author: Linda Zhengová
Marta Zgierska, Post, 2013-16, All images courtesy of the artist
Currently, we are living in a state of limbo that was caused by the outbreak of a global pandemic. It can be said that this whole situation is one big trauma affecting each one of us in various intensities. Taking into account the circumstances of the now, EEP invited Marta Zgierska, a well-acclaimed Polish photographer to talk about the potentials of the medium of photography in visualizing traumatic experiences. She is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts at Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. Besides photography, she additionally has a background in Polish philology and social communication.
This interview is focused on her project ‘Post’ (2013-2016) which consists of a series of images, an exhibition installation and a photobook. ‘Post’ reflects on her experience of surviving a serious car accident in 2013 which resulted in months filled with surgeries, physiotherapy and depression. Zgierska adopts an autobiographical approach and shares a deeply intimate and vulnerable period of her life. However, through her clinical aesthetics, she also provides her viewers with a window to their inner selves.
When was the point when you decided to confront your trauma and start working on ‘Post’?
My experience of depression and anxiety disorders became the starting points of ‘Post’. I found myself in such a moment and in such a state that if I had not turned my work towards my own very private experience, I simply would not be honest with myself, I would not have made the necessary effort. Therefore, I have decided to reflect on what was filling my days, that is, an intrusive, pulsating fear that was distorting my daily life enormously.
In my opinion, artists should always be honest with themselves and reach for the material that is most important at a given moment, the one that we reach naturally.
Not because it is trendy, strong or easy to sell, but because it hurts and disturbs us, stimulates us, reevaluates us. We should deal with the pebble in our shoe, if we do not take it out, work through it, it will be difficult to go further.
A moment after I started working on the series, I had a serious car accident - it was a peculiar fulfilment of my fears. This experience has drastically affected my life and its effects have become part of my new reality. The accident naturally shaped the development of ‘Post’.
I would say that your photographs are preoccupied with silence and cleanliness as they incorporate boldly clinical aesthetics. Why did you opt for such a visual strategy?
The association with "clinical aesthetics" is a side effect. I, on the other hand, intentionally use greyness, object abstraction, stillness. I needed a form that would best match the tension I found in myself. The aesthetics often used in post-traumatic photography - hard, brutal imaging, dazzling flashes of lamps, strong contrasts, dynamics - was completely incompatible with my condition.
I needed silence, accuracy, precision in order to condense the emotions I wanted to include in the picture. In the formal layer, I tried to grasp my qualities, which are difficult to eradicate, and which contribute to the emerging tensions, such as perfectionism, visible in the compulsive pursuit of a pure, perfect image.
The visual layer is well summed up by the title of the ‘Post’ series - In Polish, this word means "fasting time". It would not so much be about the coming purification, but more about remaining in this "less is more", in asceticism, in silence, in observing oneself.
In an interview with Anne Rosenberg (Daylight), you mention non-experience as the basis of your research. You specifically elaborate on it as an extreme form of heaviness that a person’s body and mind are not able to handle, resulting in the form of a mental block that later re-emerges through "nightmares, anxieties or obsessions." How then would you say non-experience is manifested in ‘Post’?
In a traumatic experience, there is a redefinition of the experience structure. In my research, I have referred to Cathy Caruth, who indicates that the traumatic possibility does not come from outside the experience, but is written into it as a paradoxical impossibility.
The impossibility of working through a traumatic event makes its presence permanent.
The uncontrolled returns to the past situation, bearing the characteristics of obsessive intrusive thoughts. They spread into the present, fill with fear over the future, and push us into a certain timelessness. They manifest themselves in recurring dreams, fears, flashbacks and physiological reactions; and these manifestations constitute ‘Post’.
Trauma can be understood as an immense bodily experience, leaving both physical and mental marks on our bodies. There are two pictures in your series that I found particularly relevant in relation to visualizing both mental and physical pain. One is a photograph of a wounded palm and the other of a girl wearing an oversized coat gazing outside of the frame. Could you please elaborate on these two images?
I think that each of the images in ‘Post’ is best developed by its viewers.
The degree of impact will vary depending on the points of our convergence. Personally, I associate other images with physical pain.
In response to your request, I might say a little bit about the first photo. I make a cut in front of the camera on the inside of my hand. I photograph the effect. On the one hand, it is an easy-to-read breach of one's own skin barrier, a coating protecting the integrity of the human body, including references to the meaning of fingerprints. On the other hand, my motivation for breaking the barrier goes further. I was working on this photograph just after I had been through months of fears of getting infected by contact with blood and of the simultaneous uncontrolled clawing at my body. Each of the works in ‘Post’ has such personal lining, which is not directly visible, but which builds the work and, in my opinion, activates it, allows it to influence.
