Belarus wants to present itself strong and glamorous. Photos where someone tramples on the portrait of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, are destroyed by court order. This is a reaction like in Soviet times. “Belarus Press Photo 2011” honoured pictures of protests against Alexander Lukashenko. First, the books were legally sold in Belarus. Now a court ordered their destruction.
In dictatorships the conviction is widespread that reality can and must also be tamed. There are numerous examples of retouched images and forbidden books, as if it were really possible to create whole events from the past. A Belarusian court in Aschmjany, on the border with Lithuania, acted in the same way. On Thursday, it sentenced an illustrated book to destruction. Last summer this book was still available for purchase in the capital Minsk, but now it is considered “extremist”.
It is about the pictures that won the “Belarus Press Photo 2011” competition. They show events from the year 2010. Bald Belarusian soldiers in the same green undershirts are sitting in front of a television. They are obliged to watch every day the evening news of the state channel, part of ideological education. Above the television is a portrait of Alexander Lukashenko, who was declared president again in 2010 after the elections. December 2010 in Minsk. Ranks of policemen face the demonstrators. Protests and white-red flags stand for freedom. A man stands with both feet, with his brand new fashionable sneakers on the portrait of Lukashenko.
This picture was taken by 27-year-old Alexander Vasyukovich. His series about the protests won in the category “People in News”. This was a big demonstration in Minsk next to the train station. “I turned from the stage to the crowd and saw that people crush and tear portraits of Lukashenko. I found it symbolic: young people in their hipster shoes crush the portrait of the president,” Vasyukovich says. “I don’t understand how my images of what actually happened can be extremist.”
A sound like that of a Soviet commission
The report presented in court stated: this image is “an insult not only to the head of state, but to all the Belarusian people who elected the president with their will; a humiliation of the national honour and dignity of the Belarusian people”. The report was signed by the chief ideologist of the Hrodno region and was prepared on behalf of the KGB secret service.
The illustrated book also contains completely apolitical pictures, nature shots and everyday scenes. They too are now regarded as extremist, as they show negative aspects of life in Belarus. For example, a picture showing an elderly man trying on a cap at the market. The photo depicts Belarussians in an ugly way: “poor as a beggar against the background of the new western clothing”. The letter with its formulations could thus have come from a Soviet commission.
The books were first legally imported to Belarus a year ago and were sold freely. Last autumn, the photographers returned from an exhibition in Poland and still had 41 books in their luggage. The albums were confiscated at the border. “I believe that someone from the officials wanted to show zeal,” says the photographer Vasyukovich. From that moment, the state machine functioned smoothly, as it did in Soviet times. The KGB secret service intervened, a commission of experts wrote the expert opinion, then the case was brought to court. The meeting did not last long and none of the participants had any doubts about the outcome of the verdict.
Self-censorship is much more effective than the official
“Photojournalists are just a bend in society,” says one of the organizers of the competition, Wadim Samirovsky. This court decision is an attempt to prevent photographers from showing negative aspects of life. The pictures from state news agencies and the pictures on state television look quite different. They show successes of the patriotic economy and present Belarus as an island of stability. The negative images come from abroad: riots in London, protests in Greece, the war in Syria.
The photographers, who do not want to write the patriotic praise of the country’s leadership with their work, are still allowed to work in principle, but are often disturbed. “You can push us or cover the lens with your hand,” Vasyukovich says. “Each one of us is ready to be arrested for a day, on the grounds that one had scolded in public.
He will continue his work as he pleases. The “Belarus Press Photo” photo competition will also continue. But Wadim Samirowski fears that it will be much more difficult to find partners in Belarus and to organize exhibitions. Because self-censorship is much more effective than official censorship. Even before the court decision, a bookstore in Minsk asked the competition organizers to retrieve their books.