Majestic Minsk: a Tilt-shift Tour

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*The tilt-shift effect was done in post-processing using Snapseed.

Summer Daze in Minsk

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Minsk, Belarus – June 2014

I have found the people of Minsk. They are here, on the riverside, strolling along in defiance of the gathering storm. The air is still. Muggy. It clings to my skin. Just a few degrees more and it would be unbearable.

It is time for celebration. Music wafts from all directions. A wedding in a restaurant in Trinity Hill. A Russian song with a jubilant beat, reminiscent of those catchy songs you hear at weddings. A woman dressed in a shimmering copper-colored shift dances out to the street. Stiletto heels on cobblestone. Champagne glass in hand and not a drop spilled. I pause to stare in admiration.

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Further along, three teenagers in a pedal boat pull up next to a floating bar. The band on the patio plays a blues rock tune. The teenagers stand up and dance. They pump their arms in the air and shake their bodies with desperate enthusiasm. The girl, especially, seems full of pent-up exuberance. People gather around to watch and smile. Summers are so fleeting in this northern land.

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And then: the sweet sounds of songs shared with passersby. Not for money, but just because.

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Pedal boats glide back and forth. Couples watch the sun’s slothful sink behind the skyline. Nights are so transient now. The solstice is near. I drift off to sleep to the sound of distant thunder and laughter from the wedding. A midsummer lullaby.

In the morning all is silent again. In the early afternoon, I walk along the river, towards the big wheel on the horizon. The clouds have vanished. Just inside the gates of Gorky Park is a small stage. People have gathered to watch a little girl. Her voice screeches out of the speakers. I cringe as I walk by. Who thought it was a good idea to give her a microphone?

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The streets of Minsk all lead to Gorky Park, it seems. After days of silence and relative solitude, I’m caught off guard. I grip my camera for comfort and focus on the vintage rides. Like everything in Minsk, they have been painstakingly maintained. Such antiquated rides would be laughable to American children.

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This colorful kiddie ride goes up and down and that’s it. But the little ones don’t know when it will start and stop. Their peals of laughter are as clear as crystal. So pure. Was I ever that innocent? A boy has set up his business next to the ride. For a small price, you can have your photo taken with his rabbit.*

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In this carnival universe, I am conspicuous and ill at ease. So much sound and color and smell. Angst and happiness. The annoyed sighs of parents. Pouting teenagers. There is a distinct lack of whining, however. I shuffle from ride to ride. Sickly sweet cotton candy, squeaking balloon animals, listless clowns, sizzling sausages, ice cream oozing down hands, strollers blocking the path. A portly man tries over and over to ring the bell on the strongman game. Are these games rigged here, too?

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The haze in my brain thickens. I take refuge under the trees near the big wheel. I sit and watch its slow, hypnotic rotation.

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Look down there, honey, at all the little people. The little world. Isn’t it funny?

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Cross the road. Back down to the river. The midway din recedes. A jogger passes, and then an elderly couple, and then no one. A lone pedal boat’s silent drift. Two teenaged girls laze in the cool shade of a cement gazebo. They speak in low melodic voices. I don’t need to know the language to understand the intonation of secret yearning. Clandestine initials etched in cement. Do you think he likes me? Will you talk to him? No, don’t talk to him! What if he doesn’t like me? The tremor of an ardent heart. Or worse: what if he does?

In the distance, the wheel’s languid rotation. A motion as imperceptible as that of the sun’s.

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*I actually didn’t notice the boy and rabbit until I got home and looked at the photos. I always thought I had the world’s strongest rabbit radar. I guess that shows just how frazzled I was.

Messages from a Lost Civilization

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Minsk, Belarus – June 2014

The birch forests and rolling hills give way to an expanse of austere, uniform structures. The proletarian dwellings in Minsk lack the dinginess of counterparts in neighboring countries. At least on the outside.

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Color appears as one penetrates deeper into this concrete orchard. (There is too much order to be a wilderness.) Cryptic depictions adorn several of the monoliths. They are lined up along the side of the boulevard like sentinels. Stoic, lofty. I turn to stare at them as we pass.

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Two days later, I find myself standing before them. I lift my eyes and try to decipher the vibrant hieroglyphics. Messages from a lost civilization.

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What is it that they want to tell us?

I see the mythical being, the one who reached for the stars. The other figures are prototypes of utopia. Androgynous, transcendent. Their aloof expressions are tinged with desolation. How do you fill the empty space of time if there is nothing left to strive for?

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Across the boulevard, a much more recent arrival. It has come to rest before them, as if conjured from another dimension. A shimmering crystal. Vessel of knowledge.

Where do civilizations go when they vanish? Catastrophe has a way of keeping the fascination alive. Assimilation into a reorganized and diluted society is a much more effective form of extinction. Better to fade away than to burn out.

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