Tadeusz Rolke and Chris Niedenthal’s photographs allude to the tragic events in Jedwabne in 1941, as well as the new challenges that society faced following the collapse of Communism.
Famous Polish documentary filmmakers spoke out in the debates on Polish anti-Semitism which surrounded the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’s book Neighbors. Artists remarked on the appearance of 'new others' and how easily fear can result in marginalisation.
These are special works in the artists’ portfolios. Both are known mostly for their reportage photography, and have witnessed major historical events. Rolke took his first photos as a teenager during the Second World War and its aftermath; Niedenthal photographed the socio-political transformations of the 1980s. Together, they resolved to make a stand against hate and nationalistic tendencies.
The photographs at the exhibition were accompanied by this text:
The girl is from a neighbour’s family. They do not have C+M+B chalked on their doors, but nobody minds that they are different. This difference is tolerated until times of hatred incite acts of evil. We all know how it ends – in July 1941.
The heroine of the photographs is Maja, whose parents came from Vietnam to settle in Poland. Niedenthal and Rolke decided to photograph her in small towns that used to be inhabited by Jews before the war. She wears patterned dresses and white collars which, together with the buildings in the background, somehow take us back in time and evoke pre-war scenes: Maja walking around town, hanging out washing, skipping with a rope, lying on a beach. In short, just like any other child.
Maja was Rolke’s neighbour. At the exhibition opening in Kielce, the photographer recalled how he began work on the project:
I was fortunate that the girl and her parents agreed. Her mother didn’t speak any Polish. I explained my idea to the mother, with Maja translating from Polish to Vietnamese.
The very title, landscapes in the background, and the authors’ comment that accompanies the photographs all suggest one interpretation, but this work is also universally significant in terms of fundamental respect for others. These photographs were first exhibited at Warsaw’s Zachęta Gallery in 2001, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MB, Nov 2018
This text is part of the project Metaphors of Independence: Poland In 100 Photos.
To coincide with the centenary of Poland regaining its independence, we have created a selection of photographs that allow us to understand both yesterday and today. A hundred photographs but so much more. Find out more.