Photographer Dzianis Ramaniuk sees his country in a water drop
Dzianis asserts that Belarusian landscapes are like an icon drawn by God. His photographs seem to bear witness to this, showing his native land from the most amazing angles. Of course, Dzianis is a patriot, admitting that he has spent a lifetime searching for interesting panoramas. He loves to ‘hunt’ for the sun, fog, water floods and orchards in blossom, depicting the most picturesque side of nature, which may be otherwise overlooked. He also captures landscapes which have remained unchanged for centuries. His latest album is Blue Eyed Belarus, showing our culture, traditions, nature and daily routine against the background of water.
Dzianis was born in 1970 in Minsk: the son of Mikhas Ramaniuk — an art expert, ethnographer and author of the legendary book Belarusian Folk Costume. He studied at the Belarusian Academy of Arts and, then, at Vilnius’ Academy of Arts, going on to create the Chernobyl album, which won a Grand Prix at Moscow’s International Art of Books contest in 2006. Dzianis now plans to release an album featuring his own photos of Vilnius, while continuing his father’s studies.
The photographer is now travelling the country in search of new shots and agreed to share his brightest impressions and the secrets behind Blue Eyed Belarus.
Unity of elements
Two water basins form in Belarus: those of the Baltic and Black seas. Our rivers all end in one or the other and are among the most famous, largest, deepest and cleanest in the world. On those river banks and lakes, our ancestors made their homes, building ancient castles. The rivers were used as roads, transporting people and commodities: rafts and barges were loaded with coal and stones. Of course, the most ancient and well known water route was that of the ‘Varangians to the Greeks’ — connecting the Baltic and Black seas via Belarus’ Dvina, Dnieper, Berezina and Pripyat rivers. Those waters run extremely clean and are easily accessible in Belarus, bringing beauty and life to the land. Belarusians proudly call their water reservoirs ‘blue treasure’; over 20,000 rivers stretch for over 90,000km, occupying a tenth of the country’s territory. The volume of underground waters can hardly be exactly measured.
Water can be compared to newly drawn milk, a glass, a mirror or, even, time, having its own memory: a never-ending circulation between the sky and the land, as the centuries pass. It witnesses historical events and has its own taste and sounds: the purl of a brook, river swells, the dash of waves and the peaceful silence of a lake.
View of the past from bird’s eye panorama
I took my first flight with a camera over Chereya Lake, in the Chashniki District. I was so impressed by that picturesque peninsula, seeing the ruins of St. Trinity’s Church — commonly known as Belaya (White) — amidst the green of spring growth and the white lilac and peach blossom. The church was built in the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania — at the crossroads of the 16th and 17th centuries. Its stone walls are still astonishing in their ruggedness. No church services are organised there but the building stands, surrounded by the lake. You can’t help but feel that history has stopped and that nothing has changed over the course of time.
Roots of the sublime
The River Narochanka starts in a reed bed in the pathless marshes of Cheremshitsy. At the end of the Ice Age, a huge water reservoir was situated there; over the course of time, the climate changed, splitting the reservoir into large and small lakes. Beautiful Naroch and a nameless lake were formed, fed by the River Narochanka. The Naroch is Belarus’ largest lake — almost resembling a sea. Sunset over the Naroch is an amazing sight, with the surface of the water caressed by a gentle breeze. The waves reflect the sunrays, rippling like goldfish scales. In a thunderstorm, the waves are high and strong, able to upturn fishermen’s boats. Majestic pine forests surround Lake Naroch, a carpet of flowers at their roots; the blue waves seem almost to wash those tree roots. Naroch is a perfect shelter for waterfowl: gulls, ducks and swans live or stop there during their migration.
