When empires fall, instability follows, and this is Sputnik’s remit. A major project is Lost Territories, a study of post-Soviet republics that has so far encompassed Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, and will extend to the Caucasus. They aim to finish this epic project by 2016, the year marking the 25th anniversary of the collapse of USSR. “What we observe is that each country has its own unique experiences,” says Milach. “These are real periods of transition and we want to challenge the preconception or the myth that these places have moved on from the Soviet mentality.
“We are still mentally and emotionally linked to communism and the enduring struggle is that, in the attempt to find new identities, we are still connected to the old; in some countries they still find comfort in the old identity of communism. In a sense there is confusion, and this confusion is compounded by the new generation, who are not tied to the old system.”
Warsaw is a vibrant and eager city, bursting with creativity and keen young minds eager to learn and progress, and now inextricably connected to the wider world via the internet. Their attitudes are very different from that of the older generation, and yet they’re marked by its experiences. I meet Sputnik again at their headquarters, where they have invited me to talk to some students on a mentoring programme. Many of these young photographers have been working on long-term projects on memory and collective identity. Milach tells me the collective looks for photographers who have a strong visual language for this particular programme, and that all Sputnik can do is share their experience. “As photographers, some are at the same level as us but simply lack experience, and so we guide them and ensure the work they produce is focused,” he says. “Younger Polish photographers today are more aware, and certainly more advanced, than we were back in 2006.”
Sputnik also teaches photography to children as young as three years old, and when I ask why, Rayss half-jokingly replies: “Because we want to learn from them!
“It is wonderfully refreshing to see children exploring the world with a camera and experiencing the joy of shooting everything around them,” adds Milach. “We encourage them to shoot their life at home.”
Sputnik is a great exemplar of a dynamic, modern-day photographic collective with the right intellectual and creative balance between recognising their circumstances and developing a selfless way of working. Their great virtue is in acknowledging where they come from as a strength, enabling them to document a changing Eastern Europe with intimacy and empathy.
The Winners, by Rafal Milach, is published by Gost, priced £40 / €50.
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