Know thy neighbour

"O domu” - Tatsiana Karpachova, wystawa „Tam gdzie teraz”, 2020 fot. Wojciech Pacewicz

In 1978, Zofia Rydet, an already well-known Polish photographer by that time, set off to Rabka, a small town in Podhale region, where she took the first photographs from what would later become her most famous project titled “Sociological Record” (“Zapis socjologiczny” in Polish). Over the next 12 years, she had travelled around Poland—and also abroad—taking some twenty thousand mostly black-and-white portraits of Poles inside their homes [Dziewit Pisarek 2020, p. 10]. Nowadays, “Sociological Record” is rarely mentioned by critics as something less than the most important documentary photography project in post-War Poland [Nowicki 2016, p. 7].

In early 2020, Tatsiana Karpachova, a young artist from Minsk, came to Warsaw to work on a project aiming to find an answer to what it means to be at home for Belarussians living in Poland. The artist’s initial plan was to travel around the country with a camera and take photos but very soon the spread of the COVID-19 and the following lockdown had rendered those plans useless. At that point, Adam Pa?czuk, a Polish photographer mentoring Tatsiana on this project, suggested taking photographs online—and that was the turning point of the work. For the next several months, Tatsiana would search for sitters through announcements on social media, interview them over Skype, and—during the following Skype sessions—take their portraits in the interior of their homes. The project—with a working title “About home”—is still in progress but some of the images were already on display this July in Lublin as a part of the “Somewhere Now” exhibition at Labirynt gallery.

Left: Zofia Rydet, from “Sociological Record” series, 1980 (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL).

Right: Tatsiana Karpachova, from “About home” series, 2020 (Courtesy of the author).

 

The scale (and so far the impact) of both projects is beyond any comparison, of course, however, they have a few things in common, which I find peculiar and significant enough to try to put into text and to talk about related photographic practices in general.

I like to look at Karpachova’s photos as a promise of work that Rydet would hypothetically do herself now, were she still alive. An update to the “Sociological Record”, necessary to keep it truly sociological, just like national censuses require an update every ten years or so to preserve the relevance of their data. And for the “Sociological Record” the work on which had ended exactly 30 years ago this update was overdue. The very structure of the Polish population over these thirty years had changed immensely—and the influx of migrants from the neighbouring countries in the East is one of the primary (and ever ongoing) changes just asking for an adequate photographic response.

Left: Zofia Rydet, from “Sociological Record” series, 1978–1990 (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL).

Right: Tatsiana Karpachova, from “About home” series, 2020 (Courtesy of the author).

 

Obtaining the exact number of newcomers seems to be a particularly difficult task—the only precise data available includes only those who have a valid residence permit and according to it in 2019 the largest group of foreigners in Poland were Ukrainians (almost 215 thousand people), Belorussians at 25.6 thousand were the second. However, other—and probably more precise—techniques that include people with other types of entry documents (and also people without any entry documents at all) estimated in the same year the number of Ukrainians to 1.25 million. I could not find any similar estimates of the number of Belorussians but I guess it would be safe to assume that it is also greater than the official 25.6 thousand.

And all of them have a home in Poland, however temporary it might be, and also an idea of home, however temporary too. Moreover, in their case, it is a unique transitory construct that embraces both the idea of a home that these people bring with them from their homeland and the Polish real estate that was specifically intended to be rented, by design temporary and belonging to no one. And it was only a matter of time that someone set off to document it. An endeavor similar to that of Rydet and yet with challenges of its own. First of all, because of the power relations that such work would inevitably unveil.

Left: Zofia Rydet, from “Sociological Record” series, 1984 (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL).

Right: Tatsiana Karpachova, from “About home” series, 2020 (Courtesy of the author).

 

When Rydet was travelling around Poland and taking photographs of locals, she was still more or less on the same hierarchical level with her sitters. Yes, some could see her as a stranger coming from a big city in addition to the power that camera gave her over the photographic subjects, but she was still their compatriot having the same legal status and rights and speaking the same language. If a Polish photographer would undertake a similar project with immigrants (specifically from the territories often perceived by the Poles as slightly inferior) it would be by definition virtually impossible for them to step down to the symbolic hierarchical level of their sitters simply because of the privileges alone that come with the Polish passport.

And here the fact that a Belarussian artist is focusing specifically on documenting the idea of the home of Belarussians allows seeing her relationship with the sitters as a largely horizontal power structure. Of course, the level of social and financial protection of an artist supported by a governmental scholarship would differ from one of her sitters and yet their position in Poland has more similarities than differences.

Left: Zofia Rydet, from “Sociological Record” series, 1982 (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL).

Right: Tatsiana Karpachova, from “About home” series, 2020 (Courtesy of the author).

