Looking at reality head-on? “Extremist,” the KGB says


Despite government harassment, independent photojournalism is alive and well in “Europe’s last dictatorship.” For the fourth year running, the Belarus Press Photo competition (BPP) is poised to award local photographers who have a gift for covering the most varied range of social issues with an independent approach. But this bold initiative is the victim of censorship. According to the Committee for State Security (KGB), the book of the photos that won prizes in the 2011 competition contains “extremist” works. Two of BPP’s organizers, Yuliya Darashkevich (Юлия Дарашкевич) and Vadim Zamirouski (Вадим Замировский) are to appear in court on 17 April 2013. If the court rules in favour of the KGB, all copies of the book will be seized and destroyed.WeFightCensorship presents photos from the Belarus Press Photo 2011 book here.

Belarus Press Photo is particularly remarkable in a country that is ranked 157th out of 179 countries in the latest Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. For the past four years, the project has set itself the mission of “supporting and developing photojournalism in Belarus and contributing to the freedom to exchange professional information and experiences.” Dozens of photographers participate each year. A jury of Belarusian and foreign professional photographers (including Stanley Greene and Yury Kozyrev this year) chooses the best photos, which are then published and displayed in Belarus and abroad.
 
On 12 November 2012, Belarusian customs officials seized 41 copies of the “Belarus Press Photo 2011” book from the car in which three photographers were returning to Belarus after taking part in exhibitions in Lithuania. Although the book had been printed legally and all the custom duties had been paid, the customs officials claimed that “technical standards” had not been respected. The copies were then transferred to the KGB, which asked “experts” to decide whether the book included “extremist” content.
 
No photographer was asked to be part of the “expert committee” that was formed and led by the head of the western region of Hrodna’s ideological department. It found that “Belarus Press Photo 2011” did indeed include “extremist” content. It said that the book contained “deliberately distorted insinuations contrary to the reality of life in the Republic of Belarus (…) which humiliate national honour and the dignity of its citizens.” The committee added that “from the viewpoint of social standards (…) and decency,” the photos undermine “state authority” and “confidence in government officials.”

Yuliya Darashkevich told Reporters Without Borders: “Photojournalism consists of taking snapshots of life as it is, without embellishing it. I don’t see how this can distort reality or conflict with it. I don’t agree with the overall conclusion (by the experts that the book] shows Belarus in a negative light. On the contrary, Belarus is shown from different angles.”
 
One is immediately struck by the variety of subjects and techniques shown in “Belarus Press Photo 2011” – scenes from daily life, news reportage, nature and cultural activities. The viewpoints are varied and the negative aspects of the lives of Belarusians are far from dominant. But this very richness and diversity pose a challenge to the monolithic character of the regime headed by Alexander Lukashenko and his claim to embody his entire nation.
 
The book shows no sign of censorship and devotes a lot of space to the violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in 2010. Conditions in the army are revealed in other photos, including Syarhey Gudilin’s cover photo, which won the top prize in 2011. It shows army recruits watching the state TV news programme, as they must every day, overseen by a photo of President Lukashenko on a wall.

Obligatory watching of the evening news under the eye of the president Alexander Lukashenka.
Photo by Siarhei Hudzilin. Barysau. August 2010 (Grand-Prix 2011)

Presidential elections. A ot policeman lifts up a participant of the protest action near the broken doors of the House of Government.
Photo by Sergey Gapon. Minsk. December 2010.

Re-burial ceremony at the German war cemetery. Workers lay coffins with remains of German soldiers killed in Belarus during World War II.
Photo by Vasily Fedosenko. Scatkava village. November 2010.

A man shows the V (Victory) sign out of the prison window.
Photo by Viktor Drachev. Minsk. December 2010

Tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark), takes part in a charity game against Belarusian Victoria Azaranka (Belarus). The experts of KGB think that these photos present elements of Belarusian sport life from the “poor aesthetic perspective”, some of them even “disgraceful” and they “demonstrate the sphere of Belarusian public life from the negative viewpoint”.
Photo by Viktor Drachev. Minsk. November 2010.

A torn-off state flag lies in the street after the protest. KGB thinks that this photo “presents the author’s own invention and belittles the State symbol of Belarus, the honor and dignity of Belarusian people”.
Photo by Sergei Grits. Minsk. December 2010.

Shadows of Christmas decorations fall on the projection screen in the Minks nightclub, The Black Door, during a New Year’s speech of the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenka. The authorities proclaim that this photo “was deliberately shot from the viewpoint, in order to present the Head of state unattractively. The illustration offends the President of Belarus, belittles his authority and undermines confidence in him on the part of foreign states and citizens of the Republic of Belarus”. Photo by Dzmitry Kliapitski. Minsk. 31 décember 2010.

Identity. Personal exhibition of famous Belarusian artist, Barys Zaborau, has opened in the National Art Museum.
Photo by Viachaslau Tsuranau. Minsk, November 2010. 

The 23rd International festival of modern choregraphy
Photo by Sergei Grits. Viciebsk. November 2010
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People dip into the icy waters of Cnianskaje reservoir during the Orthodox Epiphany celebration.
Photo by Natallia Ablazhei. Minsk, January 2010.

From the series "Fake animals", dedicated to portraits of stuffed animals from museums and hunting exhibitions.
Photo by Andrei Liankevich. Minsk, 2010. 

Horses graze in a field
Photo by Alexander Vasukovich. Navasiolki village  . October 2010.

Penitentiary colony. Women line up near the gate, waiting for the convoys to lead them to the tailor shop to work.
Photo by Viachaslau Tsuranau. Recyca, December 2007.

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