Post-Soviet states through a lens
Press photo competition winners from Belarus, Lithuania and Estonia go on show at Loft Project Etazhi.
Published: September 28, 2011 (Issue # 1676)
Belarus’s Grand Prix-winning photograph shows a regiment of army conscripts watching the evening news
on the state channel. This is obligatory in the Belarussian army, just as it was in the Soviet Union.
Belarus, Lithuania and Estonia share more than geographical proximity. They were all once part of a larger state — the Soviet Union — but since its collapse in 1991, they have continued their independent trajectories with very different political agendas. The effect of these different perspectives on society, and the way that Russia’s closest western neighbors see themselves, are the two main focal points of a modular exhibition representing the results of three national press photo competitions that goes on show at Loft Project Etazhi this weekend.
Since gaining independence, the Baltic states have followed the path of democracy, and their governments generally take a liberal stance on most things, including photojournalism. Not so in Belarus, once famously described by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as “the last true dictatorship in the heart of Europe.”
Here, press photo competitions are organized with the support of the public and the mass media, but work by the majority of the Belarussian press photographers who endeavor to reflect local reality goes unpublished in the country’s newspapers and magazines. This year, even the exhibition itself was banned in Belarus, causing it to be held in neighboring Poland. Nevertheless, the often shocking images taken in these different countries have more in common than might be imagined. News, social issues, culture, sports, nature, fashion and art are all present, reflecting a common reality and everyday values that unite people from all walks of life, no matter where they live.
In Lithuania, a press photo competition has been held annually since 2003. The Lithuanian Press Photographers Club launched the contest in 1998 as an informal gathering of photographers who worked with Canon cameras, and awards the Golden Snapshot prize annually at the city hall in Vilnius. Along with the Lithuanian Union of Journalists, the club also organizes regular master classes by eminent photographers. The mission of the numerous educational programs and exhibitions is to develop the practice of press photography in Lithuania within a European context.
“Lots of excellent photos are never published for various reasons,” said Jonas Staselis, president of the Lithuanian Press Photographers Club.
“Therefore the events held by the club, such as thematic exhibitions, are enjoyed by the community as a source of enjoyment and knowledge. This is because all of the photographers who are members of the club are employed by the largest press outlets and, due to their rich personal experience and distinction, see and record the same person or event differently, from different angles.
“Once the public sees the totality of their vision, it can get a realistic picture of our jam-packed modern life,” he added.
In nearby Estonia, an annual competition has been organized by the Association of Estonian Press Photographers (EPFL) since 1997. This year, more than 800 works were entered into the competition. The aim of the competition, organized in collaboration with the Estonian Association of Newspapers, is to support the role of the press photograph as the most important source of information in contemporary society, alongside the Internet and TV.
A duck and her ducklings walk past a line of Lithuanian riot police officers.
“Newspaper photos and fine art photography are adjacent practices that, when they meet, create a blurred area in which it is difficult to draw lines: Both practices have their advantages,” said Anneli Porri, a professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts and one of the exhibition’s curators. “Mass media has an immediacy, is widely circulated and can be infinitely reproduced, whereas art, on the other hand, is about concepts, exclusivity and an attitude of independence.”
The announcement last year of a press photo competition in Belarus came as a surprise to many.
“There is skepticism about whether or not press photography as such even exists in contemporary Belarus,” said art critic Svetlana Poleshchuk. “So the decision to organize the competition was mostly based on the desire to disprove this point of view.”
Press Photo Belarus is an independent competition for Belarussian press photographers. The aim of the competition is to support and develop professional press photography within less than ideal conditions. The competition is also devoted to the exchange of experience and knowledge between different generations of Belarussian photographers, and to encouraging the formation of high professional standards in the field. This year, 72 photographers submitted about 2,000 pictures that were then assessed by an international jury and divided into the categories of news, people, sports, everyday life, national traditions, portraiture, art and entertainment and nature.
“The distinction of official state documents and governmental policy can’t impede the rapid development of horizontal communication between ordinary people, both economic and private,” said the organizers of the Press Photo exhibition at Loft Project Etazhi.
Whether or not the differences between the three countries’ political viewpoints are reflected on a visual level can only be determined by visiting the exhibition itself.
“Press Photo: Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia” runs from Sept. 30 through Oct. 24 at Loft Project Etazhi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt, 5th floor. Tel. 458 5005.