Sun seekers in an abandoned forced labor camp: Rafał Milach’s best photo | Art and design
IIt was August 2016 and I had been traveling for weeks documenting the decaying borders between the Baltic states. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there had been little physical demarcation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. But after the collapse, each nation had built its borders, until the creation of the Schengen area, where the need faded again. I went to photograph what was left.
After the seizure of the Baltic States by the USSR, a maximum security prison had been established by Rummu’s quarry. The area was transformed into a secure complex, where the detainees were used as forced labor. Post-USSR, the prison was closed and the pits flooded. Although the land is privately owned, over time it has become a favorite spot for residents and visitors to swim and relax.
The site itself was practically abandoned. What you see in the image may look idyllic, but the perimeter fences, watchtowers, and barbed wire – all rotting and rusting – were still there. Residents seeking sun climbed the walls and I followed them: all desperate to enter a place from which, in the not so distant past, its inhabitants would have given anything to escape.
In the summer heat, everyone donned swimsuits and waved inflatables on the beach in the shadow of brutalist – and at the same time brutalizing, architecture. There were textures of Martin Parr’s Brighton Beach, but in the shadow of violence. It explores, I think, questions about human nature: how adaptable we are, how we deal with historical trauma.
Yet even though I was happy with this image, that’s not the only reason it looks meaningful. When I look at it now, I realize how much thinking about images like this has – over time – radically changed the way I work and think. Because this image is also the reproduction of a cliché. It’s visual colonialism, describing precisely what a stranger to this community can expect. It took me years to realize that I was reproducing visual stereotypes that put images before people, uplifting the Western gaze. While certainly less striking than a Belgian counterpart shooting in the Congo or a Briton in India, this image still raises questions of power and perceptions. My native Poland did not need to have colonized Estonia for this plan to be defined by what I had spent a lifetime being told and taught.
Of course, decay – eastern entropy – is photogenic. But it can be a trap. And so in some ways I consider all of my images like this to be failures. They might be the most commercially successful and popular ones on Instagram, but that’s because other people see what they recognize in them and feel safe.
I grew up in Upper Silesia in southern Poland. If you were to look at some pictures of the landscapes I grew up in, you would probably say “post-industrial” – just like in this picture. But this is far from the sum total of the region or its people, and it took me a while to realize that much of my work in Eastern Europe was doing these communities a disservice. .
Today, I understand that as photographers we are not just neutral observers. Images convey messages and representations, the camera gives you the power to shape the world and the way it is viewed. In some ways, this transition in my perspective started with this photograph. Yes, it has all the makings of a good image, but it’s also a reminder of what I no longer want to do in my job.
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Rafał Milach’s CV
Born: Gliwice, Poland, 1978.
Qualified: Katowice Academy of Fine Arts and Institute of Creative Photography, University of Silesia.
Influences: Taryn simon, Broomberg and Chanarin, Andrzej Tobis, Karolina Wojtas.
High point: “Launch of the Archives of Public Protests, documenting five years of Polish protest.
Low point: “I waited 18 months and traveled 1,500 km to photograph a Russian prison camp, only realizing that my camera was broken during the development of the film.
Best Advice: “See photography as a powerful and persuasive tool that can critically interact with the world.