Belarus Press Photo 2011 has just finished showing in Kraków, Poland, with previous exhibitions in Wrocław and Białystok. This is the second year of the competition, and the photos in the competition provide a unique view into this isolated state.
It seems that more and more press reports are starting to cover the situation in Belarus. However, if media organizations don't actually have a correspondent on the ground in Minsk, which is often the case, they need to find reliable sources within Belarus' own independent media. One such opportunity to disseminate knowledge about the reality in Belarus recently has been the Belarus Press Photo competition.
Only two of these contests have been held, with the most recent contest, "A ty starik, kudy?" (“Where are you going, old man?”), which opened to the public in Białystok’s Centre of Culture on September 10th 2011, just finishing a January 2012 showing in Kraków. Over two thousand photos from 72 photographers have been entered into the contest. “One can almost say that we operate in a partisan way in Belarus because almost half of these pictures couldn’t be shown officially,” explains Belarusian photojournalist and curator of the exhibition, Vadzim Zamirovski. “We wanted to exhibit these works in the Municipal Museum in Minsk, but two weeks before the opening, the city refused, stating that the photographs had a low aesthetic value,” he adds.
The aim of this contest is to support professional press photography in Belarus and to promote the free exchange of information. Zamirovski of the daily newspaper, Bielgazeta, in cooperation with photojournalist Yulia Doroshkievich and Sergey Michalenko, editor of the photo portal Zniata, managed to gather together nine members of the contest jury. “The composition of the competition jury was international, and we wanted to attract well-known foreign correspondents and photo-reporters,” says Zamirovski. Among the jury were Aleksandr Ziemlianiczenko, head of the Russian Bureau of the Associated Press, James Hill, the winner of the World Press Photo in 2005 and Kacper Pempel from the Polish branch of Reuters.
The exhibition contained photos from 2010 to 2011 which depicted life in Belarus, as well as the lives of Belarusians abroad. In addition, it also included photos from the first edition, which showed events in the period between 2005 to 2009. The selection of eight thematic categories, which was aimed to depict a complete picture of Belarus, included: news, news personas, sport, daily life, national traditions, portraits, art and entertainment and nature.
Sergei Hudzilin, the winner of the Grand Prix, is a reporter from the Belarusian newspaper Nasha Niva who spent a year and a half doing military service. His snapshots represent the daily life of army recruits. “The army commanders knew that I was a photographer and asked me to document important events,” Hudzilin explained in an interview for the website Tut.by. Nonetheless, his work had not been shown to the public prior to the contest. The picture which received first prize showed a room full of military recruits crowed round a television set watching an information programme broadcast by Belarusian state television; a daily activity in the Belarusian army which has remained unchanged since Soviet times.
The news and news personas categories were dominated by pictures of events of the evening of the election on December 19th 2010, when peaceful demonstrations organised by opposition candidates of the president were violently dispelled by the militia. Vasily Fedosenko, who won first place in the news category, photographed a woman pressing her cheek to the window of a police van to hear the muffled voice of a member of her family who had just been arrested. Vyacheslav Tsuranov won first place in the daily life category. His series of pictures depicted a mother's day celebration in a female prison. Alexei Bibikova’s series of photos showing the death of Chestnut, the horse which served a village in Belarus, was also quite provocative.
The legacy of the Soviet tradition of printing brightly coloured red symbols of cardboard and plastic in the form of stars and other emblems of the Soviet Union remains strong in today’s Belarus. With an incredible series of photos of Minsk drowning in such decorations on the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over the Nazis, Alena Stolyarova received second place in the art and entertainment category.
One of the invited guests, the Belarusian film director, Andrei Kudinenko, in an answer to the question, “Which word would best describe Belarusians today?” replied: partisans. The partisans of this last authoritarian state in Eastern Europe have taken the well-established role of “truth messengers” in Eastern Europe and yet again brought news from within an oppressive regime to the outside world. However, the question still remains whether the world will ever listen to these stories.
Karolina Słowik is a graduate student of international relations and an undergraduate student of Russian at the University of Wrocław. She also studies Russian at Saint Petersburg State University and works for the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe.