Photographer, visual artist, author of photo books. Co-founder of the Sputnik Photos collective. Joined Magnum Photos in 2018 as a nominee member.
Documentary photographer, associated with Sputnik Photos.
Rafał Milach was born in 1978 in Gliwice and is currently based in Warsaw. He graduated in graphic design from the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, as well as studies at the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava, Czech Republic, where he’s offering lectures. He’s also a professor at the Krzysztof Kieślowski Film School in Katowice Poland.
In 2008, he received first prize in the Grand Press Photo competition and in 2011 he received an honourable mention in the Magnum Expression Award Competition. In 2008 he received first prize in the Grand Press Photo competition and in 2011 he received an honourable mention in the Magnum Expression Award Competition. In 2013 he was among the 10 laureates of Magnum’s 2013 Emergency Fund grants, which allowed him to continue his Winners project, set in Belarus and giving viewers an intimate look at the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’.
At the 2012 edition of the Month of Photography in Bratislava Milach’s 7 Rooms were announced the best contemporary books in the CEE Region this year, along with two other albums published by Sputnik Photos – Stand By and Distant Place.
About his style of photography, he says the key to his craft is filtering his subject through his own consciousness to find a novel, distinctive perspective on an object or issue, even if it has been portrayed by dozens of photographers. ‘It’s about finding something interesting for us’, he told modernphoto.eu, ‘something we want to speak about. I believe there are no bad subjects, there are only bad productions’.
Black Sea of Concrete
Milach began his photographic career in 2002 with the Szary (The Grey) series, which was devoted to landscapes of Silesian cities and their inhabitants. Numerous works have focused on the visible traces of transformation in this region, but Milach's vision oscillated between personal involvement and a subjective, distanced observation. This factor made The Grey series different and recognisable.
Milach also analysed the influence of politics and economy on a place and people's behaviour in a completely different work entitled Wunderland. The series of photos from 2006 depicted the Excalibur City shopping centre located on the Austrian-Czech border. It has been operating since 1993 and is one of the largest remaining duty-free zones in the region. Other similar stores were closed down as a result of legal changes from 2004. Excalibur City survived because of its location in the Czech Republic and the consequent low prices of both alcohol and cigarettes. In Wunderland, Rafał Milach brings out its unique aura, which, apart from the political and geographical context, is also characterised by its unusual architecture, reminiscent of a cheap replica set of Las Vegas. Milach's photographs border on poetically surreal, sometimes containing elements of the grotesque, perfectly capturing the spirit of Excalibur City and its visitors.
In turn, Czarne Morze Betonu(Black Sea of Concrete, 2009) is a series of photographs from Ukraine that takes up the subject of historical change and the destruction related to it in a light, melancholic manner. The author described the project in the following way:
The very first thing that catches your eye is concrete. Kilometres of grey apartment blocks sometimes painted in Ukraine's national colours: yellow and blue. You feel the Soviet past immediately. It looks surreal. It does not fit in with the beautiful landscape that surrounds this place. Industrial zones and scrap yards do not resemble the harmony between man and nature. The local landscape was brutally changed by man. For me, the Black Sea has become an illustration of contemporary Ukraine. Five years have passed since the Orange Revolution and the country is plunging into ever-greater chaos, deepened by an economic crisis. A young democracy that has liberated itself from Russian influence is still unable to free itself from its Soviet past.
This series, which indirectly comments on the current political situation in Ukraine, has received numerous awards, including in the Pictures of the Year International (2009) and Grand Press Photo (2009) competitions. Together with Ania Nałęcka, Milach also received the Grand Prix for the design of the Black Sea of Concrete book in the American competition Photography Book Now in 2009.
Milach strives to capture the realities of everyday life in Russia and other former Soviet republics as authentically as possible. His first-person narration style is straightforward, without significant interference into the subject or setting. His best-known project is the 7 Rooms series, which paints a collective portrait of thirty-somethings in Putin’s Russia. He spent several years on the project, establishing contact with several young people across Russia then slowly getting closer to them, entering their lives and their homes and ultimately capturing that experience with his camera. For Milach, his subjects are both his heroes and his friends.
There is no sensationalism in images of people such as Stas, a journalist and a ‘real Siberian bear’ from Krasnoyarsk or Vasya, a drag queen living outside Yekaterinburg. In addition to six very personal narratives of 7 Rooms, there is a seventh chapter dedicated to the reportage of Svetlana Alexievich, whose book War’s Unwomanly Face reveals stories of women who fought in Ukraine in the Second World War. Other fragments are from Alexievich’s book Enchanted with Death, which tells stories of people and their experiences after the Soviet Union fell. The project’s seven chapters refer to ‘the metaphorical baggage of the generation born in the USSR’, showing spaces that are both dismal and pleasant, reaching beyond stereotypes of poverty and kitsch to show a nation torn between traditions of the past and consumerism in the present.
