The more grandiose a city, the more befitting it is for tilt-shift photography. Of all of the photographic effects, I’m most fascinated by tilt-shift. There’s something delightfully mischievous in shrinking down the lofty. In June 2014, I visited the enigmatic metropolis that is Minsk, Belarus. As soon as I began to explore the expansive boulevards, I knew that I had found the perfect subject. Most of the city had been bombed to dust by the Nazis, and then rebuilt in the Stalinist style of architecture. The buildings have been meticulously maintained over the years. It is like walking through a museum. The forbidding structures loom above. Watchful. Of all the buildings on Independence Square, the Parliament Building is the most imposing. The only ornamentation is the stern Lenin statue. I felt like I had stepped into a 3D comic book. I kept expecting some superhero to appear. Flying overhead, cape unfurled and fist forward. Ready to battle evil.
This mint green and brown construction also held my attention. It reminds me of perfectly pressed shirts, spotless floors, hi honey I’m home, dinner on the table at five.
It is already difficult to get the massive buildings at Railway Station Square into one photo, let alone have the extra space for tilt-shifting. Anyway, the Socialist god is in the details.
I call this photo Karl’s Angels. When they saw my camera, they lowered their faces. You’re not supposed to photograph the police, I later found out. The police officers that I saw were all very young. At the Island of Tears monument, the officer on duty approached me. His smile was shy as he asked where I was from.
“France,” I replied. I use my French passport to travel these days.
His face lit up. “I really like France,” he said.
“You’ve been there?”
“Yes, two times. I go to Roland Garros.” His brow furrowed in the way of those searching for words. English is rarely spoken in Belarus. Then he smiled again and walked away.
Contrary to popular belief, Belarusians are free to travel. And they do, when they can. The young people that I spoke to in the cafes and at my hotel had all traveled. The difficulty comes not from their government, but in getting enough money to pay for the visa fees required by other countries. When I learned this, the sixty euro fee that I had paid for my Belarus visa seemed cheap in comparison.
The Palace of the Republic is a masterpiece of austerity. It’s funny how stripping something down to bare bones can make it so intimidating. But that was the point, wasn’t it? Even though the symbols remain and most of the economy is controlled by the state, Belarus is not considered a Communist country. President Lukashenko has referred to his ruling style as authoritarian. He is known as “Papa” to the citizens. I saw no posters or billboards with his face when I was there, however. His presence is all but invisible to the casual visitor.
Something about this building intrigued me. Such a perfect pastel cube. I took a photo, and then I noticed the man in the drab military uniform. He strode towards me with a steely expression. I was far enough away that I could evade him without looking suspicious. I found out later that the building is one of Lukashenko’s residences.
While it’s permitted to take photos of most structures, even the outside of the KGB building, photos of the Metro are forbidden. It’s considered a military installation, because it’s the nuclear fallout shelter. I reluctantly obeyed. The Oktyabrskaya station is one of my biggest photographic regrets. The escalators descend into a palace of the proletariat. Pillars of severe beige marble. Ornamentation in the form of chunky golden lights. Amber gems set in bone. Hammer and sickle carved into the back wall along with the name: Lenin. I caught my breath and swallowed hard. I felt so very small.
I consoled myself with photos of the Memorial in the underpass beneath Victory Square. The rich colors somehow diluted the disquiet that I associate with the symbols.
One evening, I sat in the park in front of the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theater, waiting for darkness so that I could take some night shots. I waited. And waited. Night falls very late in June. The white walls faded to cream and then blazed into buttery yellow as the sun sank into the horizon. Couples and families strolled the paths. A drunk young man frolicked in the water. He was most likely a Russian visitor. The ones I saw tended to ignore warnings. The group sitting at a table across from me in a lovely cafe began a drunken cake fight. Three Russians who were staying at my guesthouse had to spend a couple of nights in jail for insulting a police officer.
People often ask me if I’m afraid to go to countries that are considered dictatorships. If you behave yourself, most are absolutely the safest places to visit. There is an indescribable thrill in traveling to a place where so few venture and doing so totally without worry. In discovering a mysterious land. Folding it up, tucking it into a pocket, and taking it home.
*The tilt-shift effect was done in post-processing using Snapseed.