Indrė Urbonaitė, State of Shame

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2020 (here). Hardcover, 26.5×36 cm, 96 pages, with 44 black and white reproductions. Includes essays by Vitalija Stepušaitytė and the artist. In an edition of 100 copies. Design by Monika Mickute. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we know that someone is going to take a photograph of us, our instinct to control that likeness often takes over. Sometimes we smile brightly, or try not to, or stand up tall, pull in our stomachs, and generally try to look our best, whatever we might think that is. In other cases, we actively pose, in an attempt to convey an emotional state, our arrangements, gestures, clothing, and general demeanor offering something specific about who we want to be at that particular moment.

As its title implies, Indrė Urbonaitė’s self-published photobook State of Shame narrows in on one small and generally overlooked slice of photographic portraiture – the shame portrait. Unlike the mugshot, which forces the accused to look straight into the camera, the shame portrait catches the subject either in court or in motion between such proceedings, or more broadly out in the world. Whether taken by a court reporter, a journalist, a bystander, or a member of the paparazzi, by definition, such a photograph is intrusive – it is being taken without the consent of the subject, who has no ability to prevent it from being taken. The only way to foil such photographers is for the subject to cover him or herself up, usually by deliberately blocking their own faces. Regardless of whether the person being photographed just wants to protect their privacy or actually feels any shame, the only available option is to hide, albeit in plain sight.

Urbonaitė’s project starts with found images from court sessions, which she then carefully crops and enlarges, isolating the covering-the-face gesture. And while the choices for concealment are limited, human ingenuity wins out. She shows us various versions of jacket and sweatshirt hoods pulled down tight, suitcoats and overcoats thrown over entire upper torsos like capes or wings, sweaters and shirts tugged up, arms and elbows raised as blockers, scarves tied around heads and faces, and handbags, handfuls of papers, folders, and legal binders used as improvised interference. In her entire parade of images, not one recognizable face makes an appearance.

By cutting away the surrounding context, Urbonaitė amplifies the attention placed on these protective gestures of self-preservation. And while a few of the resulting images lean towards wry comedy, it’s hard not to feel a bit of empathy for these exposed souls, regardless of their crimes. She’s captured shame in its essence, mixing an intense desire not to be seen with a tacit acknowledgement of potential wrongdoing.

Urbonaitė’s artistic approach also tends to highlight the sculptural qualities of what she leaves behind, accenting curves, bends, and the interaction of limbs, and transforming the anonymous subjects into something more abstract, almost like symbols. Her choice of thin transparent paper stock for the image pages makes this streamlining of visual communication even more visible, as ghostly silhouettes of images before and after show through like simple cutouts. It’s an inspired design choice that fits the content of her photographs perfectly. State of Shame is also quite physically large, and the bulky enlargement of the images makes them even more bold and graphic.

As a single subject photobook with pictures that all follow a common pattern, State of Shame is crisp and succinct – it introduces its central idea, expands on the theme with multiple examples and variants, and then wraps it up. That simplicity, supported by smart design and construction decisions, ensures that Urbonaitė’s photobook is fresh and memorable. She’s codified the visual representation of shame, creating a lively aesthetic taxonomy of public embarrassment and disgrace that never once feels like exploitation.

Collector’s POV: Indrė Urbonaitė does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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