Natalia’s project Niewybuch gives an insight into the world of youth military camps in Poland, through unsettling images it portrays the tension of children’s performance of war and the ambivalence of this training. We interviewed Natalia about her practice, and discussed the influence of art and cinematic inspiration in her work, her early curiosity for secret and hidden meanings and use of photography as a tool to transform childhood memories.
I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about how you started. What initially interested you in photography?
I grew up in Poland and have been taking pictures ever since I can remember. My friends and I experimented and photographed each other. But there is another experience that brought me to photography and art. In elementary and high school, I participated in a contest – knowledge about art. Every year I sat in a dark room and looked at slides of art of all kinds – paintings, architecture, sculptures. Based on the photo, I had to describe the art direction, author, collocation and sometimes the interpretation of the work. The hours spent in the room and the projection of the images had a very strong impression on my mind. It was a photographic experience, as I only saw the images of the art and never saw these works in real life.
I also did a lot of theatre and loved Eastern European cinema – Tarkowsky, Kieslowski, Polanski, Wajda – these directors and their images had a strong impact on me.
As a teenager I wanted to study theatre, but I didn’t succeed in getting accepted at a drama school. I decided to go to Germany to study. There, I first studied Film-Television-Theater Studies in Cologne and then Art History, Slavic Literature as a Bachelor and Cultural Studies of Eastern Europe as a Master. I have always found the theoretical part very exciting, but I missed the practical part, the art, the craft. During that time, I photographed my ex-husband more and more, who is a jazz trumpet player at concerts. As well as the environment around us, and my daughter. I loved to observe and capture moments.
But it was always too little for me, I wanted to dive into different worlds that I don’t understand, where I wouldn’t usually have access, and explore them. For example, the place where I come from, there’s a juvenile prison. My father, as a paediatrician, examined the children there. When there was no-one to care for me, he would sometimes take me with him and I would wait for him in the kitchen of the jail. I could remember the place very well, the cooks etc, and wanted to return to take pictures. I did that, but I couldn’t manage on my own. Then I looked for a school where you can learn this and came across the Ostkreuzschule. There I learned the craft, especially analog photography from the basics up.
How would you describe your photographic practice in a few words?
The craft and analog photography was always important to me. When I take pictures, I don’t want to see the pictures I take, I don’t want to be distracted. With analog you work slowly, you have to adjust time and focus, it’s a different kind of concentration. If I can’t stop thinking about a photo after I’ve taken it and keep imagining it in my head, then that’s usually the picture.
You wrote that photography is a way to transform your own childhood memories. I wonder if you could share more about what this means for you and perhaps about the role that childhood plays in your work or in the way you photograph.
I grew up in Poland, in a small town in Lower Silesia. I was a very adventurous child, loved to be out in the woods, etc. We looked for treasures, made up stories and told them. This freedom and search for something special, hidden and secret has shaped me very much. I think that’s what I’m still looking for in my photos. I explore unknown subjects that interest me, that hold a connection to my past. They act as other strange worlds to dive into. For me, creating a series is not just taking pictures. I deal with the subject, read about it, research, and look for cultural studies texts that deal with the topic.
Your project Niewybuch gives an insight into the world of youth military camps in Poland. How did you become interested in telling this story?
I was photographing for another series, Goldberg, where I was dealing with rootlessness. I came across a monastery and around the corner there was a boarding school for the military high school. The director told me how great and popular the school is and how much children like to go there. When I saw kids in military uniforms by the lake I felt curious about the directors role and what kind of occupation it was to lead this activity. I grew up in Poland in the 90s, in the years after the fall of the wall, you had the impression that everything was possible, nobody wanted to deal with war or anything like that. I found it interesting to discover something like this in Poland. I began researching and found how many military schools and camps had been created. I wanted to have a look, so contacted a camp on the coast. I also felt the need to photograph again in a close place after my series Goldberg, which I photographed for a long time, for which I traveled a lot and “searched” for motifs. The camp was a perfect challenge for me.
The project seems to document the tension of “serious play”, where weapons and toys suggest the ambiguity in performing war, resulting in unsettling images. What were the challenges, if any, when creating this work?
