Gorodeja, Belarus, 2005: Local residents collect a cranberry, bear it in bags on the shoulders from a bog © Andrei Liankevich: Belarus portfolio, 2010
Belarus, July 4th, 2006: A teenage sits near the waterside of a see after swimming. © Andrei Liankevich: Belarus portfolio, 2010
Minsk, November 7th:, 2005: A woman carries USSR flag on Kastrychnickaja square  rally which marks the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution anniversary. This day is a state holiday in Belarus.  © Andrei Liankevich: Belarus portfolio, 2010
Photo: Dead © Andrei Liankevich: Goodbye, Motherland, 2011
© Andrei Liankevich: Goodbye, Motherland 2011
© Andrei Liankevich: Goodbye, Motherland 2011
Stashany, Belarus, June 15th, 2008: Woman dressed as tree to participate in “Kusta” tradition celebration. © Andrei Liankevich: Pagan Tradition 2008-2010
Aleksander Veledzimovich: Space Project, Minsk, 2012
Aleksander Veledzimovich: Space Project, Minsk, 2012
Aleksander Veledzimovich: Space Project, Minsk, 2012
Aleksander Veledzimovich: Space Project, Minsk, 2012
Aleksander Veledzimovich: Space Project, Minsk, 2012
Aleksander Veledzimovich: Space Project, Minsk, 2012

"Art gives you more freedom to transmit a message"

Belarus - terra incognita? Even more than 20 years after its independence from the Soviet Union and despite its geographical proximity to the European Union, in the "West" its image is still diffuse and clichéd. But how do the Belarusians depict their country, known as "Europe's last dictatorship"? How does the younger generation comment on the state of their country and how has its art scene developed over the past years? These are some of the questions the ifa exhibition BY NOW – Contemporary Photography from Belarus focusses on. In an interview with the ifa the photographer and initiator of the project, Andrei Liankevich, and the photographic artist Aleksander Veledzimovich talked about their work and their relationship with art and photography.

Interview by Juliane Pfordte

ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): Photographs are said to be powerful even in an overvisualised world. Do you think your photos are powerful?

Andrei Liankevich: I hope so. But my pictures only work with a text that includes more information. The photo is just one percent of the message. I have a journalistic background, so I always need more information: facts, data, biographies.

ifa: So a picture without text is incomplete?

Liankevich: Yes, in my case it's incomplete.

Aleksander Veledzimovich: It's difficult to weigh the "power" of your own work. I just want to take photos, show them and explore myself as an artist and yes, sometimes it's necessary to include a text. But for me it's more important to make a beautiful picture to catch the viewer.

ifa: For a lot of people Belarus is still a white spot on the map, a dictatorship somewhere in the eastern part of Europe. To what extent does your work give a different image of Belarus?

Liankevich: You shouldn't be romantic and think that some pictures and a book of contemporary Belarusian photography can change this white spot into a real country. But maybe for some visitors it can serve as a key. The project is a broad selection of young photographers and their topics, so the viewer somehow can get an idea of the country and of how the younger generation sees the world.

Veledzimovich: The exhibition is about Belarus, yes, but the photographers used the Belarusian context as an inspiration. It's about their subjective reality, not about the real Belarus.

ifa: One of the objectives of the ifa Galleries Berlin and Stuttgart is to foster and to intensify the exchange between cultural practitioners. Can you imagine cooperating with German artists in the future?

Liankevich: Of course. It's incredible that a book about photographical artists of Belarus is made by ifa Gallery in Germany, not by a Belarusian institution.

Veledzimovich: As for me, I can imagine working with German artists and photographers in the future, but on a more personal level. But of course, we made a lot of contacts these days here in Stuttgart –so let's see.

Andrei Liankevich © Gaisha Madanova
Andrei Liankevich © Gaisha Madanova

 

 

"In Belarus we often need a text to explain the photo, whereas people in Germany understand it easily."

Aleksander Veledzimovich © Katerina Dmitrieva
Aleksander Veledzimovich © Katerina Dmitrieva

ifa: How has the German public reacted to the exhibition?

Liankevich: The most amazing experience was to observe school kids during an excursion: They made "selfies" in front of our pictures. Children don't hide their feelings, they react straight and honestly all over the world. So if they are bored, they just look like that. But if they're making "selfies", you know that they like it and that it works.

Veledzimovich: I don't know what people think about this exhibition, but in Germany and Europe in general people have more visual culture. Especially the older people have a better understanding of photography than Belarussians. At least this is my experience.

ifa: The title of this exhibition is BY NOW: BY –the country code of Belarus– NOW represents the contemporary context. In 1994 the ifa Gallery Berlin presented the exhibition "Photography in Minsk". How has the scene of photographers changed in the past twenty years?

Liankevich: If you compare these two exhibitions it is amazing to see how the topics have changed. In the current project you notice that the photographers started to explore the world around them. Before it was more about visualising feelings in the pictures, showing the viewer what bothers you the most. Today photography is much more documental.

Veledzimovich: I think the most striking difference is the colour (laughs).

ifa: The latest World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders ranks Belarus on place 157 out of 180 surveyed countries. How has censorship affected you?

Liankevich: There are two levels of censorship: state censorship and self-censorship, the latter you can control less. I think self-censorship is more important, but difficult to speak about since it's hidden. Concerning this exhibition, I took some of the pictures to Minsk, but not the one by Siarehei Hudzilin showing the bald head of the president. Sometimes you have to step back to avoid provocation or in this case to avoid risking the whole project. Still, the book is available in some shops in Minsk, also in the National Library, some universities and cultural institutions. More importantly the only Belarusian art magazine, published by the government, printed a review of the book. Of course the photos weren't printed, but I was even surprised about the review.

