Review by Gerhard Clausing •
As we know from Shakespeare, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” The ‘merely’ is to remind us that even the most powerful political actors, who can affect our lives greatly between their entrances and exits, are all subject to final curtains. We also know that live theater, with its performances of a different kind, has often given audiences much to think about, especially in regard to the many issues that confront us, and to remind us of the need to resist oppressive and overbearing governments. All this is even more significant at the end of 2020, a year which offered major challenges – a mismanaged pandemic, along with increasing populist movements and intolerance in several countries, as well as economic hardships. The best photobooks can play a similar role in raising awareness, so here we have a two-for-one, a photobook that shows us those who work with audiences to help them achieve a sense of community in dealing with challenges.
This project documents the work of the Belarus Free Theatre, presenting a compelling and emotional visual and essay analysis. The story is told through the eyes of two of their unconventional players, Sveta and Nadya, who are also in a personal relationship. The process of documenting such a semi-secret project that intentionally blurred the distinction between performers and audience and achieved a substantial level of prominence is a formidable task.
Misha Friedman is an astute observer, and his dynamic visual portrayal of these two women and the roles they play in keeping the performances going is a brilliant piece of work. The Belarus Free Theatre was often on the edge of possibilities; as a performance place that worked in intimate contact with a select audience it started out in a simple little structure, “it had a community, a sense of drive, and a palpable feeling of danger about it.” The verbal narrative by Masha Gessen fills in the backstory, as she tells us about the political situation and its personal contexts, including arrests under trumped-up charges.
The verbal guidance by Masha Gessen mirrors Misha Friedman’s photography, and is presented in three stages – What you see is nothing / You see everything / What do you see? This sequence is also a narration through the relationship of the two women and the development of the theater, from a near-underground performance happening in Belarus to the attention it later received in guest tours in Poland and New York City, with the famous Pussy Riot participation. The photographs and the text take us through it all, not shirking away from immersing us in the center of the action. We are confronted with our own need to respond to unacceptable conditions, and with the need to be more than silent mass of compliant bystanders. Theater as an uncomfortable provocation presented with verve and stamina generates the needed hope for better things to come.
The images are enhanced by captions, and are well articulated and edited. The design makes the book very pleasant to take in. There is a great feeling of being involved from afar, and I recommend this photobook as a touching model of activist documentation and narration.
Photographer: Misha Friedman (born in Moldova; lives in New York City)
Publisher: The New Press, New York, NY; © 2020
Essay and Texts: Masha Gessen (three sections); Jon Stryker (preface)
Paperback with stiff illustrated cover and stitched binding; 136 pages, paginated; 8 x 10 inches (20.5 x 25.5 cm); printed in the USA
Photobook Design: Jurek Wajdowicz (Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios – EWS)
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).