On completing the project, Milach said: ‘In Russia, there are a huge number of paradoxes. Sometimes it seemed to me that I understood some of them, only to find that my next trip proved that I was mistaken’. He has also said that ‘The more I tried to understand Russia, the more lost I became. Russia is like a planet of its own.’
In an interview with modernphoto.eu, Milach explained:
It is hard to tell where I got that passion for the former Soviet Union from. Something draws me to it. Maybe this is because I have got some family near Baikal, in Kaliningrad and in Belarus. My grandparents come from the borderland. I am really fond of the mentality of the people there. They are frank, spontaneous and straightforward. It feels like home whenever I’m there. Even back in New York I felt best in Coney Island among Ukrainian and Russian Jews. I could talk to them in Russian. This is just something that is rooted in the back of my head.
In the Car with R
IS(not) is a group project carried out by Sputnik Photos, depicting a journey to Iceland organised by five photographers in 2010. In the album, Rafał Milach published a series of photographs entitled W Samochodzie z R (In the Car with R). He travelled around a Scandinavian island with a writer –Huldar Breiðfjörð. The photographs taken create a certain kind of travel diary, which offers a very subjective record of the trip.
Milach does not consider himself a photo journalist. In his works for the press he offers his creative take on a specific phenomenon with the use of the various poetics of a photographic document. He brings out from the most interesting part, or the one worth emphasising, from his surroundings. He considers pure documentation, understood as a faithful representation of reality, to be insufficient. In his opinion, the photographer should emphasise what he considers important and what he would like to draw the viewer's attention to. Milach does not consider his works transparent towards the world presented; they are rather a ‘subjective documentation’.
In 2014, Rafał Milach's project Zwycięzcy (The Winners) made it to the final stage of the prestigious competition Paris Photo – Aperture Photobook of the Year Award 2014. The album, created during a trip to Belarus, documents local propaganda. The photos depict winners of numerous competitions organised by official authorities at various levels – including a competition for the best dog of the border protection forces, best room for ideological work, Miss Belarusian Railways and best maid. The author published two texts on the cover of the book: a fragment of a song by Belarusian internet star, Ksenia Degielko, who, as DJ Ksenia, raps about faith and praises the Belarusian reality and its stability. Beside it Decree 111 from 2004 is shown–an order of President Lukashenka, which serves the purpose of propagating state ideology.
Odmowa (Refusal) is an attempt to visually represent the way different systems maintain control and exert pressure. According to the photographer, the process of formatting and shifting meanings as well as creating new ideologies involves both innocent gestures and proven social engineering techniques. The starting point of the project was a Soviet TV program broadcasted in 1971.
The youth invited to the studio were subjected to experiments aimed at making viewers aware of the extent to which the suggestion and pressure of the group influenced the perception of reality. The image, which exposed the techniques used by the Soviet authorities, was considered a scientific curiosity; the subversive potential of this work was not seen. Milach commented on it in the following way:
Contemporary autocracies, especially those in the post-Soviet area, have successfully adapted the techniques presented in the program to collectively manage their citizens' awareness.
Refusal opened at Atlas Sztuki in Łódź (2017) and brought Rafał Milach a nomination for the prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. The exhibition consisted of four series of works created between 2010 and 2017 in former Soviet Union countries. You can find more information about the exhibition in the article ‘Pretty As A Picture: Rafał Milach's Chronicle of Propaganda’.
Pretty As A Picture: Rafał Milach’s Chronicle of Propaganda
The First March of Gentlemen
Pierwszy Marsz Dżentelmenów (The First March of Gentlemen) is a fictional narrative created from real threads. Historical events related to the city of Września became a starting point for a reflection on protests and disciplinary mechanisms. The author used teaching aids in his collages, such as models, figures and other accessories. He mixed them with figures cut of Ryszard Szczepaniak's archival photographs. The heroes of Milach's works are symbolically constrained by school, and therefore systemic, patterns. The book was named the 2018 Photographic Publication of the Year.
Nearly Every Rose on the Barriers in Front of the Parliament
The photos that make up this book were taken in July 2017 during protests against the reform of the judiciary system in Poland. It is a collection of white roses, symbols of non-violent resistance, stuck in police barriers in front of the Polish Parliament. The work reminds us of the non-heroic gestures of the protesters. The book premiered in September 2018 during the Unseen Amsterdam fair.
The exhibition Drgania (Oscillations, 2019) touched on two intertwining threads. Firstly Rafał Milach described and arranged the visual manifestations of public protests in Poland after 2016 and secondly, he presented a personal reflection on his own participation in various grassroots movements. The eponymous ‘oscillations’ are the emotions that emanate from the crowd: anger and enthusiasm, hope and disappointment. With his exhibition, Milach also asked about the possibility of change brought about by mass protests and whether it is possible to turn spontaneously acting groups into a permanent community.