Veledzimovich: Well, my photos aren't political or provoking. I prefer aesthetic photography that works with the history of visual arts, but not with "raw reality" or social problems.

ifa: Your project is called the "Space Project". What is the idea behind showing allegedly banal details of apartments?

Veledzimovich: I wanted to show how people transform the reality around them with things they have and use – that's all. The objects we put into a rented room –a curtain, steel boxes or poster prints – talk about us and reveal personal details about us. Depicting these things is another way to portray a person, to explain who we are. It is a dialogue without language.

ifa: Andrei, war and military symbols are very present in your work. "Double Heroes" portrays one man both as a Red Army soldier and as a soldier of the Wehrmacht. What is it supposed to express?

Liankevich: My father's ancestors were Polish, from the Western part of Belarus. My mother’s family has Russian and Belarusians origins. Since Poles were never trusted after the Soviet invasion my grandfather never served in the army, so no one in my family ever experienced war on the frontline. But it's difficult to know who you are if your family's history is missing in the system you grow up and live in. So I've visited the locations where the war myths were created in the 60's and 70's after Stalin's death. The whole project is called "Goodbye, Motherland". You mentioned the photo "Double Heroes". This is a good example of how photography can lie. On the one hand, you can think: Oh my God, this guy puts the good Soviet and the bad Nazi in the same picture, how can he do that? But it's not what the story is about.

Double Heroes © Andrei Liankevich: Goodbye, Motherland 2011
Double Heroes © Andrei Liankevich: Goodbye, Motherland 2011

 

 

 

"The photo 'Double heroes' is a good example of how photography can lie. (...) War can never be explained with the concept of good and bad."

 

 

The man in the portrait is a member of a so-called historical club that is quite common in Belarus. Participants reenact the war, it's like a game. They have real weapons and different kinds of uniforms to change roles. One week they play a Soviet soldier, the next week they play a Wehrmacht soldier. At first it was shocking to see how easily they switch roles and how a uniform can turn a good guy into a bad one. But war can never be explained with the concept of good and bad. It's more complicated, just like it is in Belarus.

ifa: Let's go back to the roots: How did you get in touch with photography?

Liankevich: When I finished my studies I worked as a programmer for a news website. It was election time, they needed pictures, so I took some that got published immediately. This is how I started my career as a photojournalist. I was working for SPIEGEL, the New York Times, news agencies, etc. But five years ago I decided to stop. With journalism you can't change the world. Photos published in the media are always limited. You only can publish one, seven as a maximum. The media in general also have predefined points of view. This is my experience. With photojournalism it's almost impossible to change the general idea of Russia as the "bad guy" and Belarus as "Europe's last dictatorship". Of course, it takes time to change that. This is our goal now. Art gives you more possibilities, more freedom and ways to transmit a message.

Veledzimovich: About ten years ago I bought my first camera, the cheapest on the market at that time. I started with photos of flowers on the table. I began to read books, got more information on the Internet and realised that photography is more than just beautiful pictures. So I went to St. Petersburg to study at Galperin's Faculty of Photojournalism, but I haven't finished it yet because I don't really like it. I also took some workshops and met with people from the "Fotodepartament", a non-profit organisation in St. Petersburg that focuses on contemporary photography. It was a turning point for me, because I started to perceive photography as an art.

ifa: What training and education possibilities do young photographers in Belarus have?

Liankevich: In general, the possibilities for young photographers are rare in Belarus, which is why a lot of young photographers study abroad. In my case, I got a scholarship from World Press Photo for one year, a master class at the Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, Armenia.

Veledzimovich: Just like me. I went to St. Petersburg to focus on photography.

ifa: Last question, what do you enjoy doing when you're not taking pictures?

Veledzimovich: I read books, mostly fiction. But recently I've also started writing, I mean prose and poems.

Liankevich: I'm very connected to journalism, so I'm always reading, questioning, investigating, observing people and discovering new things. I want to express my thougts about several issues in a visual way.

Exhibition catalogue

BY NOW. – Kehrerverlag, 2014. – 70 S. – (connect)

BY NOW

Contemporary Photography from Belarus

Berlin: Kehrer, 2014. – 144 pp. – (connect)

Andrei Liankevich was born in Hrodna in 1981. After studying economics he went to Armenia where he attended a Word Press Photo seminar at the Caucasus Media Institute. As a freelance photographer he cooperated with international photo agencies and media (New York Times, Le Figaro, SPIEGEL, Vanity Fair, GEO, International Herald Tribune, etc.). Since 2004, he has been teaching photojournalism at the European Humanities University in Vilnius (Lithuania). In 2008, he joined the young photographers of Sputnik. A year later, he was granted the Humanity Photo Award for his project dedicated to Belarusian pagan traditions. In the same year, the project was among the finalists of the Magnum Expression Award. It was followed by other awards like Press Photo Belarus, the Grand Prix of the Polish Photo Contest and the Grand Prix of the Portfolio Review in Kaunas (Lithuania). His work has been presented in more than 60 individual and group exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the USA.

 

 

Aleksander Veledzimovichhttp://www.liankevich.com/ was born in Vitebsk in 1983. After graduation from the the International Institute of Labour and Social Affairs, he began to study at Galperin's Faculty of Photojournalism in St. Petersburg where he attended seminars of Lina Scheynius and Nicolai Howalt. Since 2007, he works as a freelance photographer. In 2009, he became a lecturer at the "FotoTrend" photography school and in 2010 also at the School of Photography in Minsk. His work has been exhibited in Berlin ("Ex oriente lux"), Vitebsk ("Quiet City"), and Paris ("À la croisée des chemins artistiques").