The difficult part was to convince people and get there. Once I got there, I was “in” pretty quickly and was able to take my pictures. I knew from the first minute that what was happening was super important and I had to capture it. For me, this is also a work about adult misbehaviour. It’s clear that the children like to play war, but when adults take care of it, there is something wrong.
Your projects are solely documentary while also holding a sense of mystery through the performative nature of the subjects. What is your idea of documentary photography especially in relation to photographing your subjects?
Yes, maybe the language is documentary, but they are not really documentary projects. There are documentary aspects in it, but I see it much broader. First, it’s always a personal aspect that brings me to the subjects, secondly, I choose very subjectively the subjects or what I want to show. I often like to convey a certain feeling. The compositions probably come from art. I have so many images stored in my head that certainly something like composition for example arises automatically and subconsciously in relation to art I’ve observed. I think I would compare my photography more to a film, at least in terms of inspiration. I love the melancholic atmosphere of Kieslowski or Tarkowsky. And film also has a documentary language, tells stories, conveys emotions. I think that’s also my goal, to tell a story beyond the photo and raise questions, draw attention to something. When you see a photo, you should stop, maybe ask yourself – what is happening outside the frame, what was before and after. Roland Barthes’ “punctum” comes into play here.
For example, it was very important for me to make contact with the children while photographing them. I wanted to tear them out of the game, briefly make them look at me, so that the viewer can later establish a contact with the child. Briefly look into their soul.
Projects such as Goldberg and Pola seem to be related to your origins and personal story. In your experience, how can photography help with one’s own development and exploration of identity?
I think all my series have to do with my personal history in some way. Of course it is more visible when I photograph my daughter or my birthplace, but Niewybuch is also a very personal project. It reminded me very much of my time in Poland, of me as a child, even though many things were quite different for me. And even if the subjects have something personal, I often look for places, people or events that I don’t know or understand. Where I would otherwise never have access to. This helps me to get to know myself better. To deal with myself and my world view. It sounds very contradictory, but this contradiction is also in me. And it is exactly this tension between familiar and unknown that I try to capture. Always with a different focus. Photography is for me also a kind of therapy. To get to know myself better.
Could you tell us about your photographic influences or generally what attracts you to an image?
I think I already mentioned that, it’s mainly Eastern European cinema of the 70s, 80s, 90s and art. I have a hard time choosing a favourite painter, because I find exciting things in every era. I love Renaissance as much as Baroque or Romanticism. It is individual paintings that I love. For example, Velasquez, Rembrandt or Vermeer, but also Edward Hopper, Gerhard Richter. I also love contemporary art – at the moment I’m interested in Miroslav Balka from Poland and Candice Breitz.
Photographically I very much like Alec Soth, Jitka Hanzlova, but also Robert Capa or Josef Koudelka. The other day I was very impressed by Zanele Muholi and her exhibition at Gropius Bau in Berlin. I go at least once a week to see an art exhibition, new or old art. I let it work in me and there is always something left over.
Where do you find inspiration when creating new work?
The themes just come. I travel, observe, read, think and sometimes I get the feeling “I want to investigate more”, then I read further, go there and then something new arises. It is always a process. From a small thought a work develops at some point. Sometimes I create something completely different from what I originally planned.
Could you share with us what you are working on at the moment?
After the series Niewybuch, the military theme in Poland would not let me go. I just noticed how omnipresent it is, how strong the idealisation and romanticisation of war is in Poland. I started visiting the groups that organise reenactment events in Poland. Especially those who reenact battles of the war. At the same time, I started visiting and photographing people who play imaginary wars. The so-called LARP games, about post-apocalyptic worlds and wars. Here I am very much concerned with how to create new realities. That’s why I’ve also gone further in my technique. I photograph everything in black and white analog and then I have the photos recoloured, just like you recolour old war photos – so that I also create my own, new reality.
In this issue we feature photography and writing that explores Play through playful processes of photography, play therapy, nightlife, performance and identity, collaboration, virtual realities, and war play.
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