Polish photographer Monika Orpik explores the emergence of new forms of community-building in Belarus, as well as spatial experiences of migration or how people can be brought together by and under a shared spirit of solidarity.

In her book “Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road”, Monika Orpik combines two seemingly contradictory artistic practices—working with photographic images and working with text. The image layer traverses a specific territory, an area in the vicinity of the Bialowieza Forest. The dreamy, faded photographs, on the one hand, are a documentation of a specific landscape and events happening in the area from August 2020, when the revolution in Belarus began, through 2021 marking the migrant crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border and resulting in the construction of a border wall, until 2022, the year of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. On the other hand, the photographs create a visual narrative of an idyllic world. They are like a dream of a country or place from which one has departed, like passing childhood memories. In the presented sequence of photos, the poignant element is emptiness, a landscape without people, forest, empty rooms and abandoned architectural elements. People appear sporadically, mostly—but not always—showing up in banal situations related to life and work. They are not heroes—protagonists of the story—they are an element of the landscape, part of the land. The photographic sequence itself is quiet, almost dreamy. There is a sense of unease in it, perhaps caused by the aforementioned emptiness. 
A very aggressive element, a kind of violent awakening from the visual dream, are the texts in the book. They appear unexpectedly, interrupting, or organizing, the sequence of photographs. The texts are composed of excerpts from fifteen interviews conducted by Orpik with people who fled Belarus. In order to create a “collective I,” the excerpts were edited and combined into 3 coherent chapters, each dealing with one aspect of migration, i.e. the political regime, being forced to leave your home, and language as identity. They are a polyphonic statement about the experience of fleeing the country, violence, fear and a sense of loss. Working with the text, Orpik not only edits the dissidents’ statements, but introduces a very important procedure—erasure. She removes the specification of the locations or countries involved in the stories. Words such as Poland, Belarus, names of cities, people or notion of time, have been replaced with: “There”, “Here”, “Us”, “They”. Only in the last chapter, about language and its identity entanglements, does the viewer get a clue about the place the characters are talking about. In addition, the text was left only in the version translated into English and Belarusian. The abandonment of Polish is a symbolic opening to, forbidden in Belarus itself, the Belarusian language. Its presence in the book thus becomes a political gesture. 
Orpik’s book constantly twists the plot and operates in an intermediate state, balancing between hope and the horrors of war. It departs from the reporter’s description of specific events, which, within a second, tend to be overshadowed by new news from other fronts. She talks about the long-term emotional and psychological effects of conflicts, the subsequent trauma and attempts to overcome it. Orpik shows a certain mechanism of violence and experience of loss, which does not apply only to the Polish-Belarusian border, the border of the European Union nor the people who fled the Lukashenko or al Assad regimes. It is a story about an uncertain journey and a new beginning that can happen to anyone. 

Curated by Monika Orpik & Łukasz Rusznica
Design by Agata Bartkowiak
Published by Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT) 2022
More about the book, here.

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road


We couldn’t get in touch with most of our relatives because, by that point, internet access had been blocked. I can’t imagine someone turning up at your house, telling you to leave, shouting at you, cursing you, and you’re standing there, a small daughter in your arms, not knowing which way to go. They weren’t allowed to bring anything with them, not even animals. And for these people, animals were a major part of life. They lost what little they had left. Our grandma hid among the crops with grandpa and their infant daughter. They were left with one rooster, which escaped, and found its way back. Later, their cat also found them. And after that, everything was rebuilt from scratch.

I always read that someone wound up in prison, that someone is in prison — prison, prison, prison. This word crops up all the time. When those who had initially been taken got released, we saw how badly beaten they were. The following day, women with flowers took to the streets. They thought that OMON wouldn’t beat them because it didn’t on the first day. But later, it used violence on women too. That’s the day that many remember. I was shot by OMON with a rubber bullet and went to the police to give a statement. Later, I travelled abroad to work on a project about the victims of the regime. Many people left around that time, hoping to seek political asylum. When I was away, the police came to my mum’s house to carry out a search. I was made a ‘witness’ in a criminal case related to my participation in the protests, and was charged with participating in mass riots. All court cases follow the same pattern—you get charged first and then sentenced, which can land you in prison. I don’t know the details of my case—was I the one being charged, or was I a witness in someone else’s charge? The state wanted to use the protesters’ civil disobedience to justify its use of terror. It said that it resorted to violence because of dangerous individuals. I could’ve gone to prison for my work. My family thought that it would be better if I stayed abroad for a month or two. We thought that the revolution would end soon and that we would win. That we would be a free country. We all thought that. But that’s not how things turned out. When I got shot, I didn’t feel pain, probably from adrenaline. I was shot, and I kept working. Later, I went home, but if it wasn’t for the fever, I probably would’ve continued taking photos. I always stand with those who are wronged, with those who are locked up for no reason. Even if they are only taken away for two days. Because that’s enough to carry trauma for the rest of your life. Even if they take a ride in an autozak, only to be released outside the militia headquarters… even that is a trauma of sorts.


