Documentary photography – as practiced in much of the rest of Europe, generally meaning a concerned visual author tackling broad, real-life themes in their self-initiated projects – was the ‘hole in the doughnut’, so to speak. There was a limited circle of very talented, mid-career photographers who had found their voices and established their reputations in late Soviet times or immediately after, who straddled the line between art and documentary in their work.
When people speak of post-Soviet Belarus – a country that somehow manages to be both right on the edge of Europe and almost completely unknown in the West – the usual consensus conjures a land ‘frozen in time’. Meaning a kind of Brezhnev-era stasis, democratic progress blocked – in perhaps equal measure – by an autocratic government and the weak sense of national identity among the Belarusian populace, who have historically been under one boot or another.
But politics aside, there is a striking change on at least one cultural level. When I first visited and began photographing in Belarus in 2000, the local photography scene was very different than it is today. With a state-controlled media, much press photography was of the most generic variety. On the other end of the spectrum was some rather slick, conceptual fine-art photography that too often bordered on kitsch.
But what was notably lacking at the time was the next generation of photographers, those who could act as sensitive observers and interpreters of the society around them. A rare few people and institutions carried the flame forward and nurtured the documentary tradition. What has emerged, slowly but inexorably over the last decade, is a crop of younger photographers determined to not just connect with international currents in photography, but to put their drive, new aesthetics, and varied points of view in service of better understanding their Belarus. These are photographers with a worldview, yet are deeply attached to their troubled and little-known homeland.
Documentary photographer Alexander Kladov is among the finest of this dynamic new generation. His method of portraiture – quiet, unhurried, studied, sensitive, direct but atmospheric – is very effective at peeling away the layers of the young people he focuses on and, as importantly, their surroundings. Far from the recently rehabilitated Potemkin polish of central Minsk, he explores the margins of the city, a somewhat untended garden of self-contained kids playing in still air, air that seemingly has been bottled too long but refracts the light in magical ways. Stasis made nearly visible, and in fact quite beautiful.
Alexander is not searching for what is bad, or good. With grace and equanimity, he intuitively gravitates toward what simply IS, and gives it a gentle caress. He seems to understand that any exploration of Belarus that hopes to reach a wider audience must show not just Belarusians but Belarus. This visual balance is key, this depiction of modest Belarusians amid the suggestion of their land, their homes, their territory, their dreams.
What will they make of it? Seems to be the question. It’s still too soon to know. Belarusians are often called stoic, and it’s true there is no sense of urgency in the photos, no restlessness, no pathos, no implied manifesto. For now, for these young people in their gorgeous light in the bottle, it’s enough to present themselves for the lens, and for our consideration. This seems to be enough for Alexander Kladov as well, which is one of the special gifts of his work.