The Belarus book
An interview with Kasia Syramalot, author of The Belarus Book – a visual story of Belarus over the past decade. Interviewer: Anastasia Starchenko
ANASTASIA STARCHENKO: You refer to The Belarus Book as a visual story of Belarus, a reflection of its authenticity and travel discoveries. There has been a growing impression that the true identity of Belarus and its culture are poorly documented outside the country and hidden behind common clichés. Would you say it’s still true?
KASIA SYRAMALOT: I started photo-documenting Belarus about 15 years ago. In fact, the last decade of the documentary work found their way into the book. Yes, unfortunately, I had to wade through many of the clichés that were common. Perhaps it was because even the Belarusians themselves perceived their country as something ordinary and uninteresting. Social poverty had a role, too. It was considered prestigious to go see the countries of Europe or beaches with exotic flora. For a long time, villages and old monuments were thought of as “ruins”, and only the intelligentsia would find them interesting.
Practically every Belarusian can trace their roots to the village, everybody has relatives or grandparents in the village community. In some peculiar way, it had preserved culture under our skin. The generation of 30-somethings reminisces about drinking fresh milk, their grandmother milking cows in the countryside, and making simple meals; they have a perfect memory of using wells. In other words, my generation is a unique generation of transition – we know the old ways of life from our childhood, which was commonplace to us, but we also managed to travel across continents, because it is so accessible today. And what surprises me is that it is so easy to find images of any place around the world, but there are so few photos of Belarus. I am glad that some strange feeling had kept me documenting Belarus over the past decade, even though many people told me they did not see a story in it. The value of photographs, especially photo archives, increases throughout the years; what seemed ordinary today might, in a few years, become a historical document. This is what, for example, Napoleon Orda’s prints are now for Belarusians and Poles.
There is a typical view of Belarus that is circulating in the media – the view of a foreign journalist or photographer. I have been observing what exactly my visiting colleagues were shooting and it would always make me feel frustrated as a Belarusian. I could see clear patterns – arriving in the country in a clammy November, taking photographs of gloomy, small town streets, people wearing dark coats against the backdrop of Soviet monuments. Then there is slush, cheerless faces, some blurred roads, the abandoned Soviet sanatorium, and the young girl – the brighter her makeup, the shorter her skirt the better. Nobody seemed to be interested in anything beyond this isolated fragment of reality. Although many out there are working on some cool projects, there are some beautiful places and ordinary, kind people – it just wouldn’t make such an interesting and scandalous story, it certainly wouldn’t bring a photo contest award.
Perhaps my view in the photo book differs from the generally accepted image of the country, even inside Belarus. After all, the official Belarusian image appears to be entirely the opposite of the western one – it worships fields of wheat, the pseudo-national dress, the unprofessionally restored monuments of architecture, and the endless drone photography. From the very beginning, I did not intend to create the country’s “brand” image; instead, I was able to focus on everything that I find interesting and what matters to me – places, people, ordinary life scenes, obviously the life in Minsk, and the rapid development of the Belarusian music scene, which I had the chance to witness, practically backstage, in recent years. Since my job deals with media, it was the process of weaving the threads together and watching them become a canvas of the Belarusian story that interested me the most. In any case, the visual narrative ended up being rather characteristic and quite personal. It is the ongoing search for answers to one question – what does Belarus mean to me.
Not only did Victor Martinovich write the preface to The Belarus Book, he also was the mastermind behind the project. How did the concept come about? How has Belarus changed over the past ten years?
It just so happened that I had a large archive collection of photos in my hands – everything I documented during my travels or shooting reports for 34mag and our Go To Belarus project. This archive is quite different from what many people are used to seeing. Also, I thought it would be a great idea to summarise the decade of 2010-2020 – a critical time for Belarus, I think. This is the time when the nation was very slowly becoming itself, growing stronger; when progressive Belarusians who deliberately stayed in the country after the events of 2010 realised that everything depends on them and began to take small steps to do their thing. Some opened a bakery, some organised music festivals and some founded small stores. All of this eventually led to tremendous change, part of which we still must deal with.
It might seem as if nothing had happened over the last ten years if you look from abroad, but in fact those invisible changes we witnessed internally were the most significant ones. But, most importantly, these changes were cautious and gradual, owing to the lack of money inside the country. When you don’t have a large infusion, only your own capital – it teaches you a lot. There are also serious bureaucratic obstacles awaiting you at every step in Belarus, so every step you need to take in Europe can be multiplied by 20. Each process drags on indefinitely until you tell the officials why you’re even trying to create something here. It takes a lot of persistence but having learnt this lesson it helps you not to give up. It’s a hardening experience. So, on the one hand, everyone has learned how to make money and do business, and, on the other, we safeguarded the old village culture. It is almost a miracle that much has not been destroyed or demolished but preserved, because no one cared about the villages for quite some time – neither big corporations nor the state. I think that everything will soon speed up and our development will take another turn. That’s why I wanted to keep such a unique period of transformation in our memory. That was the purpose of the book. I shared these thoughts with Victor Martinovich and Anton Kashlikov – they supported me and agreed to write forewords to the book, at my request.
