Max Sarychau is a freelance documentary photographer in Belarus focusing on violence, human and animal rights, and political turmoil. He has collected awards by the armful, and his work has been featured in exhibitions, websites, and magazines, including Der Spiegel and Meduza, in Russia, Europe, Georgia, and Turkey.
“Photography is a universal language that goes beyond language barriers, national borders, and cultural differences,” he says.
For four years, Sarychau has been working on a project about the “stolen days” of political prisoners, thousands of whom have passed through Belarusian jails in the 23 years that Alyaksandr Lukashenka – famously called Europe’s last dictator – has been president. There is an opposition culture in Belarus, but dissent is risky: protesters are routinely arrested, and it is against the law to insult the head of state. The UN’s Human Rights Council recently condemned the country’s repressive practices, including torture, harassment of civil society groups, and arrests of journalists.
State-controlled mainstream media are predominantly pro- Lukashenka, while independent media struggle to survive and often face censorship.
In spring 2017, about 1,000 people were arrested in a new wave of protests against Lukashenka. Some demonstrators were beaten and detained by the police, and some reporters who were arrested are facing trial. The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged the Belarusian authorities to drop the charges and stop intimidating journalists doing their job.
Sarychau was among those covering the protests, which took on a personal significance, as he watched some of his friends get arrested. From that experience, he created the Cold Spring photo essay, which combines scenes from the protests with the personal stories of protesters and detainees.
Normally, Sarychau says, when he shoots in public, he dresses inconspicuously and pretends to be inexpert with his camera to avoid the police’s attention. “Sometimes it’s better to be invisible,” he says.
Even aside from issues of censorship or repression, Sarychau says Belarusian media are geared toward quick-turnaround, breaking stories, with scant support for the type of long-term projects he favors.
Among his most recent work were photos for a story about refugees from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya, stuck on the Polish-Belarusian border as they try to seek asylum in Poland. Sarychau says the story, which was published by Meduza and widely shared on Russian-language social media, was an opportunity to hear from people too afraid to tell their stories in their native Russia.
Despite the difficulties of being a photojournalist in Belarus, Sarychau tries to keep faith in the simple idea that journalism can bring long-awaited change to his country. “I hope that my work will bring to light certain difficult topics in Belarus and ask awkward questions of authorities and society,” he says.