Fotograf Magazine

Maxim Sarychau

The Only Constant is Change

The expression of discontent is part of the perpetual balancing of interests between the ruling apparatus and the general public. However, the political regime of Alexander Lukashenko supresses the manifestations of the Belarusian public, resulting in the erosion of the society and its continual pursuit of change. Politically motivated arrests, police interventions even during officially sanctioned protests and other undemocratic proceedings disintegrate the civilians’ collective power, undermine individuals’ belief in their impact and affect their internal state of freedom.

Maxim Sarychau’s (1987) socially engaged projects, created in public spaces and in direct interaction with the people affected by the regime, invoke empathy as well as social self-reflection. Along with capturing the protests in the Belarusian capital in his photographic series Cold Spring (2017), Sarychau adds the value of personal stories, which provides this divided society with a much-needed missing element. Photographs of the protests at squares in Minsk are interweaved with portraits of the arrested remonstrants while his website also includes interviews with detainees about their authentic experiences. This documentation, together with Sarychau’s photographs of relatives of prisoners’ waiting for their release and the activity of civil rights organisations, elicits solidarity and helps build civic integrity.

The photographer’s project focuses on machinations of a state that shows no moral responsibility towards its citizens; on the contrary, it employs non-transparent tactics, intimidation and political influence so as to maintain power and suppress opposing voices. Protesters are often preventatively detained, not only by police during actions or ‘riots’ but also by law enforcement officers in plainclothes as the remonstrants are on their way home. One of the harshest dispersals of the activist meetings took place on Freedom Day. Where does the absurdity of untouchable authorities end, and what can a citizen do against their power? The unbalanced battle provokes anarchistic behaviour, and people’s rebellion acts as an antidote against the dictatorial authoritative manners. However, the state unfortunately uses this to justify the interventions, leading to a vicious circle.

The theme of fear and danger was also the subject of Sarychau’s exhibition Blind Spot, presented in Kasárna Karlín in Prague at the end of 2018. In the form of photographs, graphics and objects that have a quality of conceptual art, the artist critiques the indefeasible practices of state authorities and their extreme manifestations of power, even brutality, which move between the limits of law and injustice. These mechanisms of maintaining control happen alongside targeted prevention of social interaction, resulting in the feeling of isolation and disintegration of the community.

The society’s frame of mind is reflected in the opinions of young people. Voices of Generation L is a series of portraits and monologues of the succeeding generation that has grown up with Lukashenko; the youth has therefore never known Belarus other than under Lukashenko’s rule. The important question is whether this generation is willing to fight for a change and whether they want a change at all. Their viewpoints are indeed very contradictory. Sarychau creates a three-dimensional portrait of the young generation and provides space for a democratic heterogeneity of opinions. Some see the situation critically and their statements show a glimmer of hope. However, some also feel great scepticism and do not believe in the possibility of doing anything about the given system because they see that protests usually end with the arrest of participants, or even their dismissal from school or work. Therefore, many primarily wish for stability. They all face an important decision. They feel responsibility for their country, but sometimes simply only for themselves. Many want to find a place for their own lives and think that leaving their country is the only solution. Since many are students, who will remain to turn things around?

Sarychau’s practice combines a documentary approach with an activist aspiration to change the current state of affairs. He sides with the citizens and at the same time gives room to contrasting and ununified opinions, as it is the only way to start a discussion. Such effort is helping catalyse a search for common goals and found a liberated mentality. Although Maxim Sarychau reflects on the government’s cruelty and how it does not allow for open and public disagreement, this particular information ought not to be the ultimate message arising from Sarychau’s documentary projects. On the contrary, the Belarusian artist strives to bring people to a way of thinking that will lead to collectiveness and finding the decisive moment to have the last word as citizens.

Adéla Janíčková

Relatives and friends greet the detainees. According to the estimates of the human rights organization Viasna, from February to April, ~ 930 people were detained, of whom more than 100 were arrested. March 27, 2017, Zhodino, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
Stas, 21, Minsk, student Our society is gradually becoming more free. For example, in terms of getting information. Authorities can not control the Internet the way they did with television, radio and newspapers. Therefore, space for critical thinking is formed. Today people become witnesses more often; they shoot videos about what is happening using their mobile phones. I do not divide the society into black and white, left and right. The more people you meet, the more opinions you encounter, the better you realize that there is no single correct answer. We perceive information differently. But the main thing is to have it available all the time. from the series Voices of Generation L, 2015
Ilya, 19, Zamostje village, student I am against Lukashenko. He behaves meanl. He has been holding his position for 22 years already; he just does not want to leave it and does not want to give in. I think it is too much. Let it be someone bad, but at least a different one. It would be rational to try something different. My grandmother in elections checks a box in front of Lukashenko’s name; she does it without thinking, explaining it all with the phrase "I do not want any war to start". She actually does not live in this country, but only in her village. I think that many of those who voted "yes" are people similar to my grandmother. from the series Voices of Generation L, 2015
Alexandra, 18, Soligorsk, student My mother is a social worker; she takes care of the elderly. She raised me alone. Her salary is low; we find it rather hard to survive, since there is no more help we can get. My mother has no higher education, she gave up her university studies twice, so it is so important for me to get a degree. I do not support Lukashenko. Maybe I am not strong in politics, but I do not like his personality and there are many things I feel not so much happy about. I am sure I can do nothing about it. Fearing possible problems, I would not take part in public protest events. I feel a sort of constrained. from the series Voices of Generation L, 2015
People are trying to help an elderly woman get up. She was accidentally knocked down by special forces officers during the detention of the protesters. March 25, 2017, Minsk, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
Police officers after the detention of one of the participants. The protests wave in Belarus in the spring of 2017 was provoked by the decree "on parasitism", obliging citizens who did not pay taxes for more than six months to pay 250 $ per year. March 25, 2017, Minsk, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
On the morning of "Freedom Day” protest, the patrol and guard service, OMON, special forces, internal troops and traffic police were gathered in the center of Minsk, as well as such machinery as a few dozen paddy wagons, buses, water cannons, assault vehicles and armored cars. March 25, 2017, Minsk, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
The largest protest in Belarus since 2010. It marked the beginning of a series of protests across the country, which ended in a brutal crackdown in the spring of 2017. 2500 participants marched from October Square to the building of the Ministry of Taxes and Duties. February 17, 2017, Minsk, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
The smeared inscription „We do not believe, we are not afraid, we are not silent. #5 days” in support of Oleg Larichev, the coordinator of street art community Signal, convicted on April 26 for 5 days of arrest. Prior to this, on April 4, Larichev was beaten by unknown people when entering his own house. During the protests in Minsk, a number of sharply social and political graffiti and posters appeared. Their authors are unknown. May 1, 2017, Minsk, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
Friends and relatives of the activists detained on March 15 queueing to give the detainees food, books and hygiene items. 6 detainees took part in a hunger strike, but the administration of the Center for Isolation of Offenders ignored this fact. Almost all the incoming and outgoing letters of detainees were confiscated by the administration of the Center. March 17, 2017, Minsk, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017
Prison No. 8 in the city of Zhodino, where the protesters who were detained on the eve of March 25 were transported. After being released, the detainees complained of cold cells and the absence of warm water. March 27, 2017, Zhodino, Belarus from the series Cold Spring, 2017