Zuza Krajewska is a product of 1980’s Poland. She’s a part of a generation that transitioned from the limited freedoms imposed by the communist regime into a democratic nation with a European understanding of civil liberties.
“I remember a great deal from the communist period. That particular aesthetic, with its faded colors, wooden paneling, walls half-covered in wallpaper, floral tablecloths, the luxury of malleable aluminum, holidays in Bulgaria and the slow life in general. Set against this nostalgic imagery, I also remember a feeling of powerlessness, anxiety, inferiority, the stamping down of individuality, lack of respect for authority and for truth, an ethos of hustling and the warped mirror that reflected our reality, where nothing was certain and no one was to be trusted. My grandparents lived in this system and so did my parents to some extent. I’d never want to go back to that time. My consider my use of that aesthetic as a form of therapy. I’m glad we’re not afraid to turn back towards it and reveal a certain charm. Unfortunately, what’s also coming back is a fondness for governance with an iron fist and turning a blind eye to violence in politics. I hope for the tide to change soon. I believe in progress, in communication, in that we’ll ultimately become more tolerant and more conscious of our own power.
My mother, when she graduated from medical school, she was allocated an apartment in a small town, pretty far from her school and her family. I remember she also got a discount on a Fiat 125P. I’m the kid of pre-fab concrete tower blocks. The boys from Imago are just like the kids who used to sit on the bench in front of my tower block.”
Imago: Zuza Krajewska’s portraits of young offenders at a custody centre near Warsaw.
Do you believe that your Polish heritage has a significance to the subjects you choose? Does it impact your photographic aesthetic?
My opinion is that our sense of aesthetics are built from a very young age, which we later modify as we learn and experiment with other forms of expression. The aesthetics of the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s are deeply ingrained in me, to the extent that when I’m working on commercial jobs in Poland, I have to keep myself in check, to avoid doing what I enjoy most because for Poles, it only reminds them of a miserable time and they’re hungry for a sense of luxury in the most basic sense of the word. In my own projects, however, I’m keen to return to the roots of my own aesthetic.
Can you tell us about any photos you’ve seen that has made a lasting impact on you?
I remember seeing the photographs of Susan Meiselas as a schoolkid, in the photography magazine 6X9, those of Helmut Newton in the anniversary issue of Playboy, which my dad had brought over from England when he was a student and treasured for years. My visual education actually came from books on painting. From Bosch to Caravaggio. Books from my parents shelves, my grandmother on my mother’s side, who came from Vilnius nobility. My grandmother was a great lover of the arts, liberal, miserable, a housewife locked in domesticity. She was the first to show me homosexual love on RTL satellite TV. She was the one to tell me that Michaelangelo was gay. Later on, my sweet parents let me, a 14-year-old rebel, go to art school out of town, in Gdynia. On my first day of class, my Polish teacher, Professor Maria Morawska greeted us with art books spread open on our desks, among them was an album of photographs by Nan Goldin, with a transsexual couple on the cover. I think that was the strongest aesthetic and artistic impulse of my entire life.
What has been a seminal experience for you as an artist?
My mother’s illness. When it seemed that she was dying, when my father was crying, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. That’s when I started taking pictures, I was 28 years old, I felt like I didn’t want to lose any more time sitting in front of the computer and tinkering with ad layouts. I began taking it really seriously after my daughter Lula was born. That’s when I decided that besides doing something pretty, I’d do something meaningful. For her sake.
How has your style changed over the years?
I’m just starting to figure out what I really enjoy and what I was always ashamed of, here, living in Poland. I’m following my gut and taking new paths.
I never finished any photography school, no one wise or wild led me through the basics, I never assisted because, to put it plainly, there wasn’t anyone like that back then. I’m an autodidact and I made my own wheel. I started simple and then I went back to it. They say that’s how it goes sometimes.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to have the ability to help people make peace with one another, whole nations and continents.
Where would you most like to live?
A place where girls aren’t worse off than boys. This is mostly for the sake of Lula, my daughter.
I’d like to live in different places in the world, to move around without losing the friends I’ve made. Is that even possible?
Is there one of your artwork you are most proud of? Why?
I’m happy with every project that’s been brought to fruition. I really like to wrap projects, so Imago is certainly one of them. It’s complete and there’s even a book. I don’t feel pride looking at the pictures I’ve taken. Rather, I feel joy during the process of taking a photograph and I’m glad that I have the ability to capture something unique. I’m most proud of having my daughter and a partner, of being able to combine my life as an artist with a commercial career so that we can live relatively comfortably.
What’s integral to the work of an artist?
To be honest with yourself. This is easy if you’re crazy enough, but it can be tough if you’re trying to be a reasonable, mature human being.
According to you, what role does the artist (should an artist) have in society?
Art doesn’t have to save the world, it won’t fix the problems ailing our reality. It can reveal, disturb, poke fun, raise up, call attention to things. Which can effect change, but only after the second, third, fourth wave of reception, if it catches on and moves people. An artist, in my opinion, is middle-grade activist, if an activist at all.
What is the quality you most like in a person?
When someone doesn’t give in, break down. Like my mother, father and my partner, how they came out whole after serious issues. I think that making a big deal out of small things is pointless.
From a Women’s Rights/Pro Choice-rally in Warsaw, Poland.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
What do you most value in your friends?
Honesty and positive intentions. Goodness. I don’t care for anything else, it doesn’t matter what someone’s social status is, how much they know, how much we have in common. My friends are all different kinds of people. Most of all, I admire sincerity, even if it hurts. It’s constructive. I’m able to forgive quickly and I like to be forgiven because errors are a human thing and there’s no such thing as a person without faults. I like a certain sense of humor that’s a bit cynical, brutal, biting, that brings you to tears with its wit. That’s probably why I like the French and New Yorkers so much.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to be more disciplined. To eat in moderation, to get enough sleep and finish my work on time. ¶
Marta Dyks and Borys Starosz. Photographer: Zuza Krajewska