Travelling through the Białowieża Forest – a natural border between the two nations – at the cusp of a political revolution, Orpik attempts to understand the Belarusian community
When Monika Orpik arrived in Hajnówka, East Poland in the summer of 2020 to begin a new project, it just so happened to be the same day as the presidential elections in neighbouring Belarus. This day, 09 August, also marked the beginning of the largest anti-government protests in Belarusian history. Coupled with the ongoing refugee crisis, the air at the eastern border of Poland was thick with uncertainty.
“The date was a coincidence, but it marked a pivot in the project,” recalls the Polish photographer. “I had long been interested in this particular region, and in the Białowieża National Forest because it acts as a natural border between Poland and Belarus, so it was at this intersection that I found a starting point through which to understand how the Belarusian community grows.”
The pictures Orpik took during that period became the basis for her new photobook Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road, which she describes as a meditation on the uneasy slippage between peace and political oppression. As she travelled around the area she began learning about the local people, their stories and histories, and the photographs developed from there.
Sometimes people appear in the images – gardening, working, gathering together – but more often they are void of human presence, instead focusing on objects and the traces people leave, from beds and half-built structures to washing drying on the line. “From the beginning I wanted this process to be based on collaboration and invitation and the people I worked with decided how they wanted to be represented, which often resulted in documentation of objects and landscapes that surround them on a daily basis,” Orpik explains. She also adds that the decision not to show faces was sometimes for safety reasons – so as not to expose anyone to the dangers of the political regime in Belarus.
Alongside taking photographs, Orpik also recorded the conversations she had with her participants. Excerpts are printed in both Belarusian and English in the book. “The context of the revolution was naturally appearing in conversations, which inevitably then became the discussion about borders and intersectional solidarity,” she says. “The image of a specific community is often charged with what we see in the media, and often it’s a false or predetermined representation. I wanted to photograph but often didn’t take my camera with me because I wanted the people I worked with to decide if they wanted to be represented visually. I think the combination of text and image was an attempt to broaden that view, and give more insight into how the situation actually looks.”
Fundamentally, Orpik hopes that the pictures and personal stories in Stepping Out will plant seeds of support for community-building without borders or division. “The migration crisis is still very present and we need to find the means to work with one another for mutual solidarity,” she says. “I want this idea to sprout throughout the time spent with the book.”
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London