I have not seen Rafal Milach’s book of photography, The Winners. I have not been to Belarus. I know little about the country, other than it is in Eastern Europe. After reading a bit about this collection and seeing some of these photos, I feel compelled to link to it. Maybe it’s because I have ancestors from Eastern Europe. Maybe it’s because the awkward hilarity of the stone-faced expressions of various mundane contest winners. (There is a political purpose behind the choice). Maybe it’s because Rafal Milach has an eye for brutal reality.
It’s also something to consider. Our glimpse into Eastern European culture is often stilted or strange, in part because it is so unfamiliar to many Americans. Everything is Illuminated. Borat. The Sochi Olympics in caricature. The expressions don’t feel painted on, not Wes Anderson-style. Real vs. caricature. However, you’d be a fool to imagine all citizens of Belarus as stoic humorless robots. How did they survive for all of those frigid winters? Vodka and laughter. You do what you have to do. There are strong strains of that within both the Eastern European side (mom) and West Virginia settlers side (dad) in my family. You do what you have to do. You become the best damn milkmaid in Slutsk.
I haven’t yet seen Grand Budapest Hotel (I might not ever) but I have no doubt Wes Anderson’s whimsical jaunt into Hungary will contain few seeds of truth (not that he’s aiming for truth). Instead, a visual parallel to these photos might be the isolated Finnish landscapes and no-nonsense expressions of the characters in the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Side note: watch Kitchen Stories (the entire film is on Youtube). Either way, these are photographs that contain something powerful.
Here’s what Jordan Teicher of Slate‘s photo blog had to say:
Before Polish photographer Rafal Milach visited Belarus in 2011, he’d intended to do a personal project exploring the history of his family, which has roots in the Eastern European country. When he arrived there, however, he was immediately struck by a strange feeling that caused him to switch gears. “I was so overwhelmed by these super tidy, super clean public spaces,” he said. “You go there and you think everything is all right and good, but you feel that it actually isn’t underneath. In a visual way the public spaces seemed to be very much controlled—they were over tidy, over clean, almost too perfect.”
Milach’s knowledge of the political situation in Belarus likely added to this looming uneasiness. Sometimes referred to as the “last dictatorship in Europe,” Belarus has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, longer than any other European head of state. In 2012, the U.N. selected an investigator there to look into “allegations of torture, poor treatment of prisoners” and other “serious violations of human rights.” Rather than try to add to that investigation, Milach decided upon a more subversive approach to political criticism by holding a mirror of sorts to the Belarusian government’s own manufactured image of itself. His book, The Winners, is a piece of anti-propaganda slyly disguised as propaganda, a catalogue of winners of state and local competitions supported by the Belarusian authorities including “the best of the best in contests promoting beauty or public space maintenance.”