 

And, speaking of power relations between the photographer and its subject, it is a good time to talk about the profound change that is brought into these relations by the introduction of video chat applications as an additional link into the process of taking pictures. Their presence alone gives the subject more control over the frame and its contents, making them an active co-author rather than a passive object. Unlike the traditional photographic session, video calls allow the sitters to see themselves during the whole shooting process with the laptop screen acting as a mirror and—at the same time—take away a portion of the photographer’s control over the frame. Technically, sitters are solely responsible for the positioning of webcams on their end, and any photographer’s interference into this decision requires engaging in negotiations with the sitters. It is no more the author’s dictatorship of direct photography, it is closer to a partnership based on equality—at least until the photographs are published and signed with the photographer’s name but not with the name of their model. As if the sitters’ agency was being protected by the screen and in the case of a vulnerable group—such as migrants—it seems to bear particular importance.

How do they perceive this vulnerability themselves and do they really need this protecting screen? We can refer here to the interviews that Karpachova was doing with her subjects before photographing them. In these interviews, they repeatedly mention that moving to Poland made them more vulnerable, insecure, “more naked” [interview 2020]. And when the sitters perform for the camera—at their own will and at the artist’s request—they perform the rituals of their (in)security in the first place. This performance might seem like a major difference from Rydet’s photographs, where people usually just sit straight in front of the camera but I’d dare to say that they are also performing (and that the pose was suggested or even dictated to them by Rydet), only the central topic of this performance is something else (could it be obedience?) This acting stems partly out of the author’s request to take a certain pose for the photograph but also as an intrinsic part of being photographed as such.

Left: Zofia Rydet, from “Sociological Record” series, 1987 (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL).

Right: Tatsiana Karpachova, from “About home” series, 2020 (Courtesy of the author).

 

And the question that still remains unanswered for me—we see the sitters’ performance during the photoshoot but what is the author performing and why cannot we see her. After all, that’s what video chats are all about—all the participants seeing each other during the conversation and even the interface of the video chat apps by default shows both screens simultaneously. A situation where the photographer’s unavoidable voyeurism and the model’s exhibitionism finally come in balance—just the new model “for thinking about voyeurism and exhibitionism” that Sturken and Cartwright were envisioning in their “Practices of looking” [Sturken Cartwright 2009, p. 136].

During the session, the photographer sees the sitter and herself (at least until she hides this screen for the shoot), the sitters see themselves and the photographer, and in this game of looks, the bearer of the look and the object of the gaze continuously change places, most of the time being both simultaneously. And after the session, when we look at the final image this visual lack of the author in it feels like a rupture in the carefully constructed complex, partially cybernetic web of gazes and mirrored reflections. A rupture through which the author had escaped leaving us with her non-presence. And interestingly, hereby she unknowingly repeats Rydet’s way of thinking about herself—the author—as of a person who “should remain in shadows” [Nowicki 2016, p. 11].

Left: Zofia Rydet, from “Sociological Record” series, 1984 (Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL).

Right: Tatsiana Karpachova, from “About home” series, 2020 (Courtesy of the author).

Altogether, the decision to make an additional accent on this performative action and the exclusion of her own screen from the photograph at least in some part seem to be a product of a classical art education and a more established view upon constructing a cleaner, more aestheticised picture and reflect the subconscious struggle of traditional art techniques and practices against the new media and new technologies.

Still, it is a project done in new media and with new technologies and that has its consequences and also perspectives. Even if Tatsiana Karpachova’s project’s scope never approaches the size of Rydet’s archive, it is not that much important. In her work, Tatsiana doesn’t only show us the houses of members of a certain community, she also gives us the tools that can be used by anyone to continue this work on knowing and understanding our neighbours. Unlike Rydet’s gigantic effort, this DIY kit doesn’t require spending years, overcoming distances, spending money on photographic materials, and mastering the equipment. All one needs now is an internet connection, a device with any video messenger installed, and—the most important—desire and curiosity to learn more about one’s neighbours (who—as can be seen from the active response to Tatsiana’s announcements—are actually quite open to contact).

And if this work goes on—whatever shape it might take,—it will allow preserving the status of the work started by Rydet as a truly “generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain” [Sekula 1986, p. 10].

 

Sources:

Wojciech Nowicki, Zapis in Zofia Rydet, Zapis Socjologiczny 1978-1990, Gliwice 2016

Jakub Dziewit, Adam Pisarek, Ocala?. Zofia Rydet a fotografia wernakularna, ??d? 2020

Marita Sturken, Lisa Cartwright, Practices of looking. An introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford 2009

Alan Sekula, The Body and the Archive in October, Vol. 39, 1986

interview with Tatsiana Karpachova, 17-06-2020

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