Meanwhile, fishermen come from all over the country, all year round, ignoring the mosquitos, frost or heat, to worship at the ‘water altar’ — arriving before sunrise and leaving after sunset. Fishing has its own rituals, such that the chain of silhouettes — moving towards the water — resembles a group of pilgrims travelling to church. I understand them, having once been a fanatical fisherman myself. However, my passion shifted to photography, so now I observe their rituals from outside. I once came to Naroch in early winter, where the strong frosts, without wind or snow, had left the ice clean and smooth — even transparent in places. Walking over it, along the shore, I could see the bottom of the lake, as well as the fish and algae. Bubbles of air had been trapped in the water as it suddenly froze. Interestingly, that ice can be 80cm thick, only melting in April.
Connection of folk art and nature
Blue is the colour of water: an outstanding colour in our culture and daily routine. Every Belarusian village has azure-painted houses, fences, benches and window mouldings, while many wooden churches are painted blue — either outside or inside. Of course, Christianity denotes blue as the colour of the Heavens and all that is divine; azure hues bring us closer to God. Moreover, the colour brings light and expressiveness. In the Ushachi District, there are many blue lakes, inspiring local masters to decorate their houses with azure-coloured fretwork.
The East, reflected in lakes
I noticed the symbol of life’s path, the Eastern sign of Tao — uniting Yin and Yang — while flying over the Orsha District’s Krasny Glaz (Red Eye) Lake. It was created by the wind, from water and floating weed. You’d hardly notice it from ground level, especially as this small lake is hidden amidst forest marshes. No two rivers or lakes in Belarus have the same bed shape or colour of water; the latter changes every day — depending on depth, season, angle and light.
Belief in natural power
Everything starts with a spring and a gulp of cold water: vital for life. This water brings us true pleasure. Since ancient times, Belarusians have preferred clean natural water, which springs from ‘the Earth’s heart’. Diverse rituals are held by such springs, at Epiphany and on Saviour Honey Feast Day. In preparing the book Belarusian Folk Crosses — based on a monograph by my father, Mikhas Ramaniuk, I was much impressed by the folk tradition of worshipping at saint springs. A wanted to personally touch this mystery and register forms of worship fading from fashion. With this in mind, my expeditions to the Vetka, Chechersk, Bykhov and other districts began. I went to the village of Rudnya Bartolomeevskaya, in the Chechersk District, on a foggy morning in 2001. Women came calmly to the ritual site and, without words, placed candles on a bench, between a spring and crosses. They also placed offerings of bread, eggs and apples, for the divinity taking water from beyond the soil. The women tied towels around each cross and lay flowers. After crossing themselves and kissing an icon, they silently moved towards the crowd, for a prayer service and singing. All those present asked for health, remission of sins, patronage, youth and assistance in troubled times. At the end of the ceremony, the women scooped water one after another, drinking it nervously. According to belief, the spring water is truly magical after the ceremony…
On August 14th, Orthodox Christians begin their celebration of the two-week Assumption Fast. On this day, water is sanctified at churches and the Water Feast Saviour Day is marked. Believers process to a spring, river or lake, where the sanctified water is expected to protect against disease. Water, flowers, poppies and honey are tokens of the holiday. In the past, the River Goryn passed via David-Gorodok but, later, changed its route. A small lake only remains, dividing the town in two. Since ancient times, the river has been a symbol and an integral participant of town life: even depicted on its coat of arms. Flowers are another symbol of the town — planted near each house: peonies, asters, dahlias and narcissi. They also generate income from seed sales; in Soviet days, those seeds were known far and wide. Water Feast Saviour Day is celebrated in a special way here, with people taking blooms to a festive church service, to sanctify them. In line with local ritual, believers throw some of their flowers into the Goryn River, then cross the bridge after the liturgy, making a sacrifice to the beloved river. In this way, two symbols unite: water and flowers.
