Siarhiej Lieskiec’s project AGRO is a visual study of the contemporary identity of his native Belarus that is both anthropological and deeply personal. Most photographers capturing today’s Belarus focus on its lingering Soviet heritage and its infamous reputation as Europe’s last dictatorship. Lieskiec’s approach is different: he is interested in the contemporary, in the generation which grew up in the last 20 years in a completely new setting. The main subject of his research are the agro-towns created through the Rural Development Program, intended to revive the Belarusian countryside and restore the economy of the collective farms.
“I started shooting the project driven by a desire to understand my generation and the youth who stayed in the villages, my peers who participated in the state’s Rural Development programme. I wanted to rethink the choices that were made by me and by them”, says Lieskiec.
Lieskiec’s photographs document a unique kind of new beginning, only possible at that time and place. He captures the newly built pastel houses, new walls, new amateur decorations used to make spaces more homely, and the new generation of Belarusians who in their lifetime have only known one president. The clean and fresh promise of agro towns for Lieskiec, however, is linked directly with his past.
“I grew up together with the characters in my pictures, I used to go to the same school as them, spent my free time the same way they did, went to the same discos…so we could easily find a common language”, he explains. “But those last 10 years that I have lived in Minsk — studying at university, working and travelling — alienated me a lot from my village peers. It enabled me to look at this visual research from a distance, to pay attention to seemingly common things that reveal the characters and ideals of my subjects. On the other hand, I often found myself thinking that I was taking the photographs of my own alternative biography, of the way my life would have looked if I had stayed in the village”.
The comfort zone of the small agro-towns is controversial for Lieskiec: it represents both choice and lack of choice, on the one hand the best future for rural areas that would otherwise be deprived, on the other a restricted perspective for its inhabitants. “Talking to people I was photographing, I began to realise that for college or technical school graduates, moving to an agro-town is a kind of step into adulthood”, he says. “Unlike their peers, they do not need to take bank loans or be on an accommodation waiting list, to live with their parents or to rent an apartment. But on the other hand, they experience the same parental comfort zone without even realising it: the state creates favourable life conditions for them but limits their choices for the future.”