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Viktor Drachev can grasp the simplest details to convey just the right feeling or touch of humor. We can readily imagine the wry smile that must have been on his face when he held up the camera, recording a picturesque glimpse of ordinary everyday life, a funny episode or a quirky moment.

Not only does he give us a fine news story, but there is also the personal touch – typically Drachev – with an original, imaginative and unexpected element.

Viktor Drachev was born in Yalta (Ukraine) in 1957 and as a child moved to Minsk in Belarus where he has lived ever since. In this grim country with limited freedom, he focuses on the character of the men and women there, covering the range of human experience, from laughter to tears, and rising above the most dramatic situations.

Everything in Belarus – the harsh climate, the dire situation of the economy, glimpses of private life and national celebrations – can be found here in these photos, conveying an idea of what life can be in Eastern Europe.

Viktor was raised by his grandparents for a number of years, and has developed a special rapport with older people, seen for example, with the veterans he loves to photograph as they march with medals on their chests to celebrate VE Day. All sorts of situation catch his attention, including fishing which is one of his favorite pastimes, and here is one of his fishing stories.

I only fish in Summer, but for my first assignment commissioned by AFP, I went to a lake near Minsk. It was late winter and the ice was thinning. I stepped onto the lake and the next thing I was up to my waist in water. Fortunately I managed to keep my camera dry. I left by a different route, and ran into some fishermen, including two who were so picturesque. Every time they caught a fish, they would down a shot of vodka; I suspect that they had even had a few drinks between catches as they were more than merry by the time I photographed them.

Then there are more complex, more serious moments, such as the visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, within a radius of 30 kilometers from the power plant. He went there on the 20th anniversary of the disaster, and has simply reported his impressions, without any drama.

I had heard that a team was going off to check radiation levels in villages nearby, so I rushed off to join the expedition. It involved no risk of contamination for anyone just passing through, but repeated ingestion of contaminated food is dangerous. Just imagine how much is absorbed by a person eating roast pork from a pig raised 35 kilometers from the reactor! Even closer to the reactor, I met a couple who had signed a release and moved back to their old home shortly after the disaster; they were living in an area that was still highly contaminated. I took them some oranges and two bottles of vodka. We had a long chat, then I photographed the woman milking her cow. They did not appear to be suffering from any noticeable disorder, and that was after twenty years of exposure to radiation.

These 35 photos will transport us as we experience the different atmospheres, all striking in their own original way. The only thing missing is the glass of vodka!

Laurence de Suremain, AFP

Viktor Drachev

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