Trauma is often referred to as an improperly experienced stimulus which can be said to correspond with the resulting visual ambiguity in trauma-related art. When I conducted my academic research on trauma imagery, I found out that ambiguity constitutes an important aspect of it. The definition of the term stands as "the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness." Do you feel the concept is also crucial in your series?
When it comes to tackling the subject of Shoah in art, a strategy of anti-visualization is widespread, as an attempt to respond to the inexpressible.
If we go back to the individual experiences that unfold in every human being, then the borders inherent in the traumatic event intensify the individual perception. A creator who faces such a subject must create his or her own language which is most closely related to his or her trauma.
In my research, however, I have focused on something quite opposite, or perhaps not exactly opposite, but complementary to that diversity. There are many common features and mechanisms in the very structure of a traumatic experience, which can lead to a twinning experience in the image of another person's trauma, the same kind of tension.
Trauma-related photography can be said to detach itself from the medium’s perceived notion of the real, hence additionally from documenting reality. What would you say is the potential of fiction in representing traumatic experiences and their intensity?
The subject of documenting reality in photography is heavily worn out, and we can immediately fall into a discussion about objectivity and subjectivity, which, in my opinion, makes no sense. To go further we have to assume a priori the absence of dichotomy. However, it cannot be denied that photography in some way adheres to reality. And this category of adherence bestows on it the power inherent in the very characteristics of the medium. Even if we create, we use our own imaginarium to create photography, e.g. to reflect the intensity of experience, and thus in photography, we will always be uniquely connected with reality.
Post-traumatic photography will not try to reflect reality, to convey "knowledge about the world", as reality here is only a breeding ground for internal emotional states.
Although a real event from the past constitutes the starting point, the resulting images are primarily visualisations of the imaginary, they are enriched with psychological disorders, temporary emotional states of the author, but also often with thoughtful strategy and intellectual reflection.
What I understood about trauma is the fact it embodies both an intense affect when directly experiencing a shock and a complete lack of affect in the aftermath of trauma in the form of mental numbness. Does this oscillation also play a role in your work?
Yes, we can also look at it from the perspective of memory. A traumatic event, through its extremity, does not fit into the everyday, familiar cognitive structures. It leads to various distortions of memory, such as hypermnesia - the intrusive return of images from the event or, on the contrary, psychogenic amnesia, i.e. oblivion, gaps which are supposed to protect against too difficult content. It seems to me that in ‘Post’, we can find both intrusions and gaps, however, the former are much more frequent.
Literary scholar Ulrich Baer in his book ‘Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma’ argues that: "Photography can provide special access to experiences that have been remained unremembered yet cannot be forgotten […] Because trauma blocks routine mental processes from converting an experience into memory or forgetting, it parallels the defining structure of photography, which also traps an event during its occurrence while blocking its transformation into memory." In relation to your series, do you feel that photography serves as a suitable medium for visualizing traumatic experiences?
After a few years, photography still appears to me as the best medium for talking about trauma. In my theoretical research, I have mainly dealt with the analysis of the convergence between the medium of photography and the structure of trauma. In order to see their exceptional convergence, it is enough to quote a few keywords on which the theories of photography and trauma are built.
Photography: adherence to reality, halting a moment of the past, an image incantation and its loss, memory and time, permanence and death resulting in a punctum, Barthes' third meaning, framing, breaking continuity in photographic narration.
Trauma: lack of coherence, discontinuity, a collection of images deprived of verbal narration, lack of linearity of experience, strong fragmentation, return of the past, flashback, memory, timelessness.
You won ‘Prix HSBC pour la Photographie’ for ‘Post’ in 2016. This award facilitated a lot of exposure in the form of creating your own photobook and multiple exhibitions. What was the reception of your series when presented to the public? Do the responses also change over time?
I have the impression that ‘Post’ always causes similar reactions in the audience. A lot of people feel uncomfortable at the exhibition. Many people are moved, some tell their stories.
‘Post’ embodies your personal experience of surviving a serious car accident and the hardship that followed in the months after. Do you feel that perhaps deeply autobiographical projects also have a universal quality?
I do not think that I am telling the story of my life. I create images that are based on my private, deep experience, I choose points and episodes from my story that together form a net full of tensions, a structure for individual readings. It is a story about trauma, about anxiety, I even more often speak of tension within a person. It is not a story about my trauma and only my trauma. I just got the opportunity to talk about what many have to carry within themselves.
When looking back, how do you reflect on your project now? Have you achieved what you originally intended?
As I was formulating my final attitude in the series, I was convinced of the strong connection between the traumatic experience and the medium of photography as well as the possibility of finding oneself in the image of another. However, I did not think that ‘Post’ would return to me so many times and so deeply.