The Familiar Other – Polish Photographers Look to the East
#photography & visual arts
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The fall of the USSR, and the the political and economic transformations of former Soviet republics, satellite countries and settlements – these events motivated Polish photographers to travel east across the Bug river. What kind of images did they come back with? And how has photography itself evolved since then?
Ryszard Kapuściński had his camera with him throughout the majority of his travels, but he rarely shared his photographs with the public. The prints he developed in a darkroom set up in the bathroom of his home were mainly shown only to his wife. This is how she commented on the famous reporter’s approach to taking photographs:
"Only two of his African books include photographs. He always underscored that taking photographs is different to writing."
The most famous Polish reporter treated photography much like he did poetry – as a means of deepening one’s insight into reality. The Fall of the Empire, a posthumously prepared exhibit of Kapuściński’s photographs comprised of 50 pictures taken by the author between the years 1989 and 1991 during his 60 thousand-kilometre-long journey across 15 former USSR countries, including Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
Dementi Independent Photographic Agency
The agency was founded in Wrocław in August, 1982, and existed as part of the independent publishing movement through to 1991. It functioned outside of the communist press monopoly as an illegal group of conspirators. The agency’s activity constituted a form of protest against the violations of human rights as well as repressions suffered by the Solidarity movement following the introduction of Martial Law. Photographers documented demonstrations, hunger strikes and other forms of social activism and resistance. Later, between 1989 and 1991, they photographed events of the political transformation in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and the USSR.
From 1982 to 1984 the agency was formed by Stanisław Gulbinowicz, Tomasz Kizny, Anna Łoś, Dariusz Nowak and Wojciech Wójcik. At the turn of 1983 and 1984, a new squad was formed, and through to 1991, it comprised Danuta Błahut-Biegańska, Jacek Biegański, Tomasz Kizny, Anna Łoś, Andrzej Łuc, and Henryk Prykiel. nafdementi.pamieciprzyszlosc.pl
One of the founders of the Dementi agency was Tomasz Kizny, a photographer and reporter who was especially interested in Russia, and who later, in a free Poland, would collaborate with the Gazeta Wyborcza journal and its Duży Format weekly, where he published his photographs, as well as texts.
Throughout the years 1986-97, Kizny worked on an exhibition entitled Obraz systemu (An Image of the System), a project devoted to the fall of the USSR and the beginnings of a new political state. In 1989, he held an individual exhibition, Ocaleni z gułagu (Saved From the Gulag), which was also shown as part of the prestigious L'année de l'Est exhibition at the Musée de l'Elisée in Lausanne one year later. In a documentary and historic fashion, the exhibition depicted the problem of labour camps in distant Siberia.
Martwa droga (The Dead Way) (1991/92) depicted unfinished railway projects built as part of the Soviet empire of evil. Wyrok (The Sentence) (1997) portrayed the inhabitants of Moscow. The series entitled Pasażerowie. Moskwa. Warszawa. Berlin. Paryż (Passengers. Moscow. Warsaw. Berlin. Paris) (2001) conveyed the photographer’s talent in portraiture, as he painted images of the capital cities through the faces of its inhabitants.
Apart from taking the photographs himself, Kizny also often looked into archives and found materials.
Ex Oriente Lux
The initiative by Grzegorz Dąbrowski, a photographer from Białystok, in collaboration with Kuba Dąbrowski, Marek Dolecki, Andrzej Górski, Adam Kardasz, Grzegorz Klatka, Andrzej Kramarz, Rafał Milach, Piotr Niemczynowicz, Paweł Supernak, Piotr Szymon, and Łukasz Wołągiewicz. As part of the project photographers documented life in the cities and villages of three neighbouring countries: Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. People connected with the Institute of Creative Photography in Opawa also took part in the initiative in 2002. The resultant photographs are a classic black and white form of reportage, picturing everyday life in these areas, as well as rural landscapes.
A reporter in the trenches
Krzysztof Miller's most famous photographs were taken in the 1990s. It was then that he travelled across the world, documenting armed conflicts in Chechnya and Afghanistan as a reporter for the Gazeta Wyborcza daily. His photographs often accompany the texts of Wojciech Jagielski, with whom he formed a reportage duo for many years. After a long period of psychologically exhausting work, Miller slowed down and decided to take up studies at Łódź Film School. He founded the Slowphoto collective, and now experiments with wet colloid (a 19th-century photographic technique).
