In 1972, the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was supposedly asked about the significance of the French Revolution (that had occurred almost 200 years earlier). His laconic answer: it's too early to say. Such a long view may be necessary when considering the impact of the breakup of the Soviet Union, a mere quarter of a century ago, and especially so in the case of Belarus.
Polish photographer Rafal Milach certainly seems to think so. In his latest book, The Winners, Milach photographs people and places that are winners of various competitions promoted by the Belarusian authorities. His poker-faced shots of the country’s exemplary welder, the best staircase in Minsk or the best public canteen are a form of sociological nudity: we see the body of a country but wonder how, if there are choices, it will eventually come to dress itself.
It is not obvious—until each image is lifted off the page—in what category each winner belongs. This design leaves the reader to bemusedly turn the pages, each time wondering what is award-winning about a particular image. A couple embracing (the ‘best couple in love’), a man holding a large potato (president of the potato farm 'Kolkhoz') or a stuffed moose on a wall (the ‘geography classroom where Pavel, the best teacher in Minsk, teaches’). We also wonder how the prize winners themselves feel: some possibly look proud, others sanguine or wry and a young female railway worker, Marina (‘Miss Belarusian Railways’), solemnly stares down at her feet. Though it is difficult to parse her gaze (is it humility or humiliation?) Milach's caption offers, "She doesn't like her job." Excepting such strong stands as these, a state of ambivalence permeates The Winners. It is discernable in the way the subjects are photographed and in the way they are presented in the book. Milach simply declares, "I wanted to be a kind of mirror that reflected the ideological state that is Belarus."
Rafal Milach is a Polish photographer currently lecturing in Czech Republic and a founding member of the collective, Sputnik Photos. Sputnik is united by a shared interest in the ongoing transformation of Eastern Europe. In 2013, Milach self-published an equally deadpan and suggestive set of photographs titled The Black Sea of Concrete, about the entanglement of Russia and Ukraine along the Black Sea coast. The Winners extends this concern with transition issues to Belarus but in a spirit that is more skeptical and disturbing.
While the book is now largely sold out, copies of the Special Edition still remain. Whether Milach would find this ironic or not, The Winners wins my award for the best designed photography book of 2014.
by Rafal Milach
Publisher: GOST Books
Hardcover: 112 pages