"The way we create and decorate our environment, says a lot about our character." M. Kubacka
Our house is the sum of our experiences which makes it a storage of emotions. As the space we live in, it can be interpreted in various ways. On one hand, it is the physical arrangement of objects, furniture, the color on the wall, etc. On the other hand, it represents our emotional connections to others and becomes our psychological definition of home.
What happens though, when the process of creating our personal space gets interrupted by a third party? My mother has been separating from my dad for about 15 years now, and after they eventually split up in 2016, he moved out. Unfortunately, it doesn't mean he is absent from the house. From time to time he pays an unexpected visit over the weekend, a lot of his stuff is all over the house as well. These images have been made in the period between my mom applying for having him registered out and getting the final decision about it from the court. It is a story about dealing with space and relationship, while not having full control over it. It is about trying to finish one life chapter in order to start a new one.
The title "The Castle" could be interpreted either as a fortress that provides safety or as a reminder of the sandcastles we build as kids. The sandcastle, as an object reference from childhood, inspired me to talk about a serious family trauma in a deceitfully playful way.
It was hard to find the right words to describe this photography style and encapsulate the whole. Dominik Wojciechowski’s photographs in "The Castle" are normalcy subverted. Love there, yet changed and shifted by time. Childhood memories dimmed and altered by the passing of time.
To quote Henry Thomas in "Poems in the Keys of Life", "As the autumn leaves begin to change their colors and helplessly abandon their summer homes, and the last remaining flowers fight to stay upright, I am reminded of my relationship with you."
The story of the ones closest to us is the easiest and most difficult to tell. We see it every day, but to capture its simple elegance and impact upon us… it is challenging. The brokenness in our hearts emerges as we remember the joys and past heartbreak. The title of this collection, "The Castle" is well given.
Our homes, much like the artist’s home, are places of comfort, yet they can hide gaping holes that are covered up or ignored. They are our castles, a place of refuge, but what hides inside them may be chaotic.
Wojciechowski’s visual style emphasizes this discord by displaying the regular part of life in an almost usual way that will leave the viewer at first comforted then shocked by the apparent strangeness. Perhaps we need to look at our daily lives through these lenses to discover what lies beneath the veil.
Written by Jake Asmah
What was harder, to be close enough, or to keep the necessary distance when telling the story of someone so close to you?
Another project I am still working on, "Svijet", explores the creation of new identities in the post-Yugoslav republics, so history takes a huge part in it. It requires to put myself in the incredibly challenging position of being objective and responsible for the outcome. Although, this story about my mom turned out to be a bit of a challenge as well. From an early age, I was an eyewitness of my parents' failing relationship and was trying to deal with it in my own way. Then the moment arrived when I felt the need to get that story out to the world. At the time, my relationship with my dad was insanely heavy which made my story look one-sided. To be honest, I also didn't want to use a journalistic approach, from the very beginning the story was supposed to be subjective and personal. I was also thinking of the friends I have, whose parents are either separated or divorced, and if they might see themselves in this narration.
How did your mother respond to your request to participate in your project?
I can assure you she wasn't happy at all about it. The thing is, my parents are separated for 15 years now. After such a long time, many issues had remained unresolved and the situation had become quite vague and complicated. I wanted to make this clear to them because things started getting extremely tense and uncomfortable. Along this whole process, I felt the personal need to deal with all of it by making a visual interpretation. I think even though my mom wasn't really convinced of becoming a performer in front of the camera, she sort of felt union with me. We both felt deeply invested in the process and to me, this became a way to try and keep her mind off of things.
What is the difference when approaching a family member as a photographer compared to a person who you are only slightly familiar with?
Fortunately, I had a variety of experiences while photographing people, but they all gave me one lesson – you need to take time. It is simply how we [people] work. We all have some prejudices about strangers and even though we are able to pin a label on a person within the first few seconds, it lasts a bit to become familiar with them and to change your status from “what the heck does he want from us” to “it's ok, he's with us”. That's why I personally give much respect to photographers like Dana Lixenberg who spent 22 years on her project on social housing in Los Angeles and created an irreplaceable connection with the people she was portraying. It may be one extreme example but it shows what it sometimes takes to change that status. Regarding my mom, it was easy and complicated at the same time. I've always had a good relationship with her, but at this particular moment, I asked for something she had never done before. What I tried to do, was to transform various personal stories into a visual approach where performance was sometimes included. Usually, I would come up with an idea and then ask my mom if she wanted to pose. She would often be confused, but after me explaining the trick, we would burst into laughter. In that sense, it was a very comfortable experience, especially in those moments, when laughing was something we really needed. But I understand that for her it was difficult to reveal the dark side of our own family. I think we all would rather try and resolve family issues internally and be quiet about what happens inside the home. I had a lot of those little moments with my mom and I truly believe our relationship is special and strong. Whatever happened later on, we were ready to survive the storm.
