In October, Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip was awarded the 2013 PEN/Pinter prize, a major freedom-of-speech prize established in honor of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. Khalip won for her ongoing investigative reporting on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, for which she’s been intimidated, detained, and beaten.
But she is not one of The Winners, documented by photographer Rafal Milach, a project made possible with assistance from the Magnum Foundation, as part of his ongoing work about propaganda in post-Soviet bloc countries. Unlike Khalip, who was under house-arrest last year, Warsaw-based Milach was warmly welcomed and shown the very best of Belarus. Milach met and photographed the winners of regional and town competitions put on by the state: the best National Library worker; the best welder of the Republic of Belarus; the best maid of the Belarus hotel (her personal best in changing sheets is 33 seconds); the best milkmaid of the Slutsk region (her personal best is 1160 liters of milk); and the president of AOA Otichestvo (the most productive potato farm of the Republic of Belarus), among many others.
As he worked, Milach noticed that the potato farm sponsored swimming pools and schools and appeared to be quite prosperous despite an economy that’s generally on the decline. But Milach, who has been working in Central Europe for more than 10 years—approaching ideas about propaganda from political, social, and visual perspectives—is well aware that appearances in post-Soviet countries like Belarus, often called the last remaining dictatorship in Europe, are usually just that: facades. Likewise, Milach’s subjects—sometimes partially, if not totally obscured—are just stand-ins, mere ideas or illusions. They are no one in particular, as exceptional as they may be.
Outside of Belarus, journalists like Khalip receive due respect—in 2005, she was recognized by TIME as a European Hero for “changing the world for the better.” In Belarus, as Milach’s work makes conspicuous, the welders, milkmaids, potato farmers, and fitness instructors are feted.
Milach notes he has not shown The Winners in Belarus. “[The photos] will certainly be received differently in Belarus than somewhere outside.” He expects a book in early 2014.
Rafal Milach is a photographer and bookmaker based in Warsaw, Poland. He is represented by INSTITUTE and was a participant in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass, 2007.