“Death is Just One More Hashtag” – Interview with Ihar Hancharuk
author: Alaiza Pashkevich
Although the Oxford English Dictionary failed to name a single word that would eloquently define both the world’s social and linguistic trends of 2020, the very title of their official report, “Words of an Unprecedented Year” is self-explanatory. 2020 was indeed “unprecedented” – in particular for Belarus.
The country, which has been often described as the geographical centre of Europe, has experienced a number of “unprecedented” things lately: an unprecedented number of political prisoners, by now around 300 (288 to be exact), and unprecedented violence from the state’s authorities who beat, kidnap and torture peaceful civilians who take the streets to protest against the rigged presidential elections. Whilst simultaneously there are the unprecedented solidarity, generosity and assistance kept up by the resistance against the dictatorship.
When it comes to the visual representation of the Belarusian protest, outsiders might recall the cover of “The Guardian Weekly” from August 21, 2020, where an image of a girl dressed in white with a rose in her hand was used to illustrate the events in Belarus. This was a reference to the participants in the so-called “women’s marches” which unfolded in the Belarusian capital shortly after the three-day long confrontations of August 2020. But in reality, determination, boldness, and pride were not the only emotions the Belarusians felt throughout those days. The opposite spectrum was also present - feelings of confusion, and uncertainty, anger and grief, exhaustion and despair. What has recently unfolded, is the collective and national comprehension of this trauma and political violence.
Belarusian photographer Ihar Hancharuk is one of the few visual artists who managed to provide a quick and intense reaction to the evolving political crisis. His series “not what you need to know”(2020) brings together screenshots of popular News sites and Social Networks. As these media resources were experiencing an internet ban initiated by the authorities, they were unable to present online data to the public in the first, most brutal, days of the demonstrators’ dispersal during the Internet shutdown.
On one hand, Hancharuk's visual language provides photojournalistic documentation of the events in the context of censorship, on the other – points at the heavy emotional state many found themselves in.
“not what you need to know”, 2020
Although created before August 2020, other projects of Hancharuk can also be interpreted as belonging to a similar line of research. The works navigate around the role of technologies specifically in regards to spreading violence.
Could we start with “not what you need to know” – your most recent project that, in my opinion, presents a very strong metaphor of the Belarusians’ emotional state (both about the events of 9th to 11th of August 2020 9-11 and the ones that followed), our reaction to the police forces’ cruelty and sadism to peaceful protesters? Do you remember how you came up with the idea of making screenshots instead of photographs to speak about the shutdown, the protest and its psychology?
Strange as it may sound, it all began with the title – namely, the phrase “Statistics is not what people need to know.” It was an answer the doctors gave to the journalists of a Baranavichy (a town not far from Minsk, the country’s capital) newspaper in the spring of 2020 when addressing the number of Covid-19 cases. To me it sounded like a part of the official authorities’ rhetoric not only in regards to the pandemic – the same approach is widely exercised when they inform Belarusians on many other issues.
During the first wave, no measures were taken to prevent the spread, and no assistance was provided to healthcare institutions – all data was hidden, distorted, and rewritten. Doctors who tried to speak openly got fired.
The phrase got stuck in my head eventually turning into the name of this project, which deals with a wider set of situations of blatant lying and purposeful misinformation on the side of the Belarusian government. It has been trying to fool the citizens for many years in numerous ways. For example, rigged presidential elections (for the last 15 years, at least); Constant fake news coined by official media which get debunked almost immediately; Inconsistencies between what is broadcasted on TV and what people see in real life.
“not what you need to know”, 2020
Or the increasing number of people going abroad in search of work or to study versus official reports that claim the economy is growing; The multiple evidence of police violence recorded by protesters, journalists, or CCTV cameras versus official propaganda that presents military forces as victims who protect themselves from street gangs’ violence; Or the discrepancy around the scale of the protests: videos showing tens of thousands marching along the wide avenues versus just a couple of thousands — the data announced by state TV programs.
And yet, it was the way the authorities approached Covid-19 that finally triggered the mass protests in the summer of 2020. The government’s reaction to the rallies and its official public representation look like total nonsense, they were humiliating and false.
And it is this very attitude that shocked and infuriated me – not even the violence itself or the killings. I hate being made a fool of. I find it psychologically hard to deal with injustice and mockery.
So, in August 2020, during the Internet shutdown, screenshots became a perfect way to illustrate this phrase. The very project was inspired by its title, I should say.
We all sensed there was something wrong happening, something was going on, we could read the captions, but still – we were deprived of the right to be informed, the right to know.
Of course, I was sure the shutdown wouldn't last long, but it was important for me to document the actual moment, a “real-time” process with geotags and actual social media interface because that was what we all experienced in Belarus.
I tend to visualize things rather than interpret them, and I rarely if ever work with metaphors. My visual language is quite simple, dull and straightforward. I like using and working with what is already there, that's why I switched to archival work in my artistic practice.
Another issue I spotted as central to your research is violence and death, or, if I may say so, their geometry and architecture – something you approach in ‘Pre-mortem’, ‘Violence domesticated’, ‘Thankyouforyourcooperation’, and ‘Fun of war’. What attracts you, as a photographer, in the very topic of death?
Frankly speaking, these projects are not that much related to one another in the way they may appear. All were triggered by different events, emotions or aspects of life. Only recently have I realized they all are about death or brutality. But I didn't do it intentionally.
It might sound weird, but “Pre-Mortem” (2019) is more about life than death (although I did photograph graves). Initially, I was struck by the fact that some people were preparing their future coffins at special places beforehand - they had their pictures, names and birthdates ready.
While this seemed to be a widespread process, the subject of death is rarely raised within our culture. Moreover, it is perceived as taboo.
