The Boiko – less widely known than their their Carpathian neighbours, the Lemkos and the Hutsuls – weren’t as severely traumatized by post-war resettlements as the latter (although some Boiko who lived in Poland before the Second World War were forced to move to Ukraine). That is exactly why the Boiko who still live in the Eastern Carpathians are currently one of the most archaic societies in Europe. Jan Brykczyński, who spent three years photographing their modest life in a village located 10 kilometres across the Polish border, found a frozen past and, at the same time, his own image of the ideal countryside.
The Last Mohicans
The text accompanying Brykczyński’s photographs was written by the Ukrainian author Taras Prokhasko, who confesses that he is half Boiko himself. In his words, the Boiko are the most peculiar Carpathian tribe. He also emphasizes the historically confirmed inability of the Boiko to speak about themselves (they even call themselves by names borrowed from the neighbouring tribes). They are both distinct and ephemeral. Prokhasko describes their faces as far away – but it is them who are the most indigenous people in the part of Europe that has undergone massive social changes in the past century.
They refer to themselves as Verkhovynians, Rusyns, or Galicians. The latter name hints at their attachment to Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (whose grounds they inhabited for a long time) – and, thus, to Western Europe. In the previous century, their statehood changed six times, even though they stayed on the same spot.
The Boiko’s origins are also unclear – researchers most often claim that the social groups living in this part of the Carpathians were predominantly shaped by the northward migration of Vlachs, who became integrated with Ruthenian communities. The Boiko are still, however, one of the least investigated ethnic groups. In his text, Prokhasko emphasizes that they are much closer to times past than to current fashions.
They have so many objects and gestures that have disappeared everywhere else, and they have so little of everything that is already everywhere. – Prokhasko writes.
Separated from the world and the present, the Boiko have largely managed to preserve their original culture in an intact state.
The village of Karpackie, in which Brykczyński shot his photographs, is located in Ukraine, only 10 km from the Polish border, which is also the frontier of the European Union. Culturally, however, it is at least 100 years away.
I was looking for a village that was as original and unchanged as possible. I had this archetypical image of countryside at the back of my mind – slightly idyllic, like a fairy tale.
It would be difficult to find such an authentic and preserved (by poverty, mainly) village in Poland 25 years after the democratic transformation and 10 years after entering the European Union. When comparing his work with Adam Pańczuk’s (a fellow member of the Sputnik Photos collective) series and photo book Karczeby about the northeastern Polish countryside, he reads Pańczuk’s images as more creative, as if they were staging what used to be:
One of the series’ protagonists wrote a text for the album, in which he describes the long-gone rituals, etc. I found all of that on the spot. – the photographer explains.
The photographer emphasizes an unobvious and locally significant value of his project – The cycle reveals what we had lost after the Lemko culture was erased from Poland, and its cultivators transferred to the most remote regions of the country.
Like in the Middle Ages
What also testifies to the Boiko’s attachment to their ancestors’ traditions ('They still occupy a world of magic in which events are not explained in terms of cause and effect, but of magic spells and curses' – Brykczyński says) is their attitude to photography. One of the portraits included in the book shows Halina Grzybek in her house, which Brykczyński also inhabited for some time:
This portrait is just as she wanted it to be. She dressed up especially for it – she put on an elegant blouse, sat in a spot of her choice. She posed with great dignity. In general, they have a huge respect for photography, since they have hardly any cameras around. When posing for a photograph, they sit up straight, with pride – that is what is natural for them. Photography is still a special event for them.
Boiko, as we can see in the pictures, have a very close relationship twith life and death. Instead of going to a hospital, they deliver babies at home. The dead are buried in graves dug by their own people. Brykczyński points to the archaic quality of one of his photographs from a funeral:
If this was a painting from the Middle Ages, the sleigh would be similar, the horse would be similar, the outfits would probably be different, but the flags and the cross would be the same – and the same would go for the people’s faces.
Some photographs may indeed be associated with the Middle Ages, or – especially those from the first (winter) part of the album – with scenes painted by Pieter Breughel.
A Boiko Fairy Tale
Such was the photographer’s intention. Brykczyński doesn’t hide the fact that he wanted to formulate a kind of fairy tale image of some Central-European village. That was the reason for the decision to erase any additional descriptions, such as 'who, where, when'. In this album, Boiko are abstract and mysterious.
To me, Karpackie is a metaphor for any Central-European settlement. The precise location is not important. I wanted to present this place as it used to be and as it appears in my imagination – that is, of a person brought up in a city.
At the same time, Brykczyński is aware that living in the countryside is far from idyllic – I didn’t want to create material about the decaying state of the countryside. I’ve seen too much of this. I wanted to show a fairy tale – the photographer explains, who dedicated the album to his recently born daughter. Thanks to that, Boiko introduces a dream-like world – a surreal, archetypical vision of the countryside, which is bound to vanish from our lives at some point.
This process of disappearing – which is increasingly speeding up – makes a lot of Brykczyński’s recent projects gain a documental, or perhaps even epitaph-like, character. Soon after he finished the series What does Masha do in Poland? (at Warsaw’s 10th-Anniversary Stadium) and Mission Completed (in Vistula’s ports), these places would cease to exist.
Two and half years ago I was working with Sputnik Photos on a group project about the Vistula river in Warsaw. My part of the project focused on photographing what remained of the river transport system. Most of it is gone now: the people, the shipwrecks; instead, the developers take reign.
The world is changing in front of our eyes. If you see something and you want to take a picture of it, you have to do it straight away, because, if you return one hour later, it will be gone.
Wind from the East
Brykczyński, as a member of the Sputnik Photos collective, has been documenting Eastern countries for many years now. He created projects in Belarus (Primeval Forest), in Ukraine, in Armenia:
The East is appealing to me due to the chaos that prevails there. Over here, life is more and more ordered – just like in Germany or Switzerland, where everything has a role and function assigned. Over there, one still has a lot of room for creativity. East is a mystery to me, not everything can be planned, it is an adventure. Maybe it’s the masculine element in me calls for this sort of things.
He highlights that during his stays in Karpackie he was mostly fascinated by its people’s attachment to nature. When speaking of Karpackie, he also means the entire region east of the Schengen border:
That life is detached from the contemporary reality. They are entirely self-sufficient – they eat what they grow. At the end of the day, that’s what the entire East is like. People over there are capable of making everything by themselves, with their own hands: mending cars, building houses, skinning pigs. Here in the city, we are dummies – Brykczyński concludes.
The Boiko photo book was created thanks to support from Sputnik Photos and the National Centre for Culture’s programme Young Poland.
Jan Brykczyński, Boiko
85 pages, 37 colour photographs
hardcover, 230 x 210mm
Photos: Jan Brykczyński
Text: Taras Prokhasko
Translation: Uilleam Blacker (English), Hanna Kamińska (Polish)
Graphic Design: Ania Nałęcka / Tapir Book Design
Launch date: June 2014
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, transl. AM June 2014