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Surveillance – Spy Holes in Former KGB Prisons

During the last few years, my research has been mostly linked with historical or socially engaged events and problems through the “abstract” image, working with the viewer’s imagination to create more concrete communication with the help of interpretation and conceptual thinking.

The project “Surveillance” presented here, consist of the photographs of the solitary walking yards and prison cell door spy holes in former KGB prisons in different cities of Lithuania and Latvia. KGB (Committee for State Security,) was the main security agency for the Soviet Union from 1954 till its collapse in 1991. KGB prison cells became a place for political prisoners and objectionable “unwanted” people for their dissent and “anti-Soviet activities.”

The series shows how images can become evidence of an event and create a paradoxical perception. Revealing the power of the context they evoke in the viewer’s mind the image concealed in the work. They call into question the relation between what we see and what we perceive in advance of the act of recognition. These photographs as patterns and traces emphasize the borders not only of human perception, but the border where the consequences of human action meet reason.


Walking Yard Door Spy Hole. KGB Prison, Vilnius, Lithuania

My “diving” into contextual photography began when in 2014 I got a scholarship for two years of studies at the Vilnius Art Academy for a Masters degree at the Photography and Media Arts Faculty. I was also selected to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lodz, Poland for one semester to do research on “Correlation Between the Real and Imaginary” in 2015.

Already in 2016 I was shortlisted for “Baltic Young Artist Award 2016” and became a winner of “Debiutas 2016” award for Emerging Photographers held by the Union of the Lithuanian Art Photographers.

I could not say that some actual photographers influenced me pretty much. I would say that mostly I was influenced by Czech philosopher Vilem Flusser, French philosopher Jacques Derrida (“founder” of deconstruction), by my professor Alvydas Lukys, and by the works of Jackson Pollock and forensic investigators.


Prison Cell Door Spy Hole. KGB Prison, Riga, Latvia

For me, a photograph is more a field that is open for interpretation than a representation. Therefore, it can evoke a paradox in our perception of what it is trying to convey. If we consider this interplay as a liberation from rigid ideologies – permitting the creation of something new – it can broaden our perception and create and open up new horizons, through its ability to overtake our reality.

When we perceive the image, we look on some framed chosen detail which is taken out of time and space and placed on the photographic surface and can be perceived in many ways. The fact that something is not visible at first glance does not mean it is not there. The photograph is a bearer of all the possible interpretations of itself, which it contains or might contain. But not all of which are yet revealed. To reveal the image of the event we need to document the scene where the actual photo was taken. That will show the correlation between the image and reality. Thus, the image becomes a holder of the information.


Prison Cell Door Spy Hole. KGB Prison, Cesis, Latvia

Working in former prison cells and prison walking yards evoked in me a lot of associations, because of a lot of memoirs I had previously read by people who were kept in Gestapo and KGB prisons, and even met few of them personally. Being at the actual place always causes more feelings, than when you look at the image. But I tried not to follow up my intentions and to work with the space impartially, as a forensic investigator.

I am interested in details. A spy hole is a detail. Spy hole is a very informative object. A lens through which the warden looked at people inside of the prison cell or walking yard. It is one of the visual communicative channels which obscured the personality of a prisoner into an object of surveillance. Reminding of the everyday life of people that were on both sides of it.

Anything that preserves traces and looks not significant at first, could reveal more information when focused on, and reveal information being linked with its natural context. These kinds of traces of memory are all around. Bullet holes in the walls as War remnants, former prisons of oppressive regimes of different times of our history.


Walking Yard Door Spy Hole. KGB Prison, Vilnius, Lithuania

The two closest buildings to me were a ghetto for the Jewish women and children during WWII. Around 400 people were shot 300 meters from the place where I now live in Vilnius. These objects are the traces of our history. Historical origins influence us more than most of us realize. They are a part of our surrounding and of our logic and of what makes sense when we put them together. These basic things are actually myths, but it does not mean they are not a “truth”. These myths are images, through which we are trying to make sense of the world around us.

I had traumas in my life. Such as cancer when I was a 13 year old kid and became cured only at the age of 17. Separation from my father at the age of 10. Next time I met him in person, was at the age of 27. But I can not say how it affected my chosen theme.

So, my interest lies not in the field of trauma, but in the field of how we perceive and use this information and build our view of the future through the past.


Prison Cell Door Spy Hole. KGB Prison, Cesis, Latvia

My photographs created as part of this research are both documentary and subjective at the same time. They embody real traces of events, objects and memories. And they serve as platforms for imagining these events, objects and memories in more interpretative form. With an “abstract” photograph the viewer plays a bigger role in the reaction to, and thus the creation of the image which is triggered by the context and reflected back from the surface of the photograph into the viewer’s mind.

Images presented here reveal only some of the photographs conducted for the project. Later project will be expanded with the photographs from former KGB prisons in Eastern Europe.

The “Surveillance” project is partially supported by the Tokina Polska company and the RUCKA Artist Residency.


Valentyn Odnoviun

Valentyn Odnoviun, Ukrainian artist, lives in Vilnius, Lithuania. Working with historical or socially engaged events and problems, he conceptualizes through „abstract images” and elicits the viewer's imagination to create more concrete response with the help of interpretation, exploring the correlation between the image and its reason.


  • I could feel the anguish from these photographs. Valentyn Odnoviun has an astute mind and understanding of the human condition as well as the gift of a great creative talent. He is doing important work — a social commentator — so that we never forget or repeat the atrocities of the past. Particularly important now again!

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