In the exhibition Common Ground, which opened at the beginning of 2020 in Düsseldorf, Rafał Milach once again examined collective manifestations of opposition and self-organisation. The exhibition brought together two spheres: the fictional and the real. The first presented a series of collages The First March of Gentlemen –a utopian vision of a civic society, as well as being a reflection upon the activity of contemporary civic movements. The second sphere interpreted specific events resulting from political decisions made by the Polish authorities (Nearly Every Rose on the Barriers in Front of the Parliament).Common Ground is an attempt to define spaces for collaboration and comprehension, arising from socio-political tensions. Gestures of protest are firmly connected with the creation of communities, requiring engagement and activism. Milach's exhibition presented various forms of dissent and opposition, which in turn offer the opportunity for creative collaboration.
black sea of concrete
Milach’s work has been exhibited in Poland, Finland, Spain, Japan, China, the U.S. and Ukraine. He has received awards for his work that include the Photography Book Now Grand Prize in New York, the Grand Press Photo Prize and the BZ WBK Press Photo Prize in Poland, the World Press Photo Prize in the Netherlands, and The Guardian Weekend Photography Prize in the U.K.
For more on Rafał Milach, see: rafalmilach.com and www.sputnikphotos.com
- 2020 – Common Ground, Polish Institute Gallery, Düsseldorf
- 2019 – Drgania / Oscillations, Galeria Studio, Warsaw; Refusal, Karlin Studios, Prague
- 2018 –Odmowa / Refusal, PGS National Gallery, Sopot; The Winners, Side Gallery, Newcastle, The First March of Gentlemen, ISSP Gallery, Riga
- 2017 – The First March of Gentlemen, Fonderia 20.9 Gallery, Verona; Odmowa / Refusal, Szara Gallery, Katowice; Odmowa / Refusal, Atlas Sztuki Gallery, Łódź
- 2014 – In the Car with R, Fotodepartament, St. Petersburg; Black Sea of Concrete, Museu Nogueira da Silva, Braga, Portugal
- 2013 – 7 Rooms, Brandts, Odense; W Samochodzie z R / In the Car with R, Pauza Gallery, Kraków; Black Sea of Concrete, Punctum Gallery, Łódź
- 2012 – 7 Rooms, C/O Berlin; Noorderlicht Photo Gallery, Groningen; Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; Museum of History of Photography, St. Petersburg; Fotodoc Sacharov Centre, Moscow, Rosja; W Samochodzie z R / In the Car with R, Czytelnia Sztuki, Gliwice
- 2011 – Black Sea of Concrete, V8 Gallery, Cologne
- 2010 – Disappearing Circus, Hangar 22, Tel Aviv, Israel; Czarne Morze Betonu / Black Sea of Concrete, Yours Gallery, Warszawa
- 2008 – Disappearing Circus, 8th Triennial of Photography Backlight, Tampere, Finland; The Grey, RA Gallery, Kiev; Młoda Rosja / Young Russia, Camelot Gallery, Kraków
- 2007 – Młoda Rosja / Young Russia, Yours Gallery, Warszawa
- 2003 – The Grey, Photoespana, Off section, Madrid, Spain
- 2018 – Prawie Każda Róża Na Barierkach Przy Sejmie / Almost Every Rose on the Barriers in front of the Parliament, JEDNOSTKA Gallery, Warsaw; Pierwszy Marsz Dżentelmenów / The First March of Gentlemen (2nd edition), GOST, London
- 2017 – PRESSIDENT, Szara Gallery, Katowice
- 2016 – Pierwszy Marsz Dżentelmenów / The First March of Gentlemen (1st edition), KolekcjaWrzesińska
- 2014 – Zwycięzcy / The Winners, GOST Gallery, London; Psopplaainnd: Mapping the Blind Spots (joint publication), Sputnik Photos; Contact Sheets: The Selected Photos.Vol II (joint publication), Postcart Edizioni, Rome
- 2013 – Black Sea of Concrete (self-published), Warsaw; In the Car with R, CzytelniaSztuki Gallery, Gliwice; Distant Place (joint publication), Centrum NaukiKopernik, Warsaw; Stand BY (joint publication), Sputnik Photos
- 2011 – 7 Rooms, KehrerVerlag, Germanyand Treemedia, Russia; IS(not) (joint publication), Sputnik Photos, Poland
- 2010 – U (joint publication), Sputnik Photos, Poland; Is(not) (joint publication), Sputnik Photos; This Day Of Change (joint publication), Kodansha Press
- 2009 – This Day Of Change (joint publication), CourrierJapon Magazine, Kodansha Press, Japan
- 2006 – At the Border (joint publication), Sputnik Photos, Poland
- 2002 – The Grey, Frodo, Poland
Author: Agnieszka Le Nart. Translated and updated by HSz, July 2020.