They were supposed to take photos of the same place. Yet it is five different spheres that are presented to us by the photographers from the Sputnik Photos. Some are mysterious and magical; others intimidate with emptiness and detachment. It is the Vistula. What is it really like? The authors of the ‘Distant Place’ exhibition: Agnieszka Rayss, Jan Brykczyński, Michał Łuczak, Rafał Milach and Adam Pańczuk are interviewed by Olga Woźniak.
Olga Woźniak: One Sputnik cooperative or five photographers? How should one treat you?
Sputnik Photos: The Vistula exhibition was prepared by five of us. Sputnik includes nine photographers, a coordinator and a graphic designer. We often work individually; sometimes we work on one subject, but it’s not always all of us. So it depends on how you look at it.
Let’s look at it within the context of this exhibition then. Does it represent five different voices or just one?
The story about the Vistula is composed of five different narratives. There is one main subject, to which each of us had an individual approach. If there is anything that we share, it is the fact that we differ so much.
Do you talk to each other when you prepare a project?
The idea of the Vistula river was given by the Copernicus Science Centre. We talked with each other, but only about general matters. We only decided who will take what approach to the subject, so that we would not all do the same thing.
Sputnik allows us freedom. That was one of the reasons for which we established this group – to ensure ourselves a bit of freedom that magazines or commercial commissioners do not allow.
Freedom is secured by money…
… and it is easier to obtain funding, a subsidy, in a group than if each of us applied for it individually.
So this is what brought you together? Pragmatism?
Not quite romantic, is it? We met years ago at workshops with the VII agency, and that’s where we got to know each other: a group of photographers from East and Central Europe. We wanted to carry out a social project combining the countries of our origin. We picked a topic – illegal workers in post-communist countries. It was at the time when Poland joined the European Union; Europe was afraid of the Polish plumber, and we had plenty of foreign plumbers at home. Just like Czechs, Slovaks and Latvians. But in order to carry out the project, we needed funding. And that is how pragmatism met with the concept. We managed to carry out this first project of ours, and then we got to know each other better; we found out that we got along together, that we were all from one region and that it would be nice to do more things together.
And the worldview? You are all documentalists.
Yes, it brings us closer too, this similar vision of photographic activity and exploration. We made a match owing to a specific type of sensitivity, but each of us follows our own way within it.
Why did you call your group Sputnik?
Because we are a group of people from different countries of East and Central Europe: Poles, a Slovak, a Czech, a Polish woman who lives in Georgia, a Belarusian; we used to have a Latvian and Slovenians. We couldn’t find a name that would fit the whole region. ‘Sputnik’ was short and easy to remember. It symbolised our similar experiences of living in an allied state of the USSR. And we are attracted by the themes related to this region. But Sputnik stands for something else as well – it is a device that transmits certain information. A transmitter. Such as we are.
And what did the Vistula attract you with?
It is such a close, and at the same time such a distant place. Terra incognita. A very nice place to explore for a documentalist. A huge potential for story-telling. A space that changes a lot.
But these changes probably proceed bottom-up and are inspired by people who, for some reason or other, started coming here.
Yeah, that is fascinating. Warsaw has just begun to domesticate the Vistula, to tentatively order its left bank, to open it. But it is the people who organise it for themselves, who exercise pressure to reclaim the Vistula. It is not yet a place around which life revolves. That’s what differs Warsaw from other cities with a river flowing through their centre.
Paris, London – the river is the focal point there, it draws people. They say: Let’s walk to the river, and we’ll see what we shall do next. In none of these places is the river separated from the city with a huge motorway; it is a site where lovers and families go for walks, where the artistic activity flourishes. And in Warsaw, it is rather weird than beautiful. In relation to the city, the Vistula is a reserve, an unknown enclave. It is amazing how far from the city this place is, even though it is in its centre and close by. It’s such a far away place. On the one hand, people want to be here; on the other hand, one always needs to struggle to reach it.
It wasn’t always like that, was it?
Pre-war photos show that the banks of the Vistula were bursting with life. It was a natural bath – since there was no sewerage system, everybody came here to wash. It was also the cheapest bar in the city. One could bathe in the sun with a fizzy drink and never dream of anything better.
When did it change?
The change was partially due to the War, then to the times of the People’s Republic of Poland and the Wisłostrada express way that separated the river from the city. But even then it was a communication and transport route. Dance parties were organised, ports, ferries and water stations were located along the banks; it teemed with life. It was a living organism.
And that stopped in 1989 when transport infrastructure fell into decline.
Do the citizens of Warsaw have any feelings for this place?
To some of them it is a magical place, a sanctuary, to others it is a gutter, a landfill, a place for rejected people and objects. The Vistula can be viewed in many different ways, which we probably managed to show in our photos. We all saw five completely different spaces.
What is this place really like? These five stories do not compose a single tale.
That’s because although we uncover this river, we don’t really do it. We leave much space for interpretation. We present small sections, fragments. Micro-worlds that nobody thinks about when they come just to sit on a blanket or ride a bike. The Vistula itself does not take much physical space in the project. Sometimes it is just a metaphor. We do not pretend to be objective; we discover this place for ourselves. We may even create this Vistula on our own because what we present may perhaps only take place in our heads.
You took your pictures in winter and at the beginning of spring. How did it influence the subject of your stories?
It is an entirely different perspective. When it turned warmer, swarms of people arrived. The Cud nad Wisłą project, new places, hipsters.
The weather highlighted the image of abandoned and rejected Vistula. Photographed at its worst time when nobody thinks about it. We are glad that it was precisely then. It helped us to avoid showing the obvious things. We didn’t present a river for the weekend.
Interview by Olga Woźniak
Sputnik Photos is an international cooperative established by photojournalists from Eastern and Central Europe. Their photos have been published among others by Time, Newsweek, Stern, The Sunday Times Magazine, The New York Times, Le Monde. The members of the association have won numerous awards in such press photography competitions as World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International or Canon AFJ Female Photojournalist Award.