Sputnik Photos: a portrait of Europa

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As his comment suggests, traditional print is rapidly dwindling as new platforms with less healthy editorial budgets take over; documentary photographers need to be adaptable and independent to survive. Both factors make joining a collective a savvy choice, having an anarchistic element of combining individuality with mutual benefits. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “Anarchy is an ethic.”

Sputnik capitalises on this individuality, representing the changes in Eastern Europe through documentary images that add a personal perspective. “We realised we were not reporters in the objective sense, but that if we go to Belarus, for example, we make personal rather than descriptive narratives – more metaphorical than literal,” explains Milach. The collective has created a working ethos based on “a history of failures”, experimenting with narrative forms and learning through experience.

Given this approach, I ask them about the importance of their audience and whether they hope to educate their viewers. “Maybe it sounds banal,” says Milach, “but we see our role as asking questions and stimulating an audience to read between the lines. With a huge number of images circulating, you get the impression that everything has been done, that there is an overload of information. We concentrate on what has been omitted – what seems not to be of interest to the mass media and audience – but also using the knowledge and context we already have.

“The message we try to give is not a simple one,” he says. “Of course, some of it can work well in an editorial context, but I prefer the confusion – to be confronted with images that make me wonder why they have been presented in a particular way.”

Getting the work out is of prime importance, and Sputnik uses different vehicles to do so – including books, the internet, multimedia presentations, exhibitions and low-budget though beautifully designed magazines that are given away free. Inevitably, the work also ends up in more mainstream magazines, and they are also prolific bookmakers, individually and as a group. Distant Place – a collective endeavour by five of the photographers, focused on the Vistula river in Warsaw – was shortlisted for best book of the year at PhotoEspaña 2013. Their work has also achieved some success in galleries, and with various art organisations.

When we met, some of Sputnik’s members had just returned from a residency in Iceland, where they produced new work combining video, photography, sound and archive materials. They recently had a group exhibition of their project on Ukraine, in the Polish city of Lublin, a group exhibition at the Leica Gallery in Warsaw, and three exhibitions in the museum district of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Their work has also recently been on show at the Brighton Photo Biennial, in an exhibition called Five Contemporary Photography Collectives.

Operating in the buffer zone between East and West from a documentary and journalistic perspective, Sputnik’s natural affinity is with the East, yet they understand the other side well enough to straddle both comfortably. Poland was destroyed by the Germans and controlled by Russia for half a century. Inevitably, the Poles and their neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe are still trying to make sense of their recent history and reclaim the essence of who they are. There is still the feeling of the aftershock of history, and perhaps the volcano is not totally dormant – the spectre of Russia glows more ominously than at any time since the Iron Curtain opened.

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