Your visual approach is specific, but abstract. Your images are able to generate a variety of associations in the viewer depending on their personal relation to the subject of family history and divorce. Could you share something about your process?
The initial spark to create a visual story came from a paper I found while doing research online. It was about the way we organize and decorate our homes and how it gives away our emotions and character in general. My mother and I have pretty different tastes when it comes to interiors and I guess that is why this concept took my attention. I was intrigued by what exactly my mom wants to express and how she might actually feel in the place which is supposed to be her comfort zone – her home. I was also wondering about the influence of my dad's presence as he seemed to be the game-changing factor. I realized that this is what made this social process a lot more interesting. And now, it has become quite clear to me why my mom likes lots of colors and peaceful movies with no drama. I see what the amount of stress she has been through has done to her. At the same time, the story I wanted to tell was not about tears and cheesy drama. You can see there is a lot of humor in it. I wanted to laugh about it and I wanted my mom to laugh about it as well. I saw no point in putting ourselves in deeper depression. Like in “Manchester by the Sea”, the situation feels heavy, but you blow it out of the way with an uncontrolled laugh. That's the beauty of it.
Would you share one image that did not make it to the final selection for "The Castle"?
Oh, that's a good question. I think doing something you're passionate about has also a darker side to it. You need to fight your ego all the time. Naturally, we are most attached to the images we had to pay the most for, but it is all about seeing the bigger picture, how the story works as a whole which sometimes means excluding our best single shots. I am currently preparing for a ShowOff exhibition of "The Castle" during the Photomonth in Krakow, and I got a lot of help from Mateusz Sarełło, who as my curator, tries to keep me on the ground, while I am kindly listening to everything. Obviously, we argue, discuss, try to convince each other but at the end of the day, if you're articulate about what you want to share and have strong arguments, someone else's advice can only be helpful. It is all about brainstorming and discussion. I can also say that Mateusz opened my eyes about some issues, and actually brought me closer to the story in a very subtle way, which I really appreciate.
In "The Castle" I tried various approaches because I believe experiment, even though risky, can bring unexpected and exceptional results. There are though, also those shots that you thought present something unique but as it “grows” you realize that maybe they do not necessarily fit into the story.
What is your perception of the role of the curator?
I think the role of the curator is as crucial within a gallery space, as is the role of the writer within book design. Obviously, we now live in slightly different times and many photographers are designers, writers, curators, and so on, taking care of their presentation from the early stages of a project to the very end. I personally think that collaboration with specialists across the field within which photography operates nowadays is the best way to go. It adds a lot to our work. If we do everything by ourselves, we put ourselves at risk of being misunderstood, simply because we resigned from the discussions which lead to the very best version of our work. At the same time, we need to be aware of what our goal is and not let that goal to be moved out of sight.
Any of your influences? Favorite Polish photographer?
I keep digging inspirations from various, often very different sources but I really appreciate the work of Felipe Romero Beltran, Tom Lovelace, Dana Lixenberg, Dorothea Lange, Erwin Wurm. My favorite Polish photographer is though, Joanna Piotrowska, who took under exploration a similar topic (family relationships) and is very inspiring to me. I adore the weirdness she is showing in her photography, I was always attracted to the strange and different, especially within the family context which touches us all. It's talking about something very heavy in a very subtle way.
Another aspect if it was, that while the whole situation with my family was going on, I was working as a builder's assistant on a construction site. I can honestly say that this influenced me as well. At work, I used to find unusual installations and sculptures made from everyday materials. There was no such intention behind them and I am pretty sure my mates at work never thought of them as being very artsy or assumed how inspirational they were for my process.
There is this ad with Annie Leibovitz running on youtube where she is saying that she doesn’t believe you need to put your subject at ease for a portrait. What is your approach to portraiture?
In my opinion, there is no ultimate truth about it. It really depends on different factors, such as who we work with, the environment we work in, and so on. The relationship with the photographed person actually dictates the terms under which we can cooperate. If we don't develop satisfying trust on both sides, the artificiality will come out anyway. So, I don't think it really matters how you want to portray a person, as long as you take care of meeting them and make sure you listen to them.
If it’s not too personal, would you share with us your first childhood memory?
No, not at all. It is a vague memory with many missing parts, but it is when I was 3 or 4 years old and I was in the garden we used to go with my family over the weekends. I had this little 3-wheel bike, similar to the one from the iconic image of William Eggleston. It had big eyes and a smile up in the front. I was, as my parents used to say, constantly smiling. I remember pure happiness, uninterrupted by responsibility. Nowadays, we are probably more calculated about when to laugh, but I think we can all agree that this is our very human, simple need, especially in the difficult and complicated situations we often find ourselves in.
Interview by Maya Hristova