Taking Up Space: Women Photographers Who Intrude
#photography & visual arts
small, Taking Up Space: Women Photographers Who Intrude, From the series 'Julia Wannabe', photo: Anna Grzelewska / courtesy of Wszyscy Jesteśmy Fotografami (We Are All Photographers), center, julia_wannabe_fot_anna-grzelewska.jpg
All the photographers in this article are women who fight for respect and their right to free speech. Without any self-consciousness, they speak out about mental health, toxic relationships and marital troubles. They remind us that artistic success doesn’t place anyone above the rest of society.
These women’s photography doesn’t restrain itself to simply capturing images – it includes collage, documentation of performance art as well as planned-out scenes in studios. This wide range of styles points to the emancipatory potential within the medium.
Our guide in this journey through photographers is the book Wszyscy Jesteśmy Fotografami Vol. 1 (We Are All Photographers, Vol. 1). The publication is a summation of dozens of photography events organised by Katarzyna Sagatowska and Monika Szewczyk-Wittek. The duo, when inviting lecturers, insisted upon ‘stories as subjective as possible’, which was meant to give participants the ability for further independent reflection. We also describe photographers who did not make it into the pages of the book, but did take part in exhibitions. According to these artists, what is photography capable of?
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Zuzanna Janin dedicated her writing in the anthology to discussing violence. In it, she ‘comes out’ – she describes herself as a ‘Survivalist’, a woman who has experienced domestic violence. Janin writes about straightforward aggression, as well as the passive kind, harder to notice, more embarrassing, more hidden.
In the section titled Symbolic Violence, Janin describes her work Wajda. Wałęsa. Ossowska from 2016. In it, she presents two images: one an archival photograph from the Gdańsk Shipyard and another a still from Andrzej Wajda’s film Wałęsa: Man of Hope. In the film, Ewa Ossowska, a Solidarity activist, is swapped out for a man in a key scene. Janin covered up the original photograph with a cut-out from the film and vice-versa, so that Wałęsa and Ossowska from the original photograph, stood together in Wajda’s film. Her work is a critical commentary on the fact that artistic vision excuses erasing women from history.
Janin also wrote about a poster from activist group Nasza Wiara (Our Faith) and the actions of Żubrzyce Mówimy Nie (Bisons Say No, a group of activist-performers who dress up as bison and protest on behalf of women in the art world). Photography plays a smaller part in their work, but the link is still there.
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Nasza Wiara (Our Faith, comprised of Paweł Hajncel, Marta Frej, Tomasz Kosiński and Dariusz Dąbrowski), 'Bycie artystą nie zwalnia z bycia człowiekiem' (Being an artist doesn’t free you from being a person), 2015, photo: courtesy of Our Faith and WJF
‘Being an artist doesn’t free you from being a person’ – this is a poster from Nasza Wiara (Paweł Hajncel, Marta Frej, Tomasz Kosiński and Dariusz Dąbrowski), created for the 70th anniversary of the Władysław Strzemiński Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź. The poster uses a famous photograph of a well-known married couple: Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński, both artists. Strzemiński’s violence toward Kobro was kept a secret for many years. The fact that the famous artist and theoretician beat and degraded his wife was only revealed by their daughter Nika Strzemińska:
Selected works by Katarzyna Kobro – Image Gallery
Selected Works by Katarzyna Kobro
He used a stilt to beat her. He would target parts of her body with its rubber foot.
The poster has a clear message – artistic achievements don’t free people from following societal norms; even creative types have a responsibility to those around them.
Like Wałęsa, Wajda devoted a film to Strzemiński as well. And once more the director dealt with accusations of distorting history, because Katarzyna Kobro never appeared in his film. By eliding her from his story about an ‘artist hurt by the system’, he allowed the uncomfortable truth to stay hidden. In the film, we never see his violent nature or the fact that her own husband stopped her from receiving a lecturer position at the University of Fine Arts in Łódź.
Analysing the poster, it’s difficult not to think of a similar situation that took place in November 2019, in the same city. A group of students from Łódź Film School protested against a meeting with Roman Polański. In reaction to this, the dean Mariusz Grzegorzek released a statement:
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In a certain sense, I’m terrified of this sudden activism and the over-stimulated dark energy emanating in regards to the atomisation and enfeebling of this artistic crisis that we are dealing with every day. I don’t feel that I have any moral rights to judge Roman Polański’s life. On what basis should I have any? The overblown media reports, the American judicial system, or my own intuition?
