The Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was supposedly asked in 1972 about the significance of the French Revolution and answered that it was 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. Rafal Milach in The Winners -- photographs of people and places winning various competitions promoted by the Belarusian authorities and held between 2010 and 2013– certainly seems to think so. His pokerfaced 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 so pages are bemusedly turned as one wonders what is award-winning about a couple embracing (the ‘best couple in love’), a man holding a large potato (best potato farmer) 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 but whether in humility or humiliation it is difficult to say. A state of ambivalence permeates The Winners, discernable in many of the people being photographed and in the way they are presented.
Rafal Milach, a Polish photographer currently lecturing in Czech Republic, is himself a winner of awards from New York Photo Festival, World Press photo and others. He is a founder member of a photographers’ collective, Sputnik Photos, a group united by an interest in the ongoing transformation of Eastern Europe. In The Winners, he declares, ‘I wanted to be a kind of mirror that reflected the ideological state that is Belarus.’ Milach self-published in 2006 an equally deadpan and equally suggestive set of photographs, The Black Sea of Concrete, about the entanglement of Russia and Ukraine along the Black Sea coast. The Winner extends this concern with transition issues to Belarus but in a spirit that is more sceptical and disturbing. The book itself, now sold out but copies of the Special Edition remaining (www.gostbooks.com/books/48/the-winners-special-edition), wins my award for the best designed photography book of last year.