In the summer of 1988 — when I’d graduated from school and was preparing to start my University studies — I spent time in David-Gorodok and its cosy streets. I remember exploring the inlets — like roads of water. I was much impressed by the numerous boats transporting hay and firewood; fishermen were everywhere. Unfortunately, I had no chance to photograph everything I saw but, some time later, I returned to the town and went to a festive church service, witnessing many people with flowers. Flower sanctification crowned the ceremony. Like fireworks, they were launched into the sky simultaneously with the priest’s aspergilla. Sprays showered everyone and the eyes of children and adults were filled with joy. It was a sacred yet simple truth of life…
Water can take the form of a spring, a fountain, a babbling brook, waves breaking on a sandy shore, or a silent pool near a sacred stone. A stone-dripper is found in the village of Dubok (Ostrovets District), at the entrance to the local Roman Catholic Church of Mother of God of Tireless Help. Such stones — with an indentation to hold water — were used in churches to contain holy water [known as ‘vodyanitsa’]; believers thought the holes were formed by saints and bestowed the water with curative powers. Such stones are mostly of natural origin but some may be man-made.
Sea fields ripple
There are many nameless lakes in Belarus, some hidden amidst the marshes and deep forests, only visited by wild animals and local villagers. Those lakes sparkle, as if warning us not to come closer. There is no sea in Belarus but, if you observe the beauty and grandeur of a grain-planted field, you’ll see the resemblance to the ocean, since the wind creates rippling waves through the heads of corn, while stone-cornflowers are seen on the ‘bottom’.
Beavers reside in our rivers, becoming active once the ‘ice armour’ melts. Hungry after winter, they seek out food in the water. The beaver symbolises wellbeing and health in Belarusians’ spiritual legacy. A Bobrovka (beaver hat) is said to prevent headaches and, in ancient times, a Grand Duchy of Lithuania statute forbade the killing of black beavers, on pain of a fine. There were even folk proverbs: ‘All beavers are kind’ and ‘No happiness comes to those who kill a beaver’.
Thin lines of tiles
Blue was a popular colour of decoration for dishware and tiles, laid over a snow-white glazed surface. Dainty and light, such patterns brought pieces alive. Unique, hand-painted tiles once decorated a stove at the Umyastovsky family’s palace, in Zhemyslavl (Ivye District). Their images were unlike any other; sadly, only a photo now exists, from 2005. The colour blue came to art much later than others, once people had learnt how to produce it from azurite, cobalt and indigo. Meanwhile, Belarusian villagers used cornflowers to create a blue dye, depicting the sky, water and cornflowers in their folk embroidery.
Talented Belarusian artist Yelena Kish drew her inspiration from water, portraying it in most of her works. She travelled through villages, earning money from creating beautiful, original rugs: such as once decorated the walls of village houses, in place of canvases. Sadly, she ended her own life young, drowning herself in a river. Her Paradise rug, from 1930, is one of her most famous works, depicting outlandish animals amidst Belarusian birches surrounding a pond…
The Svisloch is a recreational zone, decorating the city of Minsk. In summer, many people take a boat or catamaran to sail along the river, viewing the city’s sights from a new perspective. You can grab a cup of coffee or snack at a floating cafй.
The fountains sparkle and glisten in front of St. Joseph the Betrothed Roman Catholic Church. The old Troitsky Suburb is inseparable from the Svisloch in Minskers’ minds. Its renewed buildings are eye-catching from the opposite bank, looking across the water. Meanwhile, from the other direction, you see the stunning panorama of the modern city and Pobediteley Avenue. It’s especially impressive in the evening, when buildings are lit and each illumination is multiplied in river reflections.
By Viktar Korbut
Land of sky colour
[b]Photographer Dzianis Ramaniuk sees his country in a water drop[/b]Dzianis asserts that Belarusian landscapes are like an icon drawn by God. His photographs seem to bear witness to this, showing his native land from the most amazing angles. Of course, Dzianis is a patriot, admitting that he has spent a lifetime searching for interesting panoramas. He loves to ‘hunt’ for the sun, fog, water floods and orchards in blossom, depicting the most picturesque side of nature, which may be otherwise overlooked. He also captures landscapes which have remained unchanged for centuries. His latest album is Blue Eyed Belarus, showing our culture, traditions, nature and daily routine against the background of water.