For example, some keep post-mortem photographs of their relatives separately from the rest, often in a black envelope. Some people stick to superstitions, yet other - remain pragmatic: they are still alive, but they have perfectly organized graves that only lack the body and the date of death.
I can't say I'm attracted to death itself, rather it's the attitude to it, which is mostly repulsion. Usually, people try to ignore it as long as possible. But, although hidden, death is omnipresent and maybe I'm just trying to mock this hypocritical attitude to it.
Two other projects you mention – “Violence domesticated” (2018-ongoing) and “#youngsoldier” (2018-ongoing) – reflect my attempt to understand our people, to find out what's wrong with us, to discern the roots of violence and trace different and not always obvious ways of its manifestation.
On the other hand, “Thankyouforyourcooperation”(2019) is a broken, or glitched image of the distorted system of justice. It is a series focused on the 2019 protests in Moscow which were brutally suppressed. Russia is as good in suppressing peaceful protests as is Belarus. The title reflects on a made-up dialogue between a policeman and a citizen (“Thank you for your cooperation” - “Thank you for your service!”) and it perfectly fits the absurdity we observe in both Belarus and Russia today: the government officials speak about initiating a dialogue with the protesters while beating and arresting them at the same time. These actions find the absolute and open support of the government – the image of the president running in front of his troops with a machine-gun shouting, “Thank you, guys! Well-done! Nice job! I won't forget it! Thank you!” is a terrible but perfect illustration of the regime, which holds only thanks to brutal power.
In 'not what you need to know' you take pictures of a different, Internet-based reality by working with screenshots, but it is not the only project where you research close connections between the real and the virtual worlds, the impact of the online on people’s offline behaviour. In which way do you approach the technological dimension of violence in '#youngsoldier' and 'Fun of war'?
“#youngsoldier” is a collection of pictures of kids of different ages dressed up as soldiers, with the corresponding hashtag (in Russian – #будущийзащитник) and often a Photoshopped background. On the Russian-speaking Instagram, there are thousands of photographs varying from amateur snapshots to professional ones – by the way, with some kids being just 2-3 years old.
When working with this contemporary online archive, I tried to understand if the violence we see today is imposed in one’s childhood and who is then to blame. Are parents guilty of giving their child a machine gun to pose with for a nice portrait? Or is it also because on Social Media they would be encouraged to post such pictures in order to get likes? After all, the violence, beatings and torture in Belarus are inflicted by the citizens themselves, not an external “enemy”. I want to understand what is there in our society that makes some of us capable of cruelty.
The main idea of “Fun of war”(2019) is to look at technology and AI, specifically at the imperfect algorithms which create automatic YouTube subtitles, and thus could turn real war videos into entertainment shows. Raw footage of military actions is subtitled with the words “music” and “applause” thus decreasing and altering the impact such images could produce.
No more striking documents of war (similar to what Capa's "Falling soldier" used to be for a long time) - just a constant flow of entertainment, fun, recommendations, and compilations instead. On the contrary, much of the war content that is uploaded today on Youtube, even when 100% documentary and unstaged, still acquires traits of entertainment - it gets lost among funny videos of cats and subtitled "music" and "applause", some offers "subscribe for more videos" notifications. Death doesn't seem to shock any longer. There is no need to wait for the 6 pm news to learn about a war in some faraway land, a natural disaster, or a plane crash. All is available 24/7 – and in almost every pocket! CCTV footage, amateur videos, go-pro footage of real war shot by real soldiers, often unedited, and brutal – it all makes death omnipresent and devalues it in the eyes of a viewer, often forcing us to reach out for our phone and start filming when we accidentally witness a car crash or a fight.
So, technology helps us spread the image of brutality in today's world. It makes it available, and has the potential of being not only a means of dissemination but also a trigger: in order to get likes some might want to perform violent actions, knowing this way they could generate viral material.
The algorithms will keep on showing you more related content and one day you may find yourself in a bizarre bubble and heavily distorted image of the world. Today's representation of death/violence/brutality is not only attributed to the criminal chronicles. It is out of the control of the media, just like any other subject it is managed by us instead – funny cats, cooking, politics or the unpacking of a new phone. Death appears to be just one of numerous tags, its manifestation vaguely shaped by modern media laws.
“Violence domesticated”, 2018-ongoing
I believe the modern Social Media world is something we all are a part of, regardless of the country, and we all experience the same tendencies. I don't know much about traditional Belarusian culture, I haven't studied it, so I can't really comment on it. From what I know, death has always been present in our culture and its image has never been bright, but rather dark and mournful.
As for today's perception of death by society, I would say it's a taboo – people try to avoid this topic, maybe because they don't really know how to talk about it; there are quite a lot of death-related superstitions and fears, which, I think, result in the terrible state of our system of palliative care, for example. As a society, we just don't know how to behave in the presence of death.
Maybe we believe death should only be heroic – an attitude that probably has to do with our collective memory of that huge WWII propaganda myth we've been living with for more than 75 years (“We are the winners! We are the heroes!"). In official art, death is shown mostly in that way, if at all.
Independent artists tend to show the ugliness of death and try to express themselves in more diverse ways. The events of 2020 in Belarus will definitely contribute to the creation of art looking at death and cruelty, since this experience was and still is extremely traumatizing.
“Violence domesticated”, 2018-ongoing
And finally, how would you define “psychologically healthy” perception in regards to our depictions of death, at least within the Belarusian and European cultures?
To me a “psychologically healthy” perception of death means mainly the acceptance of its inevitability. If this kind of acceptance exists at all, of course.
ALL IMAGES COURTESY OF THE ARTIST | INSTAGRAM
Recommended by EEP:
“Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain” and “What if I am a spy?” by Ihar Hancharuk