Fotograf Magazine

Rafał Milach

The Winners

To this day, most of 1980’s and 1990’s Polish documentary photography remains largely unknown to the general public, while in its time only a handful of photographers pursued the trend without claims to wider recognition. However, after 2000 even in Poland there appeared a number of distinctive documentarists, such as Piotr Szymon, Kuba Dabrowski, Rafał Milach, Ula Tarasiewicz, Mariusz Forecki, Andrzej Kramarz and Veronika Lodzinska, Tomasz Wiech, Jan Brykczynski, and many others, as well as group movements such as Sputnik Photos or NAPO, who soon began to win prestigious international competitions, achieving recognition both home and abroad. It is also thanks to them that Polish photography is at present far more renowned than Czech photography.

The success of Polish documentary photography is in large part also due to the contribution of Rafał Milach, one of the most visible artists of the Sputnik Photos collective. His oeuvre is the exact definition of what – for lack of a better term – began to be referred to in the Czech scene as “new documentary” about fifteen years ago, with the term being adopted in Poland as well. Yet a similar title was already deployed by the 1967 exhibition New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which presented the then relatively little known work of Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand.

At the beginning of the first decade of the millennium, the approaches of new documentary were still novel. The proponents of classical photography and traditional documentary did not accept them, and at the same time

they were found little support on the part of grant committees and galleries. Today the conditions are far more favourable, and thus it has become clear which works have withstood the test of time and which artists manage to hold their own despite the lack of positive response. Ten years ago critics noted the shift in choice of subject matter and above all technical innovation. What was seen as novel and striking at the time were various uses of colour photography, the combination of flash with natural lighting and/or colour filters as well as unorthodox methods of framing and mounting. Today their attention is focused above all on the conceptual approaches to individual artistic expression, editing and especially the nexus of interconnected sequences, as well as the quest for new directions within the language of photography and its presentation. Characteristic features include the artistic intent in relating to reality, ranging from an emphasis on subjectivity and individual artistic stance as can be found in various forms of blog and self-reflective visual diaries, to detached descriptiveness and deliberate minimisation of the artist’s presence between the camera and the motif of the photograph.

An exemplary representative of this approach is the Polish photographer Rafał Milach and the collective of photographers Sputnik Photos, which emerged in 2006 during a workshop organised by the VII Photo agency for Central and East European photojournalists. The founding members active today include Jan Brykczynski, Manca Juvan, Rafał Milach, Agnieszka Rayss, as well as Andrej Balco of Slovakia and Filip Singer of the Czech Republic. Later they were joined by Michal Luczak and Adam Pańczuk. This collective of distinctive artists work on both individual and joint projects, focusing mainly on Central and above all Eastern Europe. An exception to this orientation was a photographer’s and writer’s project dedicated to Iceland when it was worst hit by the financial crisis. As a sort of counter-balance to Sputnik Photos, two years later there emerged NAPO Images Photoagency, associating artist such as Filip Cwik, Maciej Jeziorek, Adam Lach, Wojciech Grzedzinski, Piotr Malecki, Ewa Meissner and Monika Szewczyk.

The case of Rafał Milach exemplifies a distinct growing tendency in recent years where printed media have progressively lost importance for the photography scene. As a result, instead of solo images, short photo-essays or variable series of photographs, artists increasingly put more stock with long-term projects with the goal of presenting their work through the channels of gallery exhibition, and increasingly also through monographs. The intention of crowning the project with a photobook requires, from the very outset, a different style of working, a different selection of photographs as well as adopting a different photographic language. In terms of the Polish photographic scene, Rafał Milach made a significant contribution to triggering this shift in interest away from the narrative role of images and towards artists’ photobooks. His photobooks, like those of the Sputnik collective members, bear a distinct mark of the editorial and design input of Ania Nałecka, and in fact apart from the Institute of Creative Photography at the Faculty of Philosophy and Science of the Silesian University in Opava, Rafał Milach studied graphic design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice. The book format allows for combining photographic with graphic design and polygraphy as well as with text, with collaging and assemblaging disparate formats, found photographs or objects. This kind of freedom in working with photography and the limits of the documentary has become a trademark style with Rafał Milach and in recent years has also been vastly influential for a number of both Polish and Czech artists.

Milach’s last book, brought out by the London-based GOST publishers in 2014, is entitled The Winners. The photographs included here emerged as part of the 2010–2012 collective project Stand By, in which the Sputnik Photos photographers explored the territory of Belarus. Rafał Milach first focused on a quest for his own family roots, but was soon drawn to a subject he had broached already in Very Beautiful Project, undertaken as part of a residency program in Lodz: rather than presenting a critical perspective, he concentrates on what local citizens or local authorities regard as beautiful.

The Winners is exceptional in the context of Rafał Milach’s projects. The measure of individual artistic perspective is accentuated by the minimisation of authorship. As an officially accredited foreign reporter, Milach was accompanied by a local guide and was only allowed to encounter the “winners” for a strictly limited period of time in settings beautified for the occasion. He portrays them in the glamorizing style of contemporary fashion photography. Instead of portraying anti-regime protests, which would be either prevented, or in any case would depict only the surface of the “last dictatorship in Europe”, he became instead an “official photographer” and captures the system of artificial order, peace and safety where by means of rewarding and celebrating minor victories and achievements – be they competitions for the most beautiful couple in love, the best patriotic song, bestselling cigarettes or best civil servant or library staff – the government deflects attention from larger social problems. Milach’s guide is employed by the government, and it is him who selects the sitter, the time and the place. In the short time allotted to him, the photographer makes a connection with the sitter, finding his bearing in the setting, making a choice of background, with a minimum of staging. What he is trying to do in fact is to eliminate his own personal perspective, to go with the official Belarusian propaganda and the self-censorship and self-stylization of the citizens, and by doing so to deconstruct the hastily made up Potemkin facades on his journey through the land. The final book, too, is bound in red leather, and the golden legend on the title page is a quote from the government preamble. Photographs are pasted on the page only in their upper section, so that one can flip the picture to reveal captions with more information. The elaborate graphic design and layout as well as the required handiwork predestined the book for only a small print run. At the same time, however, these very prerequisites produced a book where photography, graphic design as well as printing combine to form a most exquisite and organic unity.


Tomáš Pospěch