By Krasimira Butseva & Maya Hristova
Poland is one of the European countries which has systematically refused to take in refugees. Currently, only 1% of all applications is being approved, mainly from countries from the former Soviet Union. The far right-wing government has opposed numerous times to offer help to vulnerable communities of migrants fleeing from war zones across the world.
In the first issue of EEP magazine, we published Polish photographer Jan Jurczak's long-term project “Life Goes On” which depicts scenes from the daily life behind the frontline in a self-organized shelter in Avdiivka, a city in the war-torn Donetsk region of Eastern Ukraine. In the series, the viewer was presented with the courageous spirit of a community of individuals who have become refugees and consequently homeless on the territory of their own country. The violent conflict between Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military escalated when Crimea got annexed by Russia following the Euromaidan movement in 2014. For the last four years, 24-year old Jurczak has been continuously working to support the shelter in Avdiivka not only through his artistic practice but also by assisting the local paramedics and organizing crowdfunding campaigns and exhibitions, the proceeds from which he has been donating to the center.
Apart from his work in Ukraine, Jan has recently turned his attention to the situation in his home country where he started supporting another initiative - the Łuków center for refugees close to Warsaw, where, leading to the COVID-19 pandemic, he spent several weeks. What you see here, is an excerpt of a work in progress that Jan was kind enough to share with us.
What are you working on at the moment?
What you are seeing is a part of an ongoing project on the centers for refugees and asylum seekers, the so-called "Centers for Foreigners" in Poland. The images were initially conceived as an editorial for a little brand called Notepads from Łuków set up by Pamela Bożek. The refugee women who live there, most of whom are from Chechnya, are thought by Pamela to produce notepads from coffee pads and cheap paper. This is a project which aims to provide them with the much needed legal and economic support. These people have been continuously discriminated against as women, as Muslims, as mothers raising more than two children, and also due to the fact that they are poor and unable to speak the local language. Additionally, their children, who do not speak Polish, are sent to Polish schools with hardly any funds invested in their cultural integration.
While their refugee status is perceived as temporary, most refugees remain in these centers for years. The centers are typically located on the outskirts of small cities or in forests. It is difficult to integrate with the rest of society under such conditions, so the burden of running programs supporting migrants is taken by NGOs, which in 2016 were cut off from the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (FAMI) by the Polish government. As of today, an adult in one of these centers receives food and accommodation + 70 PLN (15€) per month. A refugee’s permit for international protection together with their work permit may be repeatedly granted and withdrawn by the Polish Office for Foreigners, and therefore, despite their willingness and need to take up work, refugees often remain unable to support themselves, which of course further contributes to their perceived image as a burden to society. Thanks to the cooperation between Bożek’s initiative and the “For Earth” NGO (#stowarzyszeniedlaziemi), the notebooks went on sale and the women who made them were able to receive legal contracts.
Why did you get involved in this line of work?
Documentary photography does not necessarily need to be related to activism, but during the last three years, I think I was able to focus more on my activism than on my artistic practice, while in between I was working in Scandinavia to earn for it.
Since 2017, I have been documenting communities living in the conflict zone of Eastern Ukraine. In January, I came back to my apartment in Poland and felt I wanted to stay there longer. I had heard about these centers for refugees and asylum seekers, so in February I started visiting three of them - Łuków, Linin and Dębak, which were the ones closest to Warsaw.
Sometimes, I can't help but perceive the need to help and spend time with vulnerable people as a kind of disability. A disability, which thankfully a lot of us have. Everybody has his or her own way of expressing it. I also believe that the visual arts, which I try to produce, are not the best way to help others, but I have come to terms with that.
In these images you are both creating and recreating a moment by combining photography and painting. What lead you to experiment in this direction?
I was working on this body of work, which is a work in progress for no more than a month. I would still be doing it but now it is forbidden for visitors to enter the centers due to the Corona pandemic. Initially, I wanted to give the people I photographed the prints and ask them to paint on them. I had different ideas, but as it was no longer possible to visit them, I started painting on the prints myself. When the lockdowns began I also had more time to work on the images. Of course, I was familiar with Vivian Sassen’s and Jim Goldberg’s work, they are a big inspiration. It started as an experiment but I already think of continuing to work in this direction. I am also a little bored with the classic photographic image. After all, a photograph is an object, and you can change it as you like.
The notebooks created at the center Łuków are sold by galleries and arts organizations across Poland such as the Krakow Photomonth, JEST Galeria, Galeria Szara and others. The notebooks could also be purchased online (delivered only to Poland) from Super Orfeo.
In a further attempt to actively support the people in Avdiivka, Jan has published an art book in the form of a newspaper with the "Life Goes On" series. All proceeds go to the center. You can purchase it here.