Last time I spoke to Polish photographer Rafal Milach, he told me that protesting the alarmingly fast political changes brought about by the PiS (Law and Justice) government felt like his new hobby. And he reiterates this today, speaking of the “permanent state of demonstration”. In summer 2016, he was invited to participate within the Kolekcja Września residency programme, which each year selects a photographer to produce a body of work reflecting on town life. Milach and his Sputnik colleagues have been amassing an archive of found and newly shot photographs from the post-communist Eastern Bloc for their Lost Territories projects, so he was naturally drawn to the town’s historical material. He was also aware of a children’s protest that had taken place there at the turn of the 20th century, when western Poland was under German occupation.
It’s the 21st year of the prize, and this year the shortlisted projects by Mathieu Asselin, Rafal Milach, Batia Suter, and Luke Willis Thompson all “reflect a shared concern with the production and manipulation of knowledge and systems of representation through visual formats”, say the organisers of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018. Mathieu Asselin (b. 1973, France) has been nominated for Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation, which was published this year by Actes Sud and exhibited at Les Rencontres d’Arles, and which has already won the First Book of the Year in the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards 2017.
This year marked the 100th anniversary to the October Revolution; the Bolshevik coup lead by Vladamir Lenin that would result in the Russian Civil War (1917-22) and, ultimately, the foundation of the USSR and the communist regime that lasted until 1991. In the BJP’s latest issue, we try to understand something of the vast history of the Eastern Bloc.
It is one of those sweltering, sunny days in Warsaw – Poland is surprisingly hot in the summer, the polar opposite of the severely depressing, minus-degree winter. I’m meeting up with members of the photography collective Sputnik, which specialises in similar contradictions. Like its namesake, it’s a small blip in space in the grand scheme of things, but it manages to transmit around the globe. Focusing on substantial social, cultural, political and economic dispatches from Eastern Europe and the countries that were, until relatively recently, satellites of the USSR, its work speaks of the complexities of the exciting – and traumatic – transformation from communism to capitalism, and the ways in which these countries struggle with their newfound identities. There are nine photographers in Sputnik – Andrej Balco, Manca Juvan, Andrei Liankevich, Michal Luczak, Justyna Mielnikiewicz, Rafal Milach, Agnieszka Rayss, Adam Pańczuk and Jan Brykczyński – and I am joined by the last four, all based in Warsaw. My first impression is that they are a focused and diligent group of serious-minded, smart individuals, but …