From Observation to Activism: Polish Nature Photography
default, From Observation to Activism: Polish Nature Photography, ‘Diana’ from the ‘Zoo’ series, photo: Jacek Kusz / www.jacekkusz.com, center, 2_diana-1.jpg
From psychological portraits of monkeys to landscapes irreversibly destroyed by humans or plants co-existing with plastic: nature photography doesn’t have to limit itself to faithful reproductions of flora and fauna.
Froggy, Pepsi & Korasek
Lech Wilczek was a wildlife expert, photographer and writer; in his private life, he was the life partner of Simona Kossak, a biologist and science advocate. The pair united through their shared love of nature. Wilczek described their connection as metaphysical.
The Extraordinary Photographs of Simona Kossak – Image Gallery
The Extraordinary Photographs of Simona Kossak
For 36 years, they lived together in an aging forester’s lodge on the edge of Białowieża National Park. It was there that Wilczek created many of the portraits of his partner, often accompanied by boars, moose (Pepsi and Cola), deer and crows (Korasek).
After Wilczek’s death, Adam Wajrak wrote that the late photographer:
Eye to Eye by Lech Wilczek – Image Gallery
Made a concerted effort to cultivate Simona’s memory in culture, often unnecessarily hiding in the shadows. Lech deserves and has always deserved to be known as a humble, one-of-a-kind man.
Wilczek always repeated that the most beautiful art comes from nature.
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‘Makak Czubaty’ (Celebes Crested Macaque), from the ‘Zoo’ series, photo: Jacek Kusz / www.jacekkusz.com
‘If I hadn’t been told otherwise, I would never have realised that animals aren’t people’, Jacek Kusz wrote in the introduction to his photography series Zoo. The photographer spoke of his childhood, where he would regularly escape from lessons and hide at a nearby zoo. He most often sat with the monkeys.
In an interview with Digital Camera, Kusz explained:
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Monkeys have an interesting look in their eye, much like humans, but gentler – unlike the teachers I wanted to keep away from. I had the impression that they understood the state I was in. And it was a miserable state.
The Wrocław artist returned to the cages after 20 years. He created psychological portraits of animals, primarily monkeys, for seven years. The work turned out to be difficult for technical reasons. ‘I was stubborn, and it all worked out’, he added.
For his photographs of the Wrocław Zoo, Kusz won first place in the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards in the nature category.
Protecting the wilderness
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A blockade protecting trees in the UNESCO World Heritage site. Estera cries after being accused of receiving money for the blockades, from the series 'Protecting the Wilderness', photo: Jacek Kusz, courtesy of the artist
In his next cycle of photographs, Kusz turned his camera to the protestors protecting the Białowieża National Forest in 2017, especially the activist group Camp for Forest (originally: Obóz dla Puszczy). The photographer documented the months-long blockades and protests against heavy logging equipment. In an interview with Dzikie Życie (Wild Life), he said:
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I took photographs, the whole time awash with sadness and bitterness, feeling the unfairness and senselessness of the logging, but also feeling awe – at the wilderness and the people who protected her.
Kusz not only immortalized the protester’s actions – he also took part in them. A year after the protests, he admitted that he was still putting himself together after the violence he encountered there. ‘It’s the heaviest price I’ve had to pay’, he added.
His photographs received first place in the environment category from the 2018 Grand Press Photo contest.
Cecylia Malik began a photography cycle in 2008, inspired by Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees. The entire action takes place up in the trees, which comes from the main character’s rebellion.
Malik took this fairytale-like inspiration and joined it with ecological activism. Each day, she climbed a tree and took photographic evidence of her performance, which she published on Facebook. ‘It’s my journal and private rebellion’, she explained.
In 2017, the artist admitted that in Kraków, where she took most of the photos, about half of the photographed trees had since been cut down.
Selected works by Cecylia Malik – Image Gallery
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From the ‘Kruszywo’ (Aggregate) series, photo: Patrycja Wojtas
In Patrycja Wojtas’ Kruszywo (Aggregate), she takes a close look at human relationships with nature. During her work on this series, she visited mines, aquifers, landfills and an unfinished nuclear power plant, among other sites. The series tells the story of places in Poland which, after succumbing to industrial greed, were later returned to nature.
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Photograph from ‘Mgła’ (Fog) exhibition by Michał Łuczak, Szara Gallery, Katowice, 2018, photo: courtesy of the artist
Michał Łuczak’s exhibition Mgła (Fog) premiered at the Katowice Szara Gallery in 2018 as part of an ongoing photography series exploring the impact of coal on the Upper Silesia region. The above photo was taken in Tychy, where, as Łuczak writes:
Works by Michał Łuczak – Image Gallery
Coal permeates every aspect of life. People live off of it, warm themselves by it and grow sick by its pollution. This raw material, which shaped the look and identity of Upper Silesia, became its curse. Burdening it with the country’s energy output leads to air pollution, and an eventual restructuring of coal mines can lead to consequences that are impossible to predict.
At the exhibition, the photographer places photos of fog and smog side by side in order to undermine the argument of those who make light of the problem – by arguing that not all fog is poisonous. Łuczak’s photographs show how easily photographs can be used to manipulate and provide false witness.
‘There is No Lake’
In 2010, Filip Springer photographed the landscape destroyed by the open-mine pit in Tomisławice by the Konin Lignite Mining Company.
In the 10 years since the open-mine pit in Tomisławice, near Konina, has opened, 2,000 water holes and lakes have disappeared. The mines dry out the land, which causes the lakes to dry up. Farmers notice a lower yield; whole sections of the forest dwindle to nothing. Recreation centres in the Gnieźnieńskie Lake District are going bankrupt. The ecological catastrophe in Eastern Poland continues.
In 2010, the mining company began work on a new open-pit mine, five kilometres away from Gopło Lake.
The striking visual of nature’s revenge upon the resort that had previously controlled it came into existence as a billboard campaign organised by Sputnik Photos. Diana Lelonek’s photograph was a response to the Minister of Environment’s decision to allow logging in Białowieża Forest. Posters and print-outs of the work went up for sale, with proceeds going to the activist group Camp for Forest.
Centre for living things
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Wanting to return to the subject of plants interacting with the human world, Diana Lelonek created a Centrum Żywych Rzeczy (Centre for Living Things). She was inspired by research about pioneer species, which are the first to grow in post-industrial spaces. As she explained to Political Critique:
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It’s an important topic, because these are the plants of the future. And they’re considered pauper-plants, weeds – because they’re everywhere, so no one protects them.
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The Centre’s collection contains abandoned objects – excess waste from human overproduction – which have become shelters for different organic life. The artist found them growing amongst piles of wild trash.
Originally written in Polish by Michał Dąbrowski, Sep 2019; translated by AZ, Oct 2019