Coming from different worlds. An Interview with Zuza Krajewska

by Maya Hristova

In Latin imago means the final stage of adult development of an insect. In psychoanalysis it also refers to the unconsciously idealized mental image of someone, especially a parent. In her 'IMAGO' series, Polish photographer Zuza Krajewska reveals the hidden world behind the walls of a youth detention center in the small town of Studzieniec near Warsaw. The following interview is an excerpt of a longer conversation with the artist, which will appear in its entirety in Vol. 1 of the EEP Magazine.

'I grew up in a small town with kids just like them, I’d sit on the bench outside my block and even though we came from different worlds, those worlds blended into each other.' Zuza Krajewska is probably one of the best known contemporary photographers to emerge from Poland and it's our honor to feature her work on our platform. 'IMAGO' is currently on view at the Cokkie Snoei gallery in Rotterdam.

Dominik, cleaning after dinner

You got your first camera when you were 15. What were those first images like?

Yes, my first camera was a Zenit, which I got from my dad for my 15th birthday. Basically, I went to the seaside with a few of my friends, we ran into the water and that’s how these pictures came about. These were portraits of my friends Agata and Endo. Girly, free photos of her in nothing but stockings, no underwear, in a sort of retro mood that was due to the fact that the film we got from school was way past its expiration date, so you got a sort of turn-of-the-century effect out of them.

Adrian and Andrzej, cleaning the garden

How did your career as a fashion photographer start out? Did you get this world right away and when did you discover your talent for staged photography?

You know, it wasn’t that difficult in Poland at that point in time. For one, there were no photography schools or anyone who was an expert in fashion. Secondly, the market was just developing. I learned to take pictures by looking at Dazed, The Face, I-D and I think my type of thinking strayed from the Western European standard. That’s probably why I started earning a living right off the bat and doing commercial projects. In some way, I regret that I never studied in London, it’s what I’d always dreamed of, I just didn’t know how to go about it.

Krzys, a break in the workshop

How much do you photograph your personal life? You’ve recently become a mum, do you document your child’s life? What do you think of the work of Sally Mann for example? 

I definitely have to take more pictures at home. I love Sally Mann, her show was probably one of the few that touched me to the core, made me shed tears, looking at the three pissing graces at the top of a mountain. Incredibly touching. I promise myself I’m going to take more pictures at home. I have to preserve at least a moment for myself. Children grow up so scandalously fast. I don’t agree with those that say that photographing children exploits them. I believe, in fact, that we owe it to them. I don’t agree that family nudity is inappropriate or vulgar. We’re living beings and we have bodies. What’s the point of looking for anything unhealthy in it? It’s an affirmation of life.

Gruby, portrait with a knife

What is your first childhood memory? Your mum is a doctor, a profession much more grounded than that of the photographer, has her choice of profession influenced your work in any way?

The first memory I have is of light, the flickering light of the sun between the leaves of trees in my grandmother’s garden. Like in a Mikhalkov film. My grandmother was my second mother, I owe her a lot, she was very open, tolerant, wise and unhappy. If you’re asking about my mother, the nights I spent with her on call at the hospital influenced how I think about life. I was charged with images of human suffering and the strength that doctors have, saving lives. This definitely had an effect on how I treat life and work. Maybe even how I take pictures. It’s hard for me to judge that at this point.


A break in the gym

Let's talk about ‘IMAGO’. The project is centered around a group of boys who are in something like a child detention center called borstal. The borstal is a 145 year old institution at Studzieniec, about 50 kilometers away from Warsaw. Can you tell us something more about this place?

For most of them, the conditions they have in Studzieniec are better than what they have at home, better than where they’d ended up before, populous and primitive inner cities where you have drugs, dealers and thieves all around, and even jobs for young people like them. Think of alcohol itself, in a house where you live with your mother, her boyfriend and anywhere from four to seven siblings. Here, they have their own beds, their own space, food and schooling. Sure, they’re cut off from the world of teenagers, there’s no entertainment, Internet, girls, parties, all the things they understand as freedom, and so on. So for a kid like this, it sounds horrible, like being locked up. But believe me, this impacts their development on an incredible scale, I think. They have to recalibrate their belief system from scratch and 50% of these boys undergo a positive change. They fight for their own selves, they do their best to get themselves out of a social sinkhole and organize their lives in some way.

Studzieniec, however, is a unique place with a unique staff and opportunities – horses, carpentry workshops, a pool nearby, the woods, playing fields. I hope it lasts and functions as long as possible.

There were days in Studzieniec when I’d sit with them for entire days looking at the horses, watching them ride around the corral. The cutting off from the Internet in my phone got my thoughts running on a completely different tempo. It was a calming and healing experience.

Adrian, haircut

Somewhere you say you could see your own mistakes and fears in the young boys. 

I grew up in a small town with kids just like them, I’d sit on the bench outside my block and even though we came from different worlds, those worlds blended into each other. I saw how the lack of opportunity can make some people into monsters, the living dead – or, simply, just dead. I think that what they go through when facing up to the world without any resources – no education, parental support – that world becomes oppressive, a world where you have to have money for everything, a world that uses you up and spits you out – if you let it.

In an interview for a Polish magazine you say that you’re surprised by the international interest for this project. Why were you surprised and how do you think that ‘IMAGO’ is specifically Polish?

I don’t think that way anymore. In London, when someone asked me where in the UK those photos were taken, I realized that kids without wise, mature parents are everywhere and they all have similar issues.

Mateusz & Fabian, after mass

You said that one of the things that the work on the ‘IMAGO’ series taught you was that such things can be done at all. How is your latest project ’Graceful’ a continuation of your work on the ‘IMAGO’ series?

‘Graceful’ is a completely different story, but it does share that element of exclusion, the subject of something that some people aren’t comfortable with, and because of this it touches upon the concept of shame in the context of looking at human fallibility. There’s a characteristic sense of self-consciousness when we look at things that are outside of our idealized world of perfection as it has been formulated by the media, where there’s little room for people’s true stories, their bodies, emotions, where showing your true self is often considered a sign of weakness. I like to make the viewer feeling a bit uncomfortable and observing their reaction.

Zuza, thank you so much for this interview!

An assembly

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