Belarusian photographer Siarhiej Lieskiec documents the contemporary identity of his native country through the day-to-day lives of its citizens.
His work often takes him into the country’s rural outskirts, as in projects such as AGRO. On a trip to a town called Maladzyechna near Minsk, Lieskiec happened upon the annual Miss Dairymaid contest, a competition aiming to celebrate the beauty and professional skills of women working at milking farms in the region. To Lieskiec, the event exposed the traces of transition from the institutional and the communal to the personal that seemed, to him, highly symptomatic of the changing character of modern Belarus.
“I was surprised to see that state ideology often sees the Soviet time as sort of golden age. Like in the previous epoch, there were contests held for the best workers or the most forward working collective. In the last 20 years Belarusian society has been moving from institutional to personal but ideology keeps addressing the collective memory of the past,” he says. “I did two series of portraits of the participants: how they see themselves in their most beautiful outfits, and in their official uniform. If you put those two photos together they look like different people.”
The contest is far from the usual beauty pageant and is meant to celebrate above all the workers skills. Every contestant represents her own agricultural cooperative and is tested through four stages. There’s an introduction with a talent show where all the participants have to perform and also bring homemade cakes or pastries. A theoretical test with questions about the nuances of the milking technique. Then they have to pull apart and put back together a milking machine while explaining every stage. Finally, there’s a showcase of the actual milking process.
Despite the fact that the tradition of such contests dates back to the Soviet times, the reality they exist in today is far from the socialist worker’s paradise. “The atmosphere was festive but I felt a little sad,” says Lieskiec. “I noticed how dismissive the local TV correspondents were towards the women and I think they felt it as well. Unfortunately, regardless what we see in the media, there is hardly enough respect for hard labour in our society. And for the contestants their work at the farm is often not just their choice but the only way to survive and earn a living in the village.”