Miller recalled Chechnya in an interview conducted by Hanna Maria Gizia as part of the book entitled Artyści mówią. Wywiady z mistrzami fotografii (Artists Speak. Interviews with Masters of Photography):
"In the morning, the Chechens were supposed to show us what the front line looked like. And I don’t know if it was bad luck, or whether they did this on purpose, but in any case they fired a rocket in the direction of Russian positions. The Russians responded with mortar fire from a distance of two kilometres. We were sitting with Wojtek in pits that were one metre wide and one and a half metres deep, and we felt as if we were in a golf course – either the shell will hit the pit and then men are dead, or it will fly past us and we are saved. For these forty minutes of shooting I was promising myself: Miller, you will never go to such a war again. The worst thing is that the photographs from these trenches were rather bland."
Shamil Basayev and the underground of the Presidential Palace
In January, 1995, the conflict in Chechnya was observed by Mariusz Forecki, a photographer connected with the city of Poznań. He succeeded in winning the trust of Shamil Basayev, later the country’s Prime Minister and a wanted terrorist. In Forecki’s photographs, we see Basayev pose for a portrait with his face in bandages. Apart from the leader, the photograph also depicts Russian prisoners of war, and the basement of the Presidential Palace.
Forecki also documented the elections in Belarus in 2001, an event he remembers in the following way:
"The voting posts served vodka and snacks to the voters. More products appeared in shops. On the last day of the elections, the telephones and internet stopped working. Łukaszenko was elected President once again."
This story has no distinct protagonists, it is rather an image of social confusion. Forecki found very few signs of rebellion, for example a white-red-white flag mounted on a bicycle, which he juxtaposed with a crystal chandelier at the voting committee’s headquarters, and a plastic bag with Lady Diana.
The regime-ridden Belarus also incited the interest of Adam Tuchliński. His coloured, square photographs place emphasis on the differences between the constantly functioning Soviet order and the Western capitalism that is already becoming apparent. There are souvenirs and remnants of the victorious war, a bottle of moonshine, and concrete apartment blocks with cows grazing in front. The photographer juxtaposes these with a McDonalds restaurant, as well as Coca-Cola posters and a series of portraits.
Łukasz Trzciński documented traces left behind by the former communist system across Central and Eastern Europe in the landscape and the economy, and in people’s mentality. He ascribed a photographic series to each country that he portrayed. Throughout his many years of documenting, it turned out that the relative coherence of socialist Europe is disappearing and that this part of Europe is starting to become more and more heterogeneous.
The Take Me series was created in Moldavia, inspired by amateur photographs posted on the Internet on English-language dating portals, which are a means for women to escape to a richer part of the world. While travelling in Estonia, Trzciński portrayed Russian men that have been living there for some three generations without owning an Estonian passport. And in his photographs from Albania, one can see bunkers built during Enver Hoxha’s government.
The first showing of Trzciński’s project took place at the Camelot gallery in Kraków and at the Rynek Główny in Kraków in 2009. The photos were accompanied by texts from Wojciech Nowicki.
Protagonists of the 7 Rooms series by Rafał Milach were born in the USSR but began their adult life in Putin’s Russia. They are ordinary people who live in the suburbs of Russian cities. The photographer’s project is an intimate encounter with these people.
As a result of the few years’ work, dozens of photographs were collected to form an exhibition and a publication. In 2012, the photographs and video projections were shown in venues significant for photography, such as the Dutch Noorderlich Photo Gallery and photographic galleries in Petersburg and Moscow, and contemporary art, such as the Zachęta National Art Gallery in Warsaw and the C/O in Berlin.
In the album, photographs are accompanied by essays from the world-acclaimed Belarusian reporter and writer Svetlana Aleksiyvich, a laureate of the 2011 Ryszard Kapuściński award. The texts derive from her 2010 book Zatcharovannye smiertyu (Enchanted with Death), and in Rafał Milach’s book, they appear in the English for the very first time. The introduction to 7 Rooms was written by Liza Faktor, the founder of the Photographer.ru agency, and for many years a curator of the Interfoto festival in Moscow. The album also contains interviews with people portrayed by Milach.
The 20 dollar bill palace
Biały Dom - Michal Luczak.
The author of the idea and the first owner of a Ukrainian White House in Tcharnomyn was Polish tycoon Mikołaj Czarnomski. The building was designed by an Italian, Francesco Buffo, and its construction was completed by 1820. The palace was filled with life, and hosted many a ball. In 1918, the building was taken over by Bolsheviks and transformed into the 'Worker’s House'. During World War II, it housed a German prison, and later, an orphanage. Today, it is a school.