The author of the original petition, Jędrzej Michalak, reminded people of the same thing as the creators of the poster – celebrating famous artists accused of violence shows a lack of sensitivity to their victims. Ultimately, at the request of Polański, the meeting was cancelled.
Showing a lack of agreement
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'ŻUBRZYCE MÓWIMY NIE, ŻUBRZYCE WE SAY NO TO BE DEAD TO BE VISIBLE' (BISONS SAY NO, BISONS WE SAY NO TO BE DEAD TO BE VISIBLE), 2017, performative action in front of MoMA in protest of a lack of women in the museum in context of the 'Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction' exhibition, photo: WJF
‘Bisons Say No’ is an anonymous performance-protest group, which has shown up in front of spaces such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, or in front of one of Nobuyoshi Araki’s exhibits. The activists and artists dress up in animal costumes to protest violence, misogyny, exclusion and sexism. They show up with slogans written on white canvas. Photography of these ephemeral protests helps extend their lifespan.
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In 2019, visual artist Diana Lelonek, while receiving her Paszport Polityki award (editor’s note: a prestigious cultural award given by the Polityka weekly), showed up to the gala alongside an activist dressed as a boar. This was an attempt at starting a conversation about the 200,000 boars whose death was planned as an attempt to stop the spread of swine flu.
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Marta Zgierska’s text in We Are All Photographers concerns building an artistic stance and entering the photography world. The artist reminisces about her own beginnings – a fascination with image and a desire to create something equally attractive. This ambition later turned out to be a dead weight – for many years she fought with herself, unhappy with the effects of her work. At the age of 20, Zgierska studied three majors at once, wrote papers and articles, took photographs and led a company. In the end, as she wrote, these formative years led to an anxiety disorder.
Her first serious cycle, Oskoma, examined the dissonance between intent and effect. After that, Zgierska began searching for her own language – this inspired her first works in the Post cycle, which garnered her many awards. During this artistic maturing Zgierska was in a serious car accident, which affected her life in many ways. After some time she said:
Works from the series Post by Marta Zgierska – Image Gallery
Works from the Series 'Post' by Marta Zgierska – Image Gallery
A complete change of environment, being a consequence of a car accident, led to the end of my personal rivalry and the end of downplaying my own artistic needs.
Completed a few years later, Post turned out to be Zgierska’s second chance to reach her own perfectionism and need for control, which had previously paralysed her.
A critical look at the past
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In Frowst, Joanna Piotrowska recreated scenes from her childhood. Through the use of intertwined bodies and unnatural gestures, her works are steeped in discomfort. The title of her works (an informal British word for a warm, stuffy atmosphere) points to the spaces she constructed – on the surface, safe and full of warmth, but in reality lacking air.
Help with self-acceptance
FROWST by Joanna Piotrowska – Image Gallery
In her entry for We Are All Photographers, Zuza Krajewska wrote of her work helping celebrities create their images, but in her non-commercial cycle Imago, she turned to teenagers in a juvenile detention centre in Studzieniec. The young boys, with their difficult past lives, interested her for the contrasts they presented. Their
constant need to push boundaries was accompanied by a childlike sensitivity and need for love. In an interview with Digital Camera Polska, Krajewska admitted that she searched for real emotions among her subjects, and this search often led her to the difficult childhoods that life had dealt them. ‘In the back of their mind they always had an unhappy, beaten down, hurt child’, she explained.
On the other hand, in her exhibition Traces, she showed portraits of people with visible ‘defects’ – scars, legs in casts or braces on an incomplete set of teeth. They were portrayed with a slightly ironic and comic air, but who knows – maybe it was this cycle that predicted Poland’s current body positivity movement?
From the book Imago – Zuza Krajewska
Growing up together
Anna Grzelewska photographed her daughter Julia for eight years. She documented intimate moments – her tears, moments of indecision and a changing body. The photographer spoke to magazine Wysokie Obcasy:
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I accompanied Julia in all those emotions that are so difficult to express during that age. Creating this project, we were together and we didn’t always have to speak outright about her problems. This mutual space was the best thing that I ever encountered as a photographer.
Grzelewska admitted that photographing her daughter allowed her to relive the emotions that accompany growing up. Her own childhood she remembered as mainly ‘sadness, which there was no space for’. Looking at her photographs, we see she was able to create a space of intimate trust, understanding and acceptance.
Originally written in Polish, 20 Dec 2019, translated by AZ, 4 Feb 2020