Sputnik Photos: a portrait of Europa

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It is one of those sweltering, sunny days in Warsaw – Poland is surprisingly hot in the summer, the polar opposite of the severely depressing, minus-degree winter. I’m meeting up with members of the photography collective Sputnik, which specialises in similar contradictions. Like its namesake, it’s a small blip in space in the grand scheme of things, but it manages to transmit around the globe. Focusing on substantial social, cultural, political and economic dispatches from Eastern Europe and the countries that were, until relatively recently, satellites of the USSR, its work speaks of the complexities of the exciting – and traumatic – transformation from communism to capitalism, and the ways in which these countries struggle with their newfound identities.

There are nine photographers in Sputnik – Andrej Balco, Manca Juvan, Andrei Liankevich, Michal Luczak, Justyna Mielnikiewicz, Rafal Milach, Agnieszka Rayss, Adam Pańczuk and Jan Brykczyński – and I am joined by the last four, all based in Warsaw. My first impression is that they are a focused and diligent group of serious-minded, smart individuals, but they’re also extremely witty. Sitting outside a bar in the Praga area of the capital, the conversation turns to the hairdryer and its efficacy in soothing babies – some of the photographers are sleep-deprived recent parents, and have discovered the joys of white noise. From there the conversation turns to vacuum cleaners, of which some of the members are enthusiastic collectors.

There is a strong camaraderie between them. As a collective, they work in unison, providing each other with mutual support and seeing the benefits in group projects financed by various funding bodies; this funding allows them to work on individual projects while adding to a bigger picture. They officially launched Sputnik in 2006, but many of the members met at a workshop two years earlier, where they “realised that we all possessed a common energy with similar photographic concerns”, says Milach, who could be considered the main spokesperson.

“We decided to join forces so this energy would not fly away. We came from various backgrounds – some are photojournalists, I am a graphic designer, others are part-time photographers – but we all understood that we could not develop more considered and long-term projects as mere individuals,” he adds.

“We did not want to start an agency with a commercial initiative, especially as most of us were already represented by agencies,” says Rayss. “What we wanted was a freedom to develop work from our own perspectives.”

Poland, where five of the nine are based, also saw its position change in 2004 when it joined the European Union. Where the Polish once felt like outsiders, says Milach, they suddenly found they were attracting attention, funding and initiatives such as the workshop. Photography festivals in Łódź and Krakow also began at this time, heralding a new enthusiasm for photography, which helped Polish image-makers break out internationally. In this they were also aided, and funded, by healthy editorial commissions from publications both at home and abroad – something that’s sadly not the case any more. “They send no one now – just use some guy with a cellphone!” says Milach.

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