What is it about Belarus that brings out the best in photojournalists?
Now I’ve been introduced to the work of Bill Crandall, who has just published a beautiful book of black-and write photographs from Belarus called The Waiting Room. Based in Washington, DC, Crandall is an old hand at capturing Eastern Europe, having traveled across the region over the course of a decade to produce a series that he calls “East”. And his knowledge of the region shows, depicting the many layers of life in Belarus and avoiding the common temptation to show us a simplified image of the “home of Europe’s last dictator” or “a land where the USSR never died” – the typical stereotypes of the country.
Victor Martinovich – the journalist, author, and political scientist – has written an excellent introduction to Crandall’s work that makes the point much more eloquently than I could:
It seems that the key to understanding this country, situated between Russia and Poland, is the term “border”. Exactly due to this damn “border” that cuts through the middle of its mass consciousness, Belarus lacks consensus on the very notion of Belarus, on what is good and what is evil…The majority of foreigners coming to Minsk and its outskirts are looking for that post-Soviet kitsch, which, in its half-decayed form, still pervades the towns of the whole former Socialist camp. They are oblivious to the existence of these pressing choices and damn borders; they have no time to figure out what a wonderful, full-of-questions land they happened upon. They are interested in Lenin’s busts, clay statues of Young Pioneers, corroded tin stars and partly-chipped panels, aka social realism…The most amazing element of his method is that he [Crandall], while aware of Belarus torn by invisible borders, carries himself as if it does not matter. And he is so persuasive, that you come to realize that life is deeper and fuller than all these divisions between honest and dishonest, pro-government and anti-government that have been dreamed up in the last decades in Belarus.
(By the way, Martinovich dissected Belarus’s internal divisions and identity crisis in a compelling essay for TOL back in November 2010).
Since I’m only an amateur when it comes to photography, I decided to ask Dean what he thought of the images. He responded:
I have never met him personally but I do like how he is shooting. He does try to capture the daily life, the street of Belarus as naturally as possible. It is a very strong documentary style of capturing a country that much of the world knows so little about.
Certainly some of his images I find very striking: the ballerina and the troops; the girl on the trolley bus; the woman and the goats; and the kissers and balloon help show that there is something more to Belarus than always comparing it to its Soviet past. His images do show how Belarusians cope, endure, thrive, live and love, just as people do around the world.
So there you have it, an amateur and a pro in full agreement, especially about that amazing shot of the ballerina and the troops. That is obviously a special moment captured in time, but it is the emphasis on depicting the ordinary that has apparently struck a chord among local audiences. As Crandall told me, “It’s interesting, when I’ve exhibited there, normal people who came reacted like they had never seen a mirror before.”
If you act quickly, you might still be able download a free PDF version of the book. Otherwise, I couldn’t recommend more to purchase the 111-page softcover edition or one of the e-books (with either an English or Russian introduction). And be sure to read that insightful introduction!
To see more brilliant photos from across the region, see the winners from among the hundreds of photos that were submitted to the Transitions Online Photo Competition.