In Search of Female Identity: An Interview with Ilona Szwarc
small, In Search of Female Identity: An Interview with Ilona Szwarc, Spread from the publication I Am a Woman and I Feast on Memory, photo: Ilona Szwarc, full_ilona_szwarc_ksiazka_770.jpg
Ilona Szwarc, the US-based Polish photographer and laureate of the World Press Photo 2013 award in the Portrait category, has returned to Poland with her new project: I Am a Woman and I Feast on Memory.
The artist first drew the attention of critics and viewers in 2012 with her project American Girls in which she portrayed adolescent Americans with their dolls. A few years later, she photographed young Texan cowgirls in the series Rodeo Girls. Next she took up the subject of transsexual women in contemporary Poland. In her latest project, Szwarc directs the lens of her camera towards herself, at the same time breaching the typological focus of her earlier works.
In an interview for Culture.pl, the photographer explains why she chose to engage herself in the issue of female identity.
Culture.pl: What questions do your works answer?
Ilona Szwarc: It seems to me that the core of art is not giving particular answers to particular questions, but multiplying the ways that can lead us to learning about certain slices of reality. However, the question that keeps recurring in my work is the question of who I am. It’s particularly visible in my latest project.
And who are you?
I would very much like to avoid some kind of reduction by saying that I am a woman, a Pole, an American, or an artist. There is no single answer. This is also what I’m trying to say in I Am a Woman and I Feast on Memory. One can never give a uniform, singular answer to such a question. Answers to this question are always countless. There's never just one, single self. It’s never one woman, but rather a range of her various identities.
However, you decided to focus on one particular group: women. Why?
This stems mostly from searching for myself and a desire to be authentic in what I do. The subject of women is somehow natural to me and springs from the answers to some of my inner quandaries. There is also the issue of deciding which perspective I, as an artist, can offer to be truthful. I didn’t want what I'm doing to be a touristic walk through somebody else’s world and superficially look into various environments or topics. I wanted the subject matter of my works to be related to myself. That’s why it seems appropriate to me to talk about the female experience. Each of my projects revolves around a different group of women, yet I can see how all of them are somehow interconnected.
All of us, women, have common ground, our lives and experiences are somehow connected. By looking at my heroines, I constantly redefine myself by excluding some answers. I am not a girl with a doll, I am not a rodeo girl, I am not a transwoman living in contemporary Poland. However, I am able to identify a part of my life or an experience of mine in each of their stories. A deep empathy links them and I. This is why each of my projects is also a narrative about myself.
I Am a Woman and I Feast on Memory is different from your earlier projects. You decided to give up typology. Why?
From my point of view, this project doesn’t differ from the rest of my work at all. It has simply assumed a different form. I'm still working with typology, but now I’m creating it myself. It’s not typology defined by society, as was the case with my previous projects. This time I held a casting to look for American women who were physically similar to me. It was an attempt to find a group of women to which I myself could belong. I constantly observe women exploit various elements of pop culture or their environment to build their identity. I Am a Woman and I Feast on Memory is a natural continuation of my exploration, a pause and meditation on these processes. But here I direct the lens at myself, or rather a representation of myself, to illustrate the mechanism of transformation. We are constantly subject to change, transformation, reshaping. This is the essence of this project.
You talk about the meaning of your works in a very conscious manner. Where does this intellectual nerve come from?
I was educated in the States, at Yale University. Judith Butler graduated from the same school and is still frequently invited there. Yale was also where she wrote Gender Trouble in the 1990s. I encountered her not only as a student, but also as a woman in general. I attended some meetings with her and she’s certainly one of the people who has influenced me greatly and in some way shaped my thinking about the world. I am deeply interested in feminism and gender and these concepts serve as a sort of fuel for my work. So my intellectual nerve stems from curiosity and the fact that I plumb the subject matter since it drives me to create images.
You frequently call yourself a director. What does this mean – how do you direct your works?
My photographs are meticulously thought-out and slow. My models need to pose, they have to remain motionless for a few seconds. Just the execution of a photograph is preceded by gaining insights which take a long time. I find out a lot of things about my heroines, sometimes revolving around very personal matters. I also have a lot of commentary to offer in my works and I’ve always emphasised how crucial research is in my projects. I don’t see myself as a documentarian. I try to move between the language of creation and the language of document smoothly. I don’t feel the need to define myself as a representative of either of them.
Though creative and thought-out, your works are also critical. What is it you're wanting to criticise in each of your projects?
Despite everything, I feel my works are rather mild. They attempt to make female identity the subject of a critical approach in social and political terms and to provoke questions. I see myself as a person thinking critically. I approach the worlds I photograph analytically. It’s important for me not to depict them as caricature.
Your works seem particularly up-to-date in contemporary Poland. More and more women are in the streets protesting legislative proposals that relate to them. Do you see some identity transformations in your native surroundings?
The Black Protest [editor’s note: a series of street demonstrations against proposals to make Poland's abortion laws stricter] seems like a huge change to me. But I don’t think I can offer any general commentary on it. I can only talk about the microcosm I myself experience. Observing my family, I can see how huge the change is. Everybody's talking about women and their position, about how their identity is constructed anew. Everybody seems to have a position on it. Even people who were raised in a very traditional way are taking part in the discussion. The issue of feminism has become something discussed at the family dinner table. The subject of women has become a subject for all of society.
world press photo
The artist's website: ilonaszwarc.com. The exhibition I Am Woman and I Feast on Memory was at the Leica 6x7 Gallery in Warsaw from 29th October to 11th December 2016.
Sources: Culture.pl, own materials. The interview was originally conducted in Polish by Dagmara Staga, November 2016; translated by NS, December 2016.