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Politics of Memory. The VEHA Archive and Visual History of Belarus

Photography is a relatively young art form, but because of its inherent capacity for reproduction, it has quickly spread to all areas of social life and is now widely available. The place which photography occupies in culture lies between art, technology, and communication. The photograph is interesting because it provides an image of its subject that is easily reproduced and, in this sense, it loses its unique features. In the case of a print, it is remarkable because it is a unique object. There are at least three perspectives for analysing a photographic print. There is the subject of photography: what we see, what we understand, the images we recognize. Then there is the material of the print itself: the creases, the state of the emulsion, the captions, the number of copies. Finally, there is an invisible element and that is the context behind the photograph: the story of its making, its author, duration, and concrete historical and political context.

My focus is Belarusian archival photography,1 the state of archives today, and their influence on the formation of memory politics. I turn to vernacular (amateur) photography taken from family photo archives, to work with the history of everyday life rather than constructed ethnographic images. Unlike artistic and reportage photography, vernacular photography deliberately follows the patterns of established visual conventions without claiming uniqueness, which makes it easier to find conventional ‘cultural codes’ while comparing the different photographs. In this kind of photography, the author remains invisible, and the main subjects are the family rituals captured. Through the commonness of the subjects depicted and the personal visual narrative, the juxtaposition and comparison of the photographs allows parallels to be drawn with a more universal, historical spectrum, with the traumas experienced by society and the currents of social life.

Baranavichy, Brest region, 1945. Provided by Ala Žak. From the VEHA archive, ‘The Ruins of Belarus’ collection.       

Dancing at the Palieski station; Zinaida Simančyk in the centre, Nadzieja Simančyk in a white dress. Baranavichy, Brest region, 1945. Provided by Ala Žak. From the VEHA archive, ‘The Ruins of Belarus’ collection

The photographic documentation produced and preserved in different European countries varies considerably. Their conditions and the quality of the collections are directly related to the economic situation, the extent of armed conflicts, and the repression experienced by the population. In totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, such as Belarus, historical archives are often limited and there are no independent institutions dedicated to their analysis and preservation. In addition, access to many Internet resources is limited.2 To fill this gap, I decided to start working on an alternative way of preserving photography. In 2017, I founded the VEHA archive, a vernacular photography collection platform that allows users to analyse the visual histories of Belarus. The idea is to motivate citizens to participate in the process of creating an online museum of photography using their family archives.

The VEHA archive team has two permanent members and expands as projects are undertaken. Acquisitions of digital copies and thematic photographs are announced via social media. We ask contributors to indicate where and when the photo was taken, as well as to record the names of the people portrayed. The photos are then catalogued, processed, and retouched. The photographs we collect are analysed in the context of political, cultural, and social events, past and present.

In this way, without depriving the families of their heritage, we obtain material for further interpretation and involve hundreds of people in the process of preserving memory. In fact, in the history of the 20th century, there has not been a longer period that has stimulated the development of conditions for the preservation of photography in Belarus. Each image we work with is important material to be analysed. Our horizontal methodology was developed as an alternative to the vertical ownership of information and lack of access to the official archives. From the Soviet era to the present day, Belarusian citizens have been exposed to a state-ideological version of history in schools and universities. After the mass protests of 2020, history textbooks are being rewritten again.

The guard of honour near the eternal fire in the Brest fortress. Brest, 1975.Provided by Rascislaŭ. From the VEHA archive, ‘The Ruins of Belarus’ collection

In order to understand what photographic material has been preserved and kept until today, it is necessary to explain the historical context of photography created in the territory belonging to modern Belarus. Most of the archives available today start from the 1950 with the peak of analogue photography being the 1980s. Older photographs in family archives are rare. The existing photographs dating from the 19th to the early 20th centuries are associated with the names of Anton Prušynski, Benedykt Henryk Tyszkiewicz, Jan Bułhak and others. Telling these people’s stories will contribute to the understanding of the development of photography in Belarus.

In 1850, Anton Prušynski opened the first photographic workshop in Minsk, where he created a portrait of Vintsent Dunin-Marcinkievič and many other photographic portraits of famous citizens of Minsk. The workshop operated until 1863. After the January Uprising, which aimed to end the Russian occupation of eastern Poland, the authorities found one of the insurgents’ signs, ‘Pahonia’,3 on some of the daguerreotypes, leading to the photographer’s arrest and subsequent exile.  

Count Benedykt Tyszkiewicz documented the life of the aristocracy and the villagers, and a large photographic archive was kept at his family estate in the Naliboki Forest. Almost the entire archive was destroyed in World War II. Tyszkiewicz took some of the photographs with him to France, and only these have survived to this day.

The photographer’s daughters in front of the Tyškievič estate ‘Vyaloye’ (remains in a ruined state). Rudnia, Valožyn district, Minsk region, 1976. Photo by Raman Chacialovič. Provided by Uladzimir Sadouski. From the VEHA archive, ‘The Ruins of Belarus’ collection

Jan Bułhak created one of the most famous photo-documentations of Belarusian architecture. In July 1944, during the German occupation, his studio was burnt down in a fire, along with almost 30,000 negatives. During the war, the photographer and his family moved to Warsaw, and later established the Union of Photographers of Poland. His remaining archives have been digitized and are part of the public domain.