Michał Łuczak has been recognised for this material in several competitions, the most important of which included the Mio Photo Award and the Magnum Expression Award.
Sputnik Photos includes photographers from Central and Eastern Europe: Andrei Balco, Jan Brykczyński, Manca Yuvan, Andrei Liankevich, Michał Łuczak, Rafał Milach, Adam Pańczuk and Agnieszka Rayss. The members of the group have a particular liking for the theme of the post-Soviet political transformation and they eagerly observe Poland’s directly neighbouring countries.
They started out with a collaborative project, At the Border, as part of which they depicted the stories of people who work at various illegal jobs at the state borders. In an interview for the swiatobrazu.pl portal, Agnieszka Rayss commented:
"Just like Poles who once set off in order to find a source of income, today Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Vietnamese also travel for the same reason, because they have no chance of a dignified life back in their own countries, and Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia are the promised land from their point of view.”
U is a photographic essay on contemporary Ukraine, the story of a country and a nation in search of its own identity. The title of Sputnik’s publication devoted to Belarus is Stand BY. The photographers wanted to find out what was hiding under the cliché expression "the last dictatorship in Europe”. As Victor Martinovich writes in an essay that accompanies the album:
"In Belarus, you encounter examples of a double system at every step – there are two literary societies, and between 1966 and 1999 there were even three parliaments. Life is difficult, but when you come to Minsk, everything is clean and well maintained."
At present, the photographers are occupied with a project under the working title Lost Territories, which is supposed to deal with the former Soviet republics in Asia – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The publication is due to be released in 2016.
Justyna Mielnikiewicz has devoted both her career and her private life to the Caucasus. Before going off to Georgia in 2001, she used to work as a photographer-reporter for the Gazeta Wyborcza journal. She has been working as a freelance artist since her move to Tblisi in 2002.
Her first photographic series portray the southern Caucasus, even though Mielnikiewicz is also interested in societies in Moldavia and Russia. The series in the black and white aesthetics of humanist reportage quickly caught the attention of the press and jury members of international photographic competitions. Her first project, created in 2003, was entitled Kaukaska linia kredowa (The Caucausian Chalk Line) and portrayed an area constantly troubled by dramatic ethnic and political conflicts. Mielnikiewicz received numerous awards for this project, among them the Dorotea Lange / Robert Taylor Prize.
Released in 2014, the Woman With a Monkey - The Caucasus in Short Notes and Photographs book is a summary of her time spent in Georgia and its surrounding areas.
Anna Bedyńska, a laureate of the World Press Photo award, transmits a direct report from contemporary Russia in the form of a blog. Her street photographs depict the Moscow metro, streets covered with snow, and afternoon sunlight. The blog also includes stories of people that have been living in Moscow for years. For example:
"Arkadiva Seaodat arrived in Moscow from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, some 14 years ago. She rode a cargo train for four days. She took two of her five children with her, as well as 10 kilos of garlic. She had enough in her pocket to buy 6 loaves of bread. With three bulbs of garlic sold, she could buy bread or pay for a night in a room with six strangers. For the past 1,760 days she has been working as a concierge without a single day off. She is proud to be responsible for keeping a fourteen-storey building in order, in an apartment block that houses as many people as her entire family village back in Uzbekistan. She lives on 4.5 square metres. She writes poetry, draws, and creates her own pieces for piano."
A silent war
The last voice from across the Eastern border is once again – after a dozen years – speaking about war. 24-year-old Wiktoria Wojciechowska photographed soldiers returning from the front line of the war between Russia and Ukraine.
"I asked myself the question – can photography show something that is seemingly invisible? Were these horrific things reflected in the pupils of the eyes of these people who face death, injustice and aggression?"
From Red Square to a crammed apartment
During the past few decades, photographers have stopped looking for flashy or bold signs of the transformation, such as demonstrations or armed fighting. They rarely attempt to make their message objective, and instead choose to concentrate on more personal stories, told on a different scale but nonetheless tragic.
The system of work is also different. Today, a photographer is no longer a romantic traveller with a camera in his backpack, or an engaged reporter delegated by a newspaper. The market has forced a change in the financing system – a project written out ahead of time has to be realised later. Apart from the exhaustion of the theme of reportage, the shifting of emphasis towards everyday matters is also to an extent the effect of the appearance of women in this industry.
Edited by Michał Dąbrowski, based on: Culture.pl, Wyborcza.pl, smoczehistorie.blogspot.com, sputnikphotos.com Special thanks to Rafał Milach, Michał Łuczak
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 7/09/2015