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Monika Orpik, one of the talents nominated by Der Greif to join FUTURES in 2023, recently sat down with one of our Editors to discuss her latest project and photobook "Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road" (2022) published by OPT. In this project, Orpik documents a specific territory near the Bialowieza Forest. The dreamy, faded photographs serve as a documentation of the landscape and events occurring in the area from August 2020, when the revolution in Belarus began, through 2021, which marked the migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border and the subsequent construction of a border wall, up until 2022, the year of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Der Greif: Hi Monika! Congratulations on your nomination! What does FUTURES mean to you?
Hi! Thank you for the nomination. For me, FUTURES means reconnecting with the photography community in a way that extends beyond the structure of a university class. It has been interesting to explore the various lectures available on the platform and to see the works of other photographers.
Der Greif: Why do you describe the images and text as "seemingly contradictory"?
The combination of text and images in photobooks is not very common. And when it does appear, it's often seen as a framework for the images, such as in an epilogue or an introductory essay. In "Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road," both the images and the text hold equal value and work in symbiosis. They may appear contradictory in terms of the atmosphere they present: the serene visual narratives are juxtaposed with descriptions of harsh regimes. However, each of them also holds elements that contradict the other - the text, despite describing difficult experiences, still offers glimpses of hope, while the idyllic photographs hint at impending tragedy. By constructing both narratives in this way, I aimed to provide a more comprehensive understanding of what migration truly entails. This approach departs from the typical reporter's description of specific events, which often get overshadowed by new news from other fronts. The combination of text and images speaks to the long-term emotional and psychological effects of conflicts, the subsequent trauma, and the ongoing efforts to overcome them.
Der Greif: How does black and white photography remain relevant in documenting events?
For me, choosing to shoot in black and white was a way to create a universal story. I was working with people from two seemingly different communities: those who identify as Belarusians but were born in Eastern Poland, and those who fled from Belarus to Poland as a result of the political regime. It was important to me not to create any artificial divisions between these groups, which could easily be visually imposed if I shot in color. The details that could reveal their specific communities are lost in black and white, allowing the viewer to see this story as one that could happen anywhere. It is a depiction of a certain violence and experience of loss, which applies not only to the Polish-Belarusian border or the European Union border, but also to those who fled the Lukashenko or al Assad regimes. It is a story about an uncertain journey and a new beginning that can happen to anyone.
Der Greif: How does imagination influence your approach to documentary photography?
In this process, the imagination of the people I worked with, specifically those who agreed to be interviewed, played a crucial role in my approach to image-making. Sometimes, I was simply the facilitator, ensuring that the images came to life, while they were the ones determining what would be captured. It was important for me to ask them how they wanted to be portrayed and allow them to guide me, even though many of the images do not include people. Some of these situations arose due to the protagonists' need for safety in the project, considering the challenging political situation and regime they had fled from. The portrayal of landscapes and the objects that surround them in their homes served as their portraits.
Der Greif: How do you approach formalizing a project in a photobook? What is the scope of it?
The scope of work on that photobook was bigger than I expected. In the end, we had 10 people working just on the book, not counting the people I spoke with and met along the way. It began with the visual layer and sequencing the images together with Łukasz Rusznica, the curator of this book, during a 3-week residency at Miejsce przy Miejscu gallery in Wrocław, Poland. It became more difficult when we started talking about text, how to approach it, and how to deal with things that had been said but were no longer relevant due to the drastic change in the political situation. It's important to remember that 2 years have passed since the beginning of the project and the start of work on the book. In the meantime, a wall was built on the Polish-Belarusian border, and Russia launched an invasion on Ukraine, so politically everything shifted 180 degrees. The team and I decided very early on that we wanted to show the narrative on migration in a universal way. The text includes 15 interviews, but it was edited in a way to read as one story. Moreover, the locations were removed from the text so that you have a feeling that this story could happen anywhere. The process was a big eye-opener, not only in terms of working with images and text, but also in terms of work hygiene. I learned how important it is to take breaks during the process, to leave things for a while, and come back with fresh eyes. But most importantly, I learned how a great team changes the environment and becomes a support mechanism.