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Civil-society work in post-communist Europe can be many things: a bulwark of support for democratic institutions, a conduit for cross-border cooperation, an enabler of open expression, a source of funding and advice for activists across a broad spectrum of interests.
One thing it is generally not, is visually arresting.
For Rayna Gavrilova, executive director of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (generally known as the CEE Trust), this was brought home by a search for suitable images for the home page of the organization's website.
"That was the first time we encountered this - that most of the work of civil-society agents is so boring visually," she said. "We have to find a way, a creative way to present what civil society is about beyond the civic protest or the political protest. So how to do it will really be a challenge."
In conjunction with the Civil Society Forum a gathering of advocacy groups, academics, and others to be held 16-18 September in Bratislava, the trust took a step toward meeting that challenge, soliciting young people from across the region to express in words and images what civic engagement means to them.
The contest, open to students, journalists, and activists ages 18 to 30, attracted nearly 100 entries from 12 countries in three categories: essay, photo story, and video. The first-prize winners, announced last month, will receive $2,000 each to pursue a plan for personal development through travel, education, work, or activism, as outlined in their entry forms.
"When we started thinking that we wanted to bring civil-society representatives [to the forum] to think about the future, we were acutely aware that there are a few things we have to take into consideration," said Gavrilova, who served on the five-member jury for the contest. "One of them is that visual has become very important in last 10 years, and our anticipation is that it is going to be much more so into the future. Not only visual, but the visual using new media. ... We wanted to speak or to offer space to the language of the third millennium, which is, let's say, 50 percent verbal, 50 percent images."
(TOL is co-organizing another part of the Civil Society Forum. The Social Innovation Camp CEE, running concurrently with the main event, will bring together software developers, designers, and social-media innovators to create web-based solutions to social problems. TOL will also present a live stream of the main forum's debates and roundtables on 17 and 18 September on two of our blogs, New Media and Between Brussels & Gazprom.
Political protest did figure among the prize-winning entries, with Pavel Hodorogea's vivid photos of April's post-election demonstrations in Moldova and Petar Stanchev's evocative shots of police and protesters clashing in Bulgaria sharing third place. But second prize went to Romanian Irina Cretu for her quieter, more abstract images illustrating elements of civic engagement in her country, and Marta Kaszubska came in first with a series documenting her Polish youth group's work with kids in a troubled Warsaw neighborhood.
While the demonstration photos are indeed visually effective, "I really believe that civic activism shouldn't be equated with political protest," Gavrilova said. "Our problem is that political mobilization happens easily, so people get out in the streets to protest what they believe is infringement of their rights, or corrupt government. But how to get people out to do something which is positive?
"Doing this is the real challenge. That is why my favorites [in the contest] are on the opposite side."
Transitions magazine = Your one-stop source for news, research and analysis on the post-communist region. Sign up for the free TOL newsletter!
Transitions magazine = Your one-stop source for news, research and analysis on the post-communist region.
Sign up for the free TOL newsletter!
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