditions.
What music do you listen to when you travel?
To be honest I don’t really listen to music while traveling – I like to be aware of what’s going on around, listen to the street noise or nature sounds, to be 100% in the place. But when I do listen, it’s a huge variety – from my favorite Tool and The Perfect Circle to Ben Howard, from Queen to Fink, from Alt-J to Sixto Rodriguez, good old rock to Lithuanian hip-hop.
Who are your top 5 influencers?
My top influencer would be my grandfather Alfonsas, who unfortunately passed away a few years ago. The other 4 are constantly changing.
What do you think people should keep in mind when they want to become a successful photo or video journalist?
Look for stories that you really care about and do your best while working on them. Watch the tendencies in the industry and look for your own, personal and unique approach to the stories.
Do you think video or photojournalism is more effective in engaging audiences and why?
I believe that the combination of both, plus other medias – sound, data visualization, music, animation, etc. can reach the highest level of effectiveness. However, sometimes only one image is enough.
What are your top three bits of advice for soon to be photojournalist/videographers?
1. Look for stories you are really interested to talk about, dig deep, do a lot of research. While working on a topic, you have to become an expert of it. Be maximalist, require only the best from yourself and don’t be satisfied with something that is not good enough. Remember, that you are only as good as your last work.
2. Invest a lot of time in self-education, it’s important to read a lot, watch other people’s work, analyze, learn, copy if needed but improve. You have to be a strong and educated person, to be able to create something good.
3. Travel. Not necessarily worldwide, but at least in your own country. Go, somewhere you have never been before, or somewhere you have been and try to discover something new. Talk to people, to strangers – the stranger the better. Approach your work as an adventure. Every new story is a new adventure, really. Don’t do it just because you have to, do it, because you enjoy and love doing it. Once you stop enjoying, find another job.
What do you believe is the next frontier in visual journalism?
Virtual Reality will definitely be a next big thing in the industry. There are already stories told using VR and they seem to be powerful, engage people and give a unique experience.
How do you organize your work?
My life now is pretty much all about work. I travel, film and photograph on the way, produce stories, sell them and move on to other ones. It’s quite hard to cope with everything, but that’s my choice for now and I love doing it.
Do you travel on your own or do you prefer to have your crew with you?
I used to prefer working alone, but finding good work partners is absolutely great and helps to produce better work. However, I like to keep low profile, keep the crew as small as possible, because in such way it’s much easier to approach people and get access. So it’s usually only me or one more other person. But when I start to work with already gathered material, I love to invite as many people as possible – musicians, sound and graphic designers, animators, color graders, etc.
You are also a licensed freediver and scuba diver. Tell us how you integrate your passion for the sea into your work projects?
My personal life and work go together, so my passion for water can be obviously seen in my work as I often work on water-related issues. Understanding the ocean and my body, helps me to work and get the footage I couldn’t otherwise.I want to build a large body of work about water-based communities and tell their stories. Also, while traveling and diving in different parts of the world I’m really shocked and concerned about the amount of trash, in particular plastic, in the waters. So I would love to work on that too – more stories discussing environmental issues and raising awareness, to at least try to change the situation a bit.
What is the most memorable photo shoot you have done so far and why ?
I really appreciate all the stories I work on and the experiences I get from them. I like to shoot in the water, it’s very challenging, and so I really enjoyed working on a story about the sea nomads Bajau Laut and go for spear fishing with one of the Bajau man.
One Bajau Laut nomad coming back to his boat after fishing offshore Maiga island, Malaysia.
Could you tell us more about you being a lecturer at the Vilnius University in Lithuania?
I’m not longer lecturing at the Vilnius University, but it was definitely an interesting and valuable experience. I believe that journalism is about what is happening today – you have to be up to date, follow the tendencies in the industry and keep up with it or better – go ahead and try to predict what and how will work in the future, experiment, improve, challenge yourself. Old methods and ways of working are not enough anymore. So that was the most important thing while lecturing – with students we always discussed things that are happening now and worked in a way to meet the future’s needs.
Can you tell us more about the Nanook project?
Last year my colleague and fellow photojournalist Artūras Morozovas and me founded a documentary multimedia platform Nanook.lt – first and only of such kind in Lithuania (coming soon in English too). We not only work on different documentary stories but also started an education program – we invite students to learn and grow with us. Most of them are my ex-students; one of them – Karolis – even joined me in Kenya to work together. Workshops and lectures are also in our plans. We want to build a strong community of professionals and grow together. I really liked lecturing and even though I’m not working in the University anymore, education will always be a part of my work. We have a lot of plans and hope Nanook will grow into something big and strong and will shift a landscape of visual journalism in Lithuania.
You are currently travelling in Latin America working on a new project called “First photograph”, tell us more about it.
I’m traveling with my partner Lucas Cwierz and we both work on this new project First Photograph. We look for people who don’t have any photographs of themselves printed on paper (unless ID or passport). Lucas is very good with approaching people, explaining them what we’re doing and why. Then it’s my turn – I take a photograph in a way people want it to be taken. We print the picture with a small photo printer we have in our van and give that print to people as a present. The whole process is really rewarding, it’s amazing to see people’s reactions when they see themselves in the photo prints! It’s an on-going project and might be that it will continue for years, it already became a natural part of our travels. There is no deadline, so I hope to end up with a big and beautiful portrait gallery, which also gives a possibility to talk about a lot of different issues – social and economical aspects, technology, body image, etc. I believe there is a lot of potential in this project and hopefully it will turn into something big, bigger than I have ever done before.
Do you think there’s any particular story that would lend itself particularly to your approach? Why?
I think I could work with any kind of story and it would finally lend itself to me. That’s the main thing I learned at school – to turn even the most boring and dull assignments into something I would enjoy doing. But ideally speaking, I would really want to get more into water and work on water-related environmental issues, explore connection between human and nature.
Berta will stay in Ecuador volunteering until she flies to her next destination: Singapore.
Keep exploring Berta's work on Transterra Media : Stories by Berta Tilmantaite (available for licensing)
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18 Dec 2015 on