We were all on our phones, following the events on the other side of the border. We watched all the online streams, I didn’t leave my house during that time. I was sitting in one room, my flatmate in the other, and I could tell that we were watching the same thing. I started having panic attacks. I remember walking down a street, suddenly feeling that I couldn’t breathe. I’m not afraid to speak about it because it’s happened to others before me. I needed psychological help. I didn’t have any of my things. It was an interesting experience—not to have my personal belongings. I thought I was going on a 6-day business trip. I didn’t bring much, because we needed to take a lot of work equipment with us, so there was no room for clothes in the car. I had two t-shirts and some underwear. Having my own stuff was very important to me then—I had a lot of things, and I was very attached to them. Here, I understood that I didn’t really need any of them. A laptop, a camera, a phone, and a few clothes are enough. My husband has now brought my stuff over, and I’ve started thinking—what do I need all this for, 12 wine glasses, all these cups?

In my mind, I’m still back there. I always read the news and follow life over there. When I was alone in my flat here, I was always going on Google Street View, taking walks around my hometown. I found many places I’d never been to before. I decided to visit them in person when I come home. I moved my life online. Borders are abstract products of the human need for control, and yet they fashion reality into something very concrete. But the Forest lacked a hard border during the war. The stretch of the green was permeable. My grandfather, a primak—a man living in his wife’s house—came from a village which now lies on the other side of the Forest, abroad. Later, when the EU sealed its borders, travelling over there became even harder, mainly owing to formalities. That’s where my closest family is. Grandpa Grzegorz remained in a village near to where I live now, where his brother and sister lived too. No one expected that crossing the border would become almost impossible. They wouldn’t have volunteered to be separated. When he was a little boy, my father would work the hay with his parents in the fields nearby. One day they noticed a tired, fatigued man in threadbare clothes, cycling towards them over the gravel road. He approached them and started crying. As it turned out, it was uncle Kuźma, our grandfather’s brother whom they hadn’t seen in years because the border was impassable. He wanted to meet his family so badly, he deliberately befriended the border guards, eventually getting close enough with them to be able to cross the border and travel home. He knew that he was leaving tracks in the no man’s land. ‘Come quickly to the cottage, so that no-one sees me. I have to get back soon, ‘cause they’ll be looking for me’. He stayed home for half an hour. Then he got on his bike and rode away. Half an hour. I don’t know what kind of mind it takes to decide to trace the border right through a village.


My aunt thought that the dialect fell out of use in cities not because of embarrassment, but because it expressed hardship. The dialect was the hardship of labour, the dialect was manure scattered in the fields, the dialect was poverty—it carried so many bad associations, a sense of hurt and inferiority, that people rejected it as a language. Now we are trying to break the bad spell over the word ‘ruski’. I want to return it to its rightful place. Until the 17th century there was no other name for the present-day Belarusian, Russian or Ukrainian language. Everyone called them ‘ruski’. That’s what researchers still call the language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These days, it is also called Podlasian-Ruski, emphasising the geographical context. Language was the basic tool of our ancestors’ denationalisation. They were ashamed of it. My mum forbade my gran from speaking ‘her own way’ when I was around. Everything was supposed to be said in Polish. The subject of the dialect was growing in me for years, and later became a very important part of my work. I grew up in Białystok, around Polish culture, but on familial, inherently Belarusian soil. I learnt about high Belarusian culture—the literary language of books, the music of contemporary bands. My dad spoke with my grandparents in the dialect, or ‘plainly’. My gran never called it Belarusian. Still, everyone in the village spoke Belarusian with each other. When I started growing up, I asked my gran to no longer speak Polish with me. I was roughly 17, the age at which your own views start taking shape, and I knew that I wanted to learn Belarusian. I was aware that Belarusian culture was in short supply, even here, in Podlasie. It’s often reduced to folklore of a very poor kind, a shell, bereft of vital power and authenticity.

Our grandma’s Polish was very poor. When she wrote, she would mix up the Cyrillic and Latin scripts; into Polish words, she wove words that were spelled ‘her own way’. When my friends visited the countryside, she would sometimes ask ‘And is she Polish, or ruska?’. That question riled me up. It was an artificial divide. People think that ‘ruska’ means ‘from here’, an Orthodox Belarusian. Asking ‘whose’re you?’ or ‘where you from?’ was normal. Our granda suffered a great deal for being a ‘ruska’. In 1945 there were nationalistic tendencies, people said that Poland is for Poles… To the east and north of Białystok, there are the Belarusian, soft dialects—to the south, around Bielsko and Hajnówka, the dialects are labelled as Ukrainian, Poleski, or transitional. Podlasie is a peculiar place, where the characteristics of both languages, for instance unique diphthongs, survive to this day. And on the heels of language comes identity.

Monika Orpik is a visual artist, born in 1997 Poland, based in Hamburg. Her work stands at the intersection of contemporary art, research and social practice. Orpik’s methodology involves working with specialists across various disciplines e.g. composers, anthropologists and linguists to allow for a space of interaction and exchange of knowledge. Orpik’s research focuses on unnamed things, moments undepicted in images and the collapse of meaning caused by the use of inadequate language. She’s interested in stories often omitted from mainstream historical records and the misuse of classification processes that impacts the narrative gaps. Orpik investigates methods to describe experiences often named as those unspeakable or unspoken within the subject of war, violence and trauma. She works with photography, book making, text and sound.