One of the few Polish photo publications expressing authentic social engagement, devised by a group of activists and members of leftist opposition, instead of the state authorities.
Aleksander Minorski (1906-82) stood out amongst the Polish photographers of the interwar period, who were rather predictable in their pursuit of the beauty of their native land. Minorski – a communist, filmmaker, writer, and most of all a socially engaged photographer – was, among other projects, involved in documenting the everyday life of children in poverty-stricken areas on commission from the Society of Friends of Children and the Capital Committee of Support for Children and Youth. These photographs served as the basis for a small brochure in landscape format, titled Dola i niedola naszych dzieci (Life's Ups and Downs of Our Children), released on the occasion of the National Children's Congress in 1938. Published in a massive print run of sixty thousand copies and sold for 30 groszy a copy (equivalent of less than 2 euro nowadays), it was intended as a mass propaganda publication to reach a much wider audience than just the participants of the Congress. Apart from Minorski, who authored a vast majority of the photographs, it also includes several photographs by Tadeusz Bukowski, Jan Ryś, S. Zawidzki, and R. Wojciechowski. All pictures are clearly credited, thus highlighting the importance of the authors and their input.
Minorski draws on the foremost traditions of engaged leftist photography. The dialectical pairings of images on spreads, illustrating the titular fate and misery of the children, bring to mind photographic cycles realised by the likes of the American photographer Lewis Hine. The photographs published in the booklet are suggestive and visually appealing in their presentation of the lamentable condition of the children of poor families, in contrast to the care, order, and neatness guaranteed by the state only to a small group. The everyday scenes featuring children are photographed effortlessly, most likely with the use of modern, fast film cameras. The approach to the subject matter is akin to the rhetorics of the interwar avant-garde and the propaganda of new architecture, where the petit-bourgeois residential interiors, dark courtyards of tenement houses, and urban slums were opposed to the spectacular, sun-bathed views of modern buildings and smiling children in summer clothes playing among them. This idealisation was an obvious hint at the gravity and necessity of the postulated changes. The images in Dola i niedola… were carefully edited, retouched, and cropped. Curiously enough, we will not find the photomontages which were so common at the time – the autonomy of photography prevails, thus stressing the documentary aspect of the assorted, socially moving material. The propagandistic approach is also apparent in the modern layout and the juxtaposition of the photographs and typography. Crucial in this regard are the short, sometimes drastic slogans complementing the message contained in the photographs: “There are plenty of children's graves appearing annually in each cemetery.” The black and white print was supplemented by a yellow colour applied on one side of the signature – it appears on the covers, as well as on every other spread in the form of background or ground print, colouring selected fragments of photographs and additionally accentuating the typography. The visual and rhetoric effect achieved through simple means, exposed a contribution from the dexterous designer – Wanda Zawidzka-Manteuffel, a member of the pre-war Circle of Advertising Graphic Artists, and a reputable glass and ceramics designer after the war.
When Dola i niedola… first appeared, it caused scandal. Before the Congress even started, its entire print run was confiscated and ordered to be shredded, while Minorski was sent to the Bereza Kartuska prison for citizens posing threat to the state. As Marian Falski reminisced:
It was quite a scandal, even though the Congress was organised under the patronage of the First Lady [Mościcka], the brochure got confiscated. The confiscation was personally ordered by Prime Minister Składkowski. As word had it at the Congress, he had assumed that a photograph of soaked cowherds hiding under a coat, with the caption 'while we're stranded with the cows', was an allusion to the authorities.
It seems that the reasons for confiscation were much more serious. Images of children playing in the gutter did not go well with an official ceremony under the auspices of the presidential couple, let alone fit into the official propaganda vision of the Sanation Poland. Gaps in education, health and social care, as well as everyday pathologies associated with poverty which were pointed out by the authors of the booklet aptly targeted the image of Second Polish Republic as a rapidly modernising country with superpower aspirations.
The preserved copies of Dola i niedola… prove that fortunately not all of them were destroyed. It is worth pointing out the uniqueness of the booklet – it is one of the few Polish photo publications (up until the late 20th century) expressing authentic social engagement, devised by a group of activists and members of leftist opposition, instead of the state authorities. It comes as no surprise, then, that a few years later both Minorski's photographs and the dialectics of the old and new order were snatched up in an almost unchanged form by the post-war communist propaganda, serving the ends of the new authorities and becoming the template for the socialist realist rhetorics.
photographs: Aleksander Minorski, Tadeusz Bukowski, Jan Ryś, R. Wojciechowski, S. Zawidzki
texts and editing: Józef Włodarski, Committee of the Children's Congress
graphic design: Wanda Zawidzka
publisher: National Committee of the Children's Congress, Warsaw
year of publication: 1938
volume: 32 pages
format: 16.5 x 24 cm
print run: 60 000
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com
, transl. Ania Micińska, October 2015