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Arri, the multi-champion in dog beauty contests.  (Image courtesy of Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE)

Arri, the multi-champion in dog beauty contests. (Image courtesy of Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE)

Without the freedom to express your political opinions, what does it really mean to be a good citizen? That’s the question posed by the photographs in The Winners, a new book by Warsaw-based photographer Rafal Milach.

Cover of The Winners by Rafal Milach, published by Gost Books (Image courtesy of Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE)

With the blessing of the Belarusian government, Milach traveled to the country — which many consider to be Europe’s last dictatorship — to photograph its most outstanding citizens. They are winners of contests in schools, public institutions, nightclubs, village discos and kolkhozes (collective farms). We meet the man who ran the best potato farm, the woman who was the best look-a-like of Jennifer Lopez, the best milkmaid, the best welder, and the best couple. 

They’re the sort of people who should provoke admiration or envy, but under the bright, cold flash of Milach’s camera, they appear fairly prosaic. Even awkward.

Granted, no one looks good in that kind of light, but the indifference you feel when looking at the photographs reveals how little there is in them to connect with. Individual personalities have been obscured by the state’s propaganda machine. Milach’s unbiased lens makes no judgements, and it is precisely this absent viewpoint — suggesting the lack of freedom to make up one’s own mind — that makes these images so eerie.

Sasha, the best welder of the Republic of Belarus, who won the Brotherhood of Russian and Belarusian Nations contest (Image courtesy of Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE)

Miss Belarusian (Image courtesy of Rafal Milach/INSTITUTE)

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...