Baltic Bridge cover girl takes on Vogue Italia’s PhotoVogue Gallery - Ona Zekonis
“Wearing my traditional Lithuanian clothes is like traveling back in time and wearing my family history.”
Photo by Jason Lavengood
"I am forever proud of being Lithuanian. My culture has taught me to always be strong, to rise above expectations, to have faith even when everything else has been lost, to find beauty in the simple things, to work hard for what you want, to always stand up for yourself, to never give up, and to forever be proud of who you are and where you come from."
The photograph of Baltic Bridge cover girl, Ona Zekonis, in traditional clothing has been picked up by Vogue Italia and featured in their PhotoVogue Gallery. Ona, a 19-year-old American-Lithuanian and undergraduate student at Indiana University, discusses the story behind her national costume and what she finds most meaningful about her Lithuanian heritage.
Baltic Bridge: Why did you decide to shoot the photograph in traditional Lithuanian clothing?
Ona: Over the years I've posted several pictures on social media wearing my traditional clothes from Sokiu Svente (Lithuanian Dance Festival) or other Lithuanian festivities based here in America. The photographer, Jason Lavengood, happened to see these pictures and was intrigued by them and my culture. So, of course, I was ecstatic when he asked.
Jason Lavengood: This image is obviously unique for her traditional clothing, but it is more than that. The power of this image lies in the strength and pride that it evokes. What I like about this photograph is the way Ona looks - beautiful and calm; yet strong and sure of herself. I love how the photograph shows a young woman who is proud of her heritage, which comes across in many of the photos I took of her in traditional Lithuanian clothing.
I try in many of my photoshoots to think of one thing that is different or unique about each person and then capture that. This is one of the things that sets Ona apart from all of my other portraits. We initially took some shots inside in the studio. While I do like those, there is something about putting her outside under the Wisteria with nature that really made everything perfect. I love this image. It is easily one of my favorite portraits I've ever taken.
Ona: All of the pieces of clothing and jewelry in the photo are either my mother's, grandmother's, or great grandmother's that has been passed down by each generation in our family. My grandmother danced traditional Lithuanian dances growing up in Lithuania and preformed at festivals and traveled all throughout Europe wearing those same clothes. Wearing my traditional clothes is like traveling back in time and wearing my family history.
Baltic Bridge: What does having a Lithuanian background in America mean to you?
Ona: It means several things. First it's a sense of community and joy. I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend Lithuanian summer camps (like Camp Dainava in Manchester, Michigan) and have met Lithuanians from all over the States and Europe. It's amazing to be able to have a friend group from many different parts of the world bound by this connection – our culture and our passion to keep Lithuania an active part of our lives and identity.
I’m also an active member of Ateitinikai. While I was in high school, I would attend meetings every month in Chicago. I also continue to actively participate in Lithuanian festivals (Dainu Svente and Sokiu Svente), which keeps my Lithuanian culture alive and continues to expand my friend group even more.
It's also a challenge. Growing up I remember being teased for speaking a different language or practicing different traditions for holidays. These things have largely passed as I got older and people became more interested in my culture instead of being weirded out or afraid of it. But at the same time, I still struggle with a defined sense of ‘self.’ I am a ‘Lietuvaite.’ I am an American. But I am also neither. At times it becomes very frustrating because you feel like no one really understands what it's like to be kind of an ‘outsider’ in both cultures. Even though I've been to Lithuania so many times and spent a huge chunk of my childhood there, I never feel like I really belong there or fit in with people my age. While I'm in America, I've always felt slightly disconnected from the culture too because it's not really mine, as if I'm always floating somewhere in between.
Baltic Bridge: Is there a memory that you have from one of your visits to Lithuania that you think back to while you’re in the States?
Ona: Some things that I always miss from Lithuania are the smells, tastes and feels. I have spent almost every summer of my childhood in Lithuania and have vivid memories of running barefoot through wildflower fields; rolling down hills; feeling and smelling the rain; falling asleep under my grandmother's cherry trees; picking blueberries and mushrooms from the forests while breathing in the fresh smell of the pine trees; going outside and picking homegrown strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas (the list goes on and on) from my grandmother's garden; and eating homemade ‘cepelinai,’ ‘koldunai,’ and ‘saltibarsciai.’
My grandfather also has a huge knowledge of history and he would always take my siblings, my cousins and me on little adventures and excursions around the country to explore castles, landmarks, museums, little towns and other interesting places that most people may overlook.
Although growing up was difficult at times in having to face judgment and being called weird for practicing different traditions and speaking a strange language, I am forever proud of being Lithuanian. My culture has taught me to always be strong, to rise above expectations, to have faith even when everything else has been lost, to find beauty in the simple things, to work hard for what you want, to always stand up for yourself, to never give up, and to forever be proud of who you are and where you come from. Being Lithuanian is a huge part of who I am as a person, and I could never imagine my life without it.