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LUCIA SEKERKOVA 2
A vrăjitoare snapping a selfiePhotograph by Lucia Sekerková

Five local photographers sharing fascinating stories from Eastern Europe

These innovative photos show young Bucharest witches with Instagram accounts, Ukrainian teen misfits, and Soviet spas

Twenty years ago, Eastern Europe was shrouded in mystery and its inhabitants were ruled by dictators belonging to powerful oligarchical circles. While the region today has been released from the jaws of communism, the lives of these individuals remain striking in their ambiguity. While the former Eastern Bloc still remains entrenched in corruption, power struggles and – let’s be honest – a whole swathe of issues, some narratives are making their way out into the wider world, but a majority of stories are underrepresented.

How aware are you of pseudo-scientific spas in the Balkans, the Russian Mari’s 100-year-old dresses, and braided Roma gypsies who have mastered magic and taking the perfect selfie? Thanks to the Calvert 22 Foundation’s New East Photo Prize – which closed last month – a real and unique glimpse of Eastern Europe has been captured through the lens of over a dozen photographers. The result is a kaleidoscopic display of our hemispheric neighbours, which swirls in urban lore, dazzling abandoned buildings, and communities and cultures that face extinction.

Here are five photographers from the East sharing fascinating stories from their home countries.

LUCIA SEKERKOVÁ’S SERIES ON ROMA WITCHES FOR THE INSTA GENERATION

The word ‘vrăjitoare’ in Romanian can mean anything from witch to healer. In a traditional sense, the vrăjitoare were gypsies earning their wages on the fringes of society. Having learned of this culture, Slovakian photographer Lucia Sekerková wanted to capture the changing role of the vrăjitoarea affected by globalisation. Thanks to the internet, these Roma witches now have online profiles so that anyone with a connection can have their futures read.

In her aesthetically arresting photographic series Vrăjitoare, Sekerková followed the lives of the women who practice traditional mysticism but like to wash their work with an Instagram filter. “Nine-year-old girls are already starting their promotional vrajitoare profiles on the Facebook,” Sekerková says on her website.

KAROL PALKA’S SERIES ON ABANDONED OPULENCE

The photographs from a series called Edifice by polish photographer Karol Palka document his exploration into the buildings which survived and helped uphold a Soviet history. Journeying from Eastern to Central Europe, the photographs depict incredible natural environments which provide a backdrop to once opulent scenes. The photos themselves ache with missing subjects.

Palka travelled to the Polana Hotel, a once bustling holiday facility owned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and the abandoned rust-filled office building of a steelworks business. Palka claims the aim of his series was to demonstrate that these structures only served a grandiose appearance, which runs parallel to the idea of their government’s power once rampant in these regions. “The Edifice provides shelter, security, peace, and at the same time, gives a sense of strength,” Palka says on his website. “However, the feeling is just an illusion, and the power – contrary to what those who wield it think – is not given once and for all, but only for a moment.”

JOIN THE COOL’S SERIES OF TEENAGE MISFITS IN UKRAINE

Join The Cool is a Ukrainian art collective which consists of Genia Volkov, Anastasiya Lazurenko, Kristina Podobed, and Daria Svertilova. The artists meet up twice a year for a themed project, designed to uncover and showcase unknown gems from Ukraine. For their most recent series, Vinietka, Join The Cool went to a high school to create a grunge-inspired photo album with fifteen misfits on the cusp of graduation. The hazy, dream-like images depict kids in their realness: whether that’s smooching in stairs or defiantly smoking cigarettes or posing for a yearbook photo.

Join The Cool told It’s Nice That that the aim of the project was to examine the educational system of Ukraine with all its contradictions: “(an) older generation of teachers is still following traditions of the Soviet heritage, according to which everybody is equal, while the new generation of our age and younger is pro-European and aims to express the personality”, they said.

FYODOR TELKOV’S SERIES ON THE RUSSIAN COMMUNITY ON THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION

Ural Maris is a minority Russian community whose culture is on the brink of extinction. A Russian photographer named Fydor Telkov documented the population’s vulnerable loss of language, traditions, beliefs, and lifestyles in his series titled Ural Mari. He captured this through beautiful but frank portraits of its people in-situ, contrasting them against their rugged but urbanised Russian landscapes. In the photographs, Mari’s traditional ornate garments juxtapose against contemporary backdrops, which highlights the threat this community faces from external forces like globalisation.

The history of the population can be traced back to before the 16th Century, and one of Mari’s tangible connections to their past is woven into their clothes. “Many shirts and dresses are passed down from generation to generation, some pieces of clothing being a hundred years old,” explains photographer Telkov on his website. However, even on a micro-level, these pieces are also being synonymously threatened. “Garments are being sewn over, decorated with modern details, machine-made embroidery, old pieces of embroidery are used in new clothing,” he adds.

MICHAL SOLARSKI’S SERIES ON SOVIET SPAS

Spas are used to bring about rejuvenation and relaxation – but the Soviet-constructed sanitariums, from the 1920s up to the 90s, were designed to increase productivity among the working class. Michael Solarski is the Polish photographer who travelled through Eastern Europe to photograph these architectural delights for a series called Infirmi, which, much to his surprise, are still being used today. “(A) Long time after the collapse of the Soviet Union there are many of these amazing buildings still functioning,” he explains on his website.

Solarski’s photographs are immaculate displays of marble countertops and tiled pools. The lives within his lens are also on their own paths to self-care, whether through sterilisation lamps or immersing their naked bodies into freezing pools. Solarski's series ultimately reveals that taking care of yourself in the East means surrendering yourself to the senses.

See more from the New East Photography Prize 2018 here