I think the three of us have a very similar view of what is happening, and we have been working together for quite a long time, so I am grateful to them for the fact that the book includes important textual explanations of the era.
Where to go in Belarus, what to see in Minsk and outside the capital? Can you share with us the unknown Belarus? With the book, Belarusians themselves will discover their origins from a new perspective.
I think it would be correct to say that Belarus is basically a country you just have to go to and see. The right question is not where to go, but why to go. When a Belarusian understands it, the answer will reveal itself. I think the main fear is of making a mistake, fear of seeing places that lack infrastructure and exist according to their own slow and quiet laws of the province. Belarus is beautiful if you remember that nobody has to entertain you – everything around you is entertainment instead. We have beautifully preserved villages that are definitely worth seeing. Belarus has a truly amazing nature and a huge number of animals and birds, which never ceases to amaze scientists from Europe.
Maybe my main task, as an author and a photographer, is to be something of a guide to that wonderful Belarus. To show that what’s around is not terrible; that you can always find interesting things around – all it takes is just a conversation with the locals. I would say that it is comfortable enough to travel around Belarus, and the distances are small.
The Belarus Book is not only a visual documentary but also a very personal story about the life of big cities and small towns– a reflection of living history, culture, aesthetics, and stories about everyday life. Which images left the strongest imprint on your memory?
I do not think it would be right to single out any individual photos from the book. Over the years of my work as a photographer, I have amassed quite an impressive archive of photos of Belarus which I constantly replenish. That is why I chose only shots that could tell a story of the past decade, which I wanted to keep in my memory. I intentionally put villages next to cities, modern music with rural landscapes, urban scenes with forests.
I tried to avoid conventional angles of familiar places to avoid that commonly unrealistic advertising. This is not just a collection of photos – it is a movie you have to watch frame by frame, and there is a certain logic to the narration. I specifically put the photo captions at the end of the book to avoid distraction and make sure the atmosphere of the shots absorbs the viewer as much as possible. Some photos come in pairs; some have an individual statement, so they cannot be put next to others. You can think of the book as a walk through the Belarus I would like others to discover.
Art can have a therapeutic effect – it helps us express our emotions, heal trauma and build resilience. It is especially relevant in light of current events. Your book, full of love and optimism, received so many touching reviews. What is it like, the Belarus worth living in, worth telling the world about?
Belarus is a country of kind people who have just begun to feel their own wings. It is a country that Belarusians themselves will have to get to know again. The country’s development over the past decade has shown what can be achieved if you put faith and love it. We witnessed the development of a full-fledged creative cluster and numerous businesses, a real breakthrough and revival of the music scene. A new, progressive force, which at first no one believed in, suddenly grew in confidence to the point when it practically inspired the minds of all intelligent – but initially distrustful – people who were used to tolerating the status quo. Obviously, the book shows the very turning point when Belarusians were privately becoming people who believe in themselves, in their culture and its development. There is now a long phase of cultural confrontation that everyone has to experience and the results will be unpredictable.
At the time of writing, my younger sister, who is only 21, has already been in prison for eight months for the so-called students’ case (she and many other students were detained on November 12th 2020 in Minsk; on July 16th, 2021, the court sentenced ten of the students and a teacher to two years and six months, respectively, in prison on charges of violating public order – interviewer’s note). This is the flip side of the progress that the Belarusians have experienced, but the state has yet to undergo. All Belarusians are now facing a serious test of loyalty to their beliefs, no matter what.
What the past year has brought us, first and foremost, is that the Belarusians en masse have finally started to focus on their own country, its history, and support for everything local – as they never did before. For the first time since the Soviet collapse, Belarusians have stopped wondering if the grass is greener on the other side and started to create their own meanings. We obviously cannot speak about the lack of meaning here, because, I think, for the next 50 years or even century, history will be reflected upon and reconsidered. The Belarus Book, therefore, will have a crucial role in capturing the memories of a time when everything that is taking shape and growing will soon be thriving – as was the case of Berlin in the early 2000s. About the music artists in search of themselves; about Minsk which many people I know were making better with their own efforts and letting me observe the transformation with my own eyes. I witnessed the process of reviving Kastrychnickaja Street in Minsk from the ground up. It’s a metaphor for the country in miniature. I remember the public scepticism at the very beginning, and I remember the fervour of everybody involved in the transformation – they were opening galleries and bars, holding festivals, finding opportunities for creativity and international co-operation. And the widely disregarded street suddenly became interesting to everyone around. I hope the future holds something similar. I would like the book to be a harbinger of this enduring era.
Kasia Syramalot is a Belarusian designer, photographer, art-director of 34travel and author of The Belarus Book – a visual story of Belarus over the past decade. Fragments of the book are available on New Eastern Europe’s website.
Anastasia Starchenko is a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe and an MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. She focuses on socio-political and cultural developments in Eastern Europe and Russia. She would like to extend a special thanks to Katsiaryna Fiadziuk without whom this interview might not have happened.