Rafal Milach - flashing the Opera

Interview with the Magnum Photos photographer

By Marion Mirande 07 April 2022

© Rafal Milach / Magnum Photo / OnP

A member of Magnum Photos, the Polish photographer and graphic artist Rafal Milach was invited by the Paris Opera to create the visual identity for the 22/23 season. He talks about his career and his practice, which is as plastic as it is militant.


How did you become a professional photographer? 

All started accidently and not romantically! I had to pass the obligatory photography class at the Fine Arts Academy, where I studied graphic design. I had no idea how to use a camera. But I immediately fell in love with taking pictures, thanks to my first photography teacher. He showed me this way of communicating with people through photography and telling stories about what is surrounding me. This on the contrary was something beyond technological issues I had to face as a beginner photographer. Gradually, I quit other disciplines in favour of photography, and I started to work for a local newspaper just after I graduated from the Fine Arts Academy.

Can you tell us about your adventure with Magnum Photos?

That was also a surprise. Actually in 2018 I was taking less and less pictures and I was getting involved in other mediums that allowed me to comment on the issues in a more relevant way. It was the moment when I got an email from a Magnum British photographer, Mark Power, a friend of mine. He asked me if I wouldn’t consider applying to Magnum. I said, well, it’s such an irony, at the time when I’m basically deciding to quit photography. But I thought it could be quite challenging, to do something that would be in total opposition to where I thought I was heading. So I gave it a try and I got in. And I have to say that it was a good coincidence because I started to take a lot of pictures again. Not because of Magnum: more because of the changing political and social context I was living in Poland and Magnum turned to be a powerful platform that could support my activities and help spreading the awareness about this part of the world. Photography can be a persuasive tool of communication when used properly and not long after I joined Magnum I realised that I needed to go back to the roots of documentary practice to simplify my language.I thought this approach was more relevant, since the issues I wanted to feature in my stories required a straightforward visual message.

What kind of work did you show to get into the agency?

I submitted quite an abstract, non figurative portfolio. It included some collages as well.Of course, all of this work was photography-based. But I thought: if I want to apply, I have to show the work which is mine, I didn’t want to profile my application depending on the place I was applying to. So if somebody would want me to be part of this structure, they’d have to accept me for what I was doing, for who I was.And when I got the information that I got in, I was surprised.

The First March of Gentlemen, 2017. The First March of Gentlemen est une narration fictive composée d'histoires authentiques. Les événements historiques liés à la ville de Wrzesnia constituent le point de départ d'une réflexion sur les mécanismes de protestation et de discipline. Dans la série de collages, la réalité de la Pologne des années 1950 gouvernée par les communistes se mêle au souvenir de la grève des enfants de Wrzesnia du début du XXe siècle. Ce décalage dans le temps n'est pas une simple coïncidence, car les problèmes abordés par le projet sont universels et peuvent être considérés comme une métaphore des tensions sociales contemporaines.  Le projet comprend des photos d'archives du photographe de Wrzesnia Ryszard Szczepaniak.
The First March of Gentlemen, 2017. The First March of Gentlemen est une narration fictive composée d'histoires authentiques. Les événements historiques liés à la ville de Wrzesnia constituent le point de départ d'une réflexion sur les mécanismes de protestation et de discipline. Dans la série de collages, la réalité de la Pologne des années 1950 gouvernée par les communistes se mêle au souvenir de la grève des enfants de Wrzesnia du début du XXe siècle. Ce décalage dans le temps n'est pas une simple coïncidence, car les problèmes abordés par le projet sont universels et peuvent être considérés comme une métaphore des tensions sociales contemporaines. Le projet comprend des photos d'archives du photographe de Wrzesnia Ryszard Szczepaniak. © Rafal Milach / Magnum Photos

What type of cameras did you start working with and which ones do you use today?

Basically, the visual language and the tools that I’m using are secondary to me. The most important to me is the story I want to tell and then I try to think what would be the best way to represent it. I’ve been experimenting a lot with different photography and non photography based mediums but I noticed that for the past 10 years my visual language somehow consolidated, which is comfortable but also disturbing, since I don’t want to be trapped in a certain visual way of storytelling.

Could you tell us about the flash technique, which is used in much of your recent work?

