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Youth in Belarus, photography Masha Svyatogor
Photography Masha Svyatogor

Growing up under Europe’s last dictatorship

‘It could be quite difficult living here, sometimes unbearable, confusing, incomprehensible, both funny and devastating’

In the mainstream media, Belarus is mainly known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Located in eastern Europe, it was once part of the Soviet Union, before declaring independence in 1991. The country owes its current political reputation to its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, who has served as the president since 1994 and implemented a number of Soviet-style policies. At the same time, the imposed image of the country, frozen in time, hardly reflects its real essence, particularly for its emerging generation. The work of 26-year-old photographer Masha Svyatogor provides a rare glimpse into the daily life, struggles and self-awareness of Belarusian youth.

Svyatogor used to study philology before fully embracing visual language of photography and collage. For her, it has become a perfect way to comprehend and come to terms with the surrounding environment. “I used to be interested only in my own inner world, my melancholy, but now I’m just as into the world around me... the place where I live, for example – Belarus, with its absurd aesthetics,” she says. “The project My Poor Little Room of Imagination is an intimate territory where the story of an individual human life unveils poor and vulnerable, politics, ideology and other ‘big’ issues. The story developed gradually. The more I took portraits, the better I could understand what I was capturing. The people I photographed were disoriented, worried, confused and feel very sharply (about) the reality around (them).”

“I used to be interested only in my own inner world, my melancholy, but now I’m just as into the world around me... the place where I live, for example – Belarus, with its absurd aesthetics” – Masha Svyatogor

Svyatogor’s main preoccupation in this project is her peers captured in the intimacy of their living spaces – vulnerable, honest and open. Baring their bodies and souls, or acting out roles they invented for themselves. The portraits are juxtaposed with urban snapshots of Minsk, the capital of Belarus. “All the photos are taken in Minsk, in typical flat blocks, in the settings where my characters live,” says Svyatogor. “Among the characters are people close to me, friends and acquaintances. Some of them I met through social networks, and then we became very close friends. Some (of them have since) passed away.”

So, what does it feel like to be young in Belarus today? “I can’t speak for the whole generation, but I can definitely say about myself that at times you have to move forward in spite of the circumstances” says Svyatogor. “It could be quite difficult living here, sometimes unbearable, confusing, incomprehensible, both funny and devastating. But the more you suffer and complain, the less energy you have to do what you have to. The dissatisfaction is hard to overcome, but for me it’s refreshing and inspiring, it makes you keep searching. A lot of my friends are thinking of moving, of immigration, and it’s normal. I had an experience of escaping because at some point this environment seemed to me unbearably horrible. Distance helps to reflect on things and to understand better events and things you’re interested in and concerned about”. Perhaps it was the distance which allowed the photographer to capture the face of today’s Belarusian youth so well.