What is contemporary Poland like? Is it like anything at all? How could you capture it in a single photograph? The more answers there are, the more new questions emerge.
The above questions are not only asked by experts in sociology, statistics and politics – photographers also attempt to translate three-dimensional Polish reality into the two-dimensional language of photography, much like how Witkacy did in 1915-1917 with his Multiple Self-Portrait in Mirrors.
The modern pioneer of such attempts is Mark Power, a British photographer from the famous agency Magnum Photos, which chronicled Poland during the political and economical transformation after 1989. The Sound of Two Songs is an original record of what Poland looked like back then. After Power's project, no global photo agencies have repeated a similar project on such a scale.
Nevertheless, numerous attempts at portraying Poland are continuously made by the country's native photographers. We have chosen ten of them – their varied snapshots of Polish reality constitute a complex portrait of the country. How does each of them perceive Poland?
Poland is Warsaw
Love towards the capital city has been a repeating motif of many artistic projects in the last decade. There is, however, one photographer whose tale of Warsaw is truly unique – even though he only focuses on one of its smaller sections. In 2015, Jacek Fota finalised his PKiN project, namely a two-year flirtation with the Palace of Culture and Science. And all of their dates were different…
The images of the Palace not only reveal something about Warsaw, but also about the entirety of Poland, spanned across the 44 floors of the capital's tallest building. Fota notices the absurd, such as the pornographic coaster in the lodger's room; the obvious, like the roof covered with satellite antennas; and the nuanced – light breaking through a curtain in an abandoned lecture hall. Out of those puzzle-like elements dispersed throughout the palace spaces, a reflection of Poland is built, with all her hues and dissonances in the background.
Poland is everything but Warsaw
While photographers in love with Warsaw write their love letters to the capital city, others venture into the unknown. The most prolific among them is Filip Springer who doesn't yield in his efforts to understand and describe Polish urban space. His attempts are bittersweet: he traces the ugly and the incompatible. He is a co-creator of an interactive reportage about cities which have lost their status as regional capitals after changes in the administrative divisions.
Poland is a wild landscape
Some photographers tell stories of urban Poland, while others turn their attention towards nature, which encroaches into every corner of the man-made world, and mankind itself, which itself cannot be separated from nature. Adam Pańczuk's award-winning project Karczeby is the best example of this. The photographs were taken in the Polesie region, where the author grew up, an eastern area of Poland where people are still strongly connected to the land. This connection stems from a mixture of history, vivid feudal legacy and locally-cultivated traditions. Pańczuk portrays the inhabitants of Polesie as if they are connected to nature with an invisible umbilical cord.
Poland is a personal story
Alicja Dobrucka turns her camera towards her closest surroundings. She tightens the circle, putting focus on her family. I Like You, I Like You a Lot is a photographic record of the trauma the artist underwent after the death of her younger brother. In this extremely personal project, however, she offers us the chance to see much more than just grief. Dobrucka's photos constitute a magnifying glass that reveals contemporary Polish family life, its emotions, aesthetics, links to traditions, and ultimately how one attempts to return to everyday life after a dramatic event.
Poland is 'the other'
In the next frame of this multiple portrait, Poland becomes a boiling pot. Instead of talking about the majority, Adam Lach aims his lens at an ethnic minority – one typically erased from official pictures and surrounded by many controversies. In Stigma, the photographer depicts the everyday life of a Roma family living on the outskirts of Wrocław. Lach's compelling photos could have been taken anywhere in Europe, and it's only the nuances that betray their Polish origin, such as the characteristic pylons in the background.
Poland is imaginary
Szymon Rogiński stands out among the ‘portraitists’ described here. In his photos from the UFO series, he is only seemingly looking for traces of unidentified flying objects. In fact, Rogiński himself pretends to be the ‘invisible hand’. Using light and framing, he creates the unreal yet possible. He brings in an indefinable anxiety, reminiscent of The X-Files. Among the landscapes intimidating with their beauty, there are strange lights, undefined reflections in water surfaces, and human shadows that could not be ascribed to any living person. This is also the atmosphere of another project by the artist: Śląsk#01. Whether it is truly what Silesia looks like or whether it has been created as such by Rogiński, that's up to you to decide.
Poland is conflict
Wojciech Wilczyk doesn't run away from difficult topics. He earned critics' recognition with his series There's No Such Thing As An Innocent Eye, which consists of depictions of synagogues that have been turned into business establishments. He continued to explore the topic together with Elżbieta Janicka in The Other City, which scrutinises the post-ghetto spaces of contemporary Warsaw. In 2014, he debuted his new project Holy War. The eponymous conflict stems from graffiti by football hooligans created illegally in urban spaces. The drawings captured by the photographer can be described as street art on the one hand, and as hooliganism on the other. Full of historical symbols, xenophobic references and violent language, they continue to exist against a background of trees, buildings and streets. They've ceased to scare, instead sinking into the Polish landscape like wrinkles, acne scars and blemishes.
Poland is melancholy
Sleepily emerging out of Krzysztof Racoń's photographs is a melancholic Polish reality. His black & white photos depict a longing country, though longing for what, we cannot tell. In his photobook The Pipe, Racoń tells the story of Strzemieszyce Małe, a small Silesian community dominated by a multi-kilometre overground pipeline supplying the nearby Katowice Steelworks with iron ore. The depicted world is liminal, half-alive and half-dead. It doesn't fit the definition of ‘the normal’, but at the same time, what is ‘abnormal’ about it? The portrait created here by Racoń doesn't bring chagrin, but rather induces a trance, mesmerises and awakens curiosity. Another Poland, but still incomplete.
Poland is a colourful canvas
In contrast to the photographers who search for images of Poland in close-ups, putting their focus on particular places, objects and people, there stands Kacper Kowalski. In his photographs, the Polish landscape unfolds as autumnal forests, seaside beaches and industrial spaces, photographed from a bird's-eye view. In his tale of Poland, the artist uses the language of painting’s old masters. Looking at Kowalski's frames, it becomes easier to understand individual problems, as they shift to become parts of a bigger picture.
Sources: Culture.pl materials, edited by DS, translated by Olga Korytowska, March 2016