I think it started like 10 years ago when I went to Belarus to work on a project called The Winners, dedicated to various state-organized contests. It was a vision of a perfectly formatted society viewed by the authoritarian regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko. I thought using flash in this particular case would recall a scientific photography format distanced and unemotional. It would help to convey the idea of dehumanizing state control structures. I deliberately removed any intimate or personal information about the people that I photographed and was exclusively interested in the “winner’s” façade. But this flash technique somehow stayed with me. I started to enjoy its harshness and sometimes brutal touch. Also, I recently realized it helped me to work in two dimensions as frontal strobe kind of flattens the perspective. I think this is something that comes from my graphic design experience. Pictures became more like posters and graphical signs, like a certain synthesis of the space and the person.

Natalya et Konan, le meilleur couple d'amoureux, série « The Winners project », Zhodino, Biélorussie, 22 mai 2013. Le concours est organisé par les structures locales de la BRSM (Association de la jeunesse biélorusse). La BRSM est une organisation d'État qui recrute les personnes les plus actives de moins de 35 ans. Nombre d'entre eux font partie de l'élite politique de la République du Belarus.
Natalya et Konan, le meilleur couple d'amoureux, série « The Winners project », Zhodino, Biélorussie, 22 mai 2013. Le concours est organisé par les structures locales de la BRSM (Association de la jeunesse biélorusse). La BRSM est une organisation d'État qui recrute les personnes les plus actives de moins de 35 ans. Nombre d'entre eux font partie de l'élite politique de la République du Belarus. © Rafal Milach / Magnum Photos

What kind of themes or patterns do you want to capture as a photographer?

From the very beginning I’ve been interested in social issues, as well associal geographies transitionsin the region where I live: this transition from Soviet regions to so-called ‘democracies’. I’ve always been interested in how politics are influencing our lives, our daily habits, the spaces where we function. For the past 6 years, since right-wing government took over in Poland, my work has become more and more activistic. I’m advocating with photography for all discriminated communities. I realized that photography can be a strong, persuasive tool to fight for the LGBT’s rights, women issues, climate changes, political refugees…That’s been the work I’ve been focusing on, together with 17 other Polish photographers from the Archive of Public Protests collective Ico-created 3 years ago. I’ve always tried to take a position. I think these positions have become more radical in reaction to a more radical background of recent years. Sometimes it’s just a small fire, at the moment, but you don’t know what will happensI took some pictures in different theatres and operas in various places. But of course the Paris Opera is one of its kind on the globe. I was overwhelmed by it, in a good way, because it’s a fascinating world. Strangely it’s not so far away from my interests, in my personal projects, which are dealing with various facades. And this is what a theatre is about: producing or manufacturing certain realities, which are alternatives to the reality we are living in. The Opera is like a giant lab, a huge enterprise, so multi-layered and complex, brilliantly structured. And about my preconceptions? Well, of course everybody knows about ThePhantom of the Opera… tomorrow, or weeks from now. It’s better to do something than nothing.

We can’t all be full-time activist, but we can all contribute for the sake of activism, even a little. 

       Yes, we don’t have to be activists, but we can be active.    

Varsovie, Pologne, 22 octobre 2020. Malgré la pandémie de Covid-19, les gens sont spontanément descendus dans la rue pour protester contre la déclaration de la Cour constitutionnelle (contrôlée par le parti de droite PiSparty) qui criminalise de fait l'avortement même en cas d'atteinte fatale du fœtus.
Varsovie, Pologne, 22 octobre 2020. Malgré la pandémie de Covid-19, les gens sont spontanément descendus dans la rue pour protester contre la déclaration de la Cour constitutionnelle (contrôlée par le parti de droite PiSparty) qui criminalise de fait l'avortement même en cas d'atteinte fatale du fœtus. © Rafal Milach / Magnum Photos

Let’s talk about your story for the Paris Opera. What are your impressions of the two venues, the Garnier and the Bastille houses, and on the Institution itself? Did you have any preconceptions?

I took some pictures in different theatres and operas in various places. But of course the Paris Opera is one of its kind on the globe. I was overwhelmed, in a good way, because it’s a fascinating world. Strangely it’s not so far away from my interests, in my personal projects, which are dealing with various facets of the structures. And this is what a theatre is about: producing or manufacturing certain realities, which are alternatives to the reality we are living in. The Opera is like a giant lab, a huge enterprise, so multi-layered and complex, brilliantly structured. And about my preconceptions? Well, of course everybody knows about The Phantom of the Opera

Have you found him?