Lev Dashkevich was born in Minsk in 1882. He wanted to study medicine and enrolled at the University of Warsaw but was soon expelled for taking part in a strike. He went to Paris for a few years and became a photographer, returning to Belarus in the 1920s. The largest series of Dashkevich’s photographs was taken during an ethnographic expedition in 1923, documenting peasant life. These photographs became illustrative material for a 1924 publication on the geography of Europe. In the 1930s, the photographer was arrested as part of the Union of Liberation of Belarus, and a political and criminal case was brought against Belarusian scientists and cultural activists. During the occupation of Minsk during the World War II, Dashkevich was evacuated to the Caucasus and returned to Belarus in September 1944. Dashkevich’s house burned down during the bombing, although part of his archive was taken to Germany by the Nazis in 1943. In the 1950s, the photographs were returned to the Historical Museum of Belarus.

Zofia Chomętowska documented her native region of Polesia. Her photographs show old manor houses that survived World War I and were mostly lost during World War II. In the early 1930s she moved to Warsaw, then immigrated to London and then to Argentina. The Chamentowska family tried to contact the Pinsk Museum in Polesia to transfer the photo archive to them, but the museum officials were not interested in working with them. Today, Zofia Chomętowska’s legacy is preserved in Polish institutions. 

All the names listed above are people of a privileged class. Nevertheless, their biographies are associated with repression, war, forced emigration, and loss of archives.

Meanwhile, the owners of small photographic studios that met the basic needs of documenting family histories were mainly representatives of the Jewish community, a significant group of the urban population of Belarus. During and after World War II, Jewish culture was destroyed. The Holocaust is the most tragic event in the history of Belarus in the 20th century. In addition, Stalin’s repression of cultural and other social groups led many families to destroy their private archives because they were seen as evidence of their bourgeois past and a threat to their lives.

Ŭladzimir Makaravič Karabko against the background of the ruined chapel, which was finally demolished in 1965 for the construction of the school stadium. 1962, Palonka, Svislač district, Hrodna region. Provided by Aliaksiej Patapienka. From the VEHA archive, ‘The Ruins of Belarus’ collection

Belarusian culture continues to exist and develop thanks to the individual efforts, despite the lack of support from the state. This has contributed to the fact that creating archives or working with memory is a popular practice among Belarusian artists. The work of activists in different spheres of Belarusian culture makes it possible to preserve historical materials, preventing them from disappearing.

Since the 2020 protests against the fraudulent presidential elections, the regime in Belarus has sought to monopolize control over all spheres of public life and the way the country’s history is presented. There are no longer any independent, non-commercial contemporary art galleries, no grassroots cultural venues, and the number of political prisoners is constantly growing.4 The situation has deteriorated considerably since the outbreak of full-scale war in Ukraine, and the level of repression continues to grow. Many cultural producers are in opposition to the regime, oppose the official ideology built on nostalgia for the Soviet Union, the memorialization of the Great Patriotic (World War II), and constant Russification of the country’s population.5 Without overt military action, Belarusian independent state, cultural institutions, as well as memory are being destroyed. As a result, many strands of contemporary art exist only through the initiatives of individuals and are not supported by the state. The entire Belarusian culture today is in opposition to the current regime. At the same time, working with archives in Belarus poses a threat to one’s own safety and that of one’s loved ones.

Even though the VEHA archive does not have the status of an ‘extremist organization’, people have become less active in sending photos. Our public activity is still possible because we have chosen the space of family photography, something that concerns everyone but has no obvious political context. By involving people in the process of creating a collective archive, we fight against the existing monopolization of civil and political discourse.

Aliaksandr Najdovič with a friend. About 1955. Provided by Stanislava Najdovič. From the VEHA archive, ‘The Ruins of Belarus’ collection

Political processes are inseparable from cultural ones. The VEHA archive is an example of a collective, grassroots archive. Through the collection of thematic, vernacular photographs, as well as through public work with these photographic archives that take on the form of exhibitions and book publications, the VEHA archive stimulates communication within the families and restores the demand for the transmission of knowledge about the past from its eyewitnesses. The space of everyday life has no clear boundaries, which makes it possible to talk about the invisible: the context behind the photograph. The photographs in VEHA’s archives are a database accessible to all those interested in the subject, from researchers to ordinary users. The visual history of Belarus is a part of European history that deserves attention and still needs new interpretations.

Lesia Pcholka is a Belarusian artist. Founder and curator of the VEHA archive since 2017. Her work explores everyday life, memory, and social issues through art and participatory practice. More



1 By Belarusian archival photography, I mean photography created in the territory that is part of modern Belarus.

2 Human Constanta, Review of the fight against “extremism” in Belarus in July-September 2022, Human Constanta, 28.10.2022, [accessed: 15.03.2024].

3 The Coat of Arms of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Bel. Паго́ня (Pahonia), Lithuanian: Vytis)is the traditional national symbol of Lithuania and Belarus, and the coat of arms of many settlements in Podlasie.

4 Human Rights Center “Viasna” [accessed: 15.03.2024]. After 2020, almost the entire NGO sector was liquidated; at least 1,480 organizations were closed.

5 Russification in the cultural sphere of Belarus 2022-2023, PEN Belarus, 26.12.2023, [accessed: 15.03.2024].


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