Yes! In many places! It was not my first idea, to chase after the Phantom of the Opera, but I found a lot of traces of his presence, it’s kind of twisted and funny.

Do you think that this myth somehow unconsciously influenced the way you photographed the Palais Garnier and the Bastille Opera?

You know, sometimes it’s good to be aware of some clichés so you can work with them. Some locations are imposing some way of taking pictures that were not entirely suitable for my way of picturing things, especially in the Palais Garnier, which is beautiful and has a romantic, nostalgic atmosphere, or magic dark… The harsh flash flattens everything; it shows all the scratches and destroys this magic. I recall this moment where I accidentally took a picture that was out of focus and I was in the main hall of the Palais Garnier. I actually took a picture of a dust floating in the air. And I said: this is magic! This little accident made me take an entire series of a dust on the blurry surface of this very well-known space, which everybody can recognize. And I felt I could combine this micro-world with something which is an architectural icon and has been photographed so many times. The architecture of Garnier, and of Bastille as well, offers a magical experience, being able to switch perspective. Sometimes I had the feeling that I was flying all over the audience. 

And what can you tell about the various aspects of your story?

Working in all these different spaces felt also different. The dynamic of being in a sculptural, painting or scenography workshop is very much different from being at the heart of a performance. The performance behind the stage meant extremely short moments when I could work. Besides, I had to avoid identifying people in the pictures, which was quite an obstacle. Because it’s not just about architecture, it’s about people who’re creating performances: they are the driving force behind all of it. How do you show the people’s presence in the space without actually showing them? This is also a pretty common practice in contemporary photography, if not a cliché already, portraying people without identification.

As an artist, what is your take on the jobs done in the workshops? 

What was fascinating as well was to see how passionate people are about making things. It’s still a creative process even if somebody designs something that you have to produce. It was not just objects: you could see that it was part of their lives. People could tell stories about certain objects from performances staged years ago. It shows how dedicated they are, but also the connection they’ve weaved with their professions. And also, since we’re living in a world where most of our lives are spent in front of computers, it was quite amazing to dive in these scenographic, physical spaces!

Before ending our interview, we can’t help but point out that you witnessed the first weeks of the war in Ukraine...

I’ve been, for the first two weeks of the conflict, mostly working on the Polish border. Initially the fieldwork has been mainly made by volunteers and NGOs, strangely not by Polish government. I’ve been able to collect the dozens of refugees’ stories. I’d say 99% were young mothers with kids leaving their relatives: brothers, husbands, fathers that stayed to fight for Ukraine. I’ve also been to Lviv, the biggest city and communication hub which is the closest to the Polish border, which until few days ago has been relatively safe. There’ve been some bombings around Lviv but not directly in the city, luckily, because this is a very beautiful city. Sure, there is fear, air strike alarms and the city prepares for the possible invasion. But from the conversations I had, people are learning how to live with the war that has been just behind the corner for the past eight years actually.

Mariana Tarkot, 19 ans, et sa fille Anhelina, 2 ans, au poste frontière avec l'Ukraine; Medyka, Pologne, 2 mars 2022.
Mariana Tarkot, 19 ans, et sa fille Anhelina, 2 ans, au poste frontière avec l'Ukraine; Medyka, Pologne, 2 mars 2022. "Je vis en Ukraine, à Ternopil. J'ai étudié. J'ai vécu avec un gars, mais ils ne le laissent pas sortir d'Ukraine. Il est resté pour se battre. Quand ils ont commencé à bombarder, tout a craqué, c'était terrible. Et le bébé est tout petit. Je suis partie le vendredi 26 février, avec ma mère et l'amie du travail de ma mère et une petite fille. On a fait la queue à la frontière pendant quatre jours. Dans la voiture. Les gens nous ont aidés du mieux qu'ils pouvaient. On va à Cracovie. Nous avons des amis et de la famille là-bas. » Plus de 1,7 million de réfugiés ont quitté l'Ukraine depuis l'invasion russe du 24 février. © Rafal Milach / Magnum Photos
Rafal Milach
Rafal Milach © Marek Szczepanski

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