by Krzysztof Sienkiewicz

Hello Wawrzyniec! First of all, huge congratulations - you were awarded with the Paul Hill Award at the FORMAT Festival! Yet this is not the only time you have earned international recognition recently. Your works were presented as a part of the Circulation(s) Festival in Paris and included in a group show in Los Angeles to mention just a few. Could you tell us what does it mean to you?

Wawrzyniec Kolbusz (WK): The biggest award is to realize that my works prompt exchange of opinions related to the underlying political issues. Another important thing is to have a chance to confront my works with a wider audience. Each event I have participated in, gave me an opportunity to discuss it with lots of interesting people: visitors, curators, festival organizers, publishers, people from galleries. I’m glad I had a chance to meet all of them. In many cases we were able to go beyond laconic talks and engage into a longer conversations. We went outside the works itself and discussed related political aspects, which was great. I have a feeling I learned a lot from all of this. There are very different perspectives on issues we think are commonly shared in our societies. It also gave an opportunity to meet a lot of other photographers and see their work followed by an exchange of views. And, on a personal level, it simply gave me some new friends.

How would you describe your personal research in general? What kind of a photographer are you?

WK: You used the word research. Yes, research is the first step, just after the idea and internal need to work on particular subject. However, I cannot imagine doing a project without a proper knowledge about the subject beforehand. Accumulating and digesting information before the work is crucial. I have to saturate myself with it. In that kind of approach the meaning of content and visual layer are equally important. And visual part must be designed and planned accordingly to match that meaning. So, there is rather small dose of spontaneity in my work. Research is a process of looking for the general point of view, how to tackle the problem you want to present. As I’m working with political and social content, it makes a big difference how the things are shown. For me it is important that 'Sacred Defense' project, despite its heavily politicized content, can be shown both in Iran and in USA. And to make it I didn’t have to resign from what I want to say with that project.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz from the series ‘Sacred Defence’

Having said that, it is important to add that photography is not a research. We may borrow from research approach, but photography is very different in nature. And it is much more than research. Some photographers are able to successfully treat research itself as an output of photographic project, but I separate it in my work. Research is a process of moving from one state into another one, can be creative at times, but photography is always a creation in a pure sense. I’m trying to do a conscious photography, but in general, photography, unlike research does not require consciousness. That’s why photography is open to everyone.

Were you always a photographer? I have learnt that you studied at a faculty of economics and sociology and did postgraduate studies in anthropology and African art. Only then, ten years after you had finished your primary studies, you attended workshops organized by Sputnik Photos and then a class in the Academy of Photography in Warsaw.  Could you comment on that?

WK: Before doing photography I was involved in other things including cultural anthropology and African art studies. I’ve spent some time in Africa. My research was, in simple words, about cultural side of particular types of traditional African art, but I ended-up talking on very local politics, without diverging from the original subject! At that time I was also doing a little of photography in my anthropological researches. But only unrestricted use of images gives me a freedom to talk on issues, which interest me. Photography is much more accessible for the audience compared to academic discourse. It’s less hermetic. I felt like moving to photography. First on SPUTNIK on a 3 month long workshop, where the most important lesson was to focus on things, which you feel, understand and enjoy. With SPUTNIK you get the access to the best in-class documentary team. A strong team of interesting individuals. It was a good experience. But I wanted to cross the line of documentary; I don’t like being restricted to just one genre or label. So I continued at Akademia Fotografii in Warsaw, where at first I attended courses and later on fully fledged photography studies. At the academy I was introduced to many different art practices, it opened my eyes to the horizon of new things. I learned how to slow down the process, how to look and, hopefully, how to transform things into language of visual communication. It was a great time, full of enriching discussions. It was very good to have plenty of people around, both teachers and students, who are dedicated and with whom you are able to discuss things extensively.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz from the series ‘Sacred Defence’

How did your educational path influence your photographic activity?

WK: A lot I suppose. I believe it is a general thing, not limited to the education itself. Our experiences shape the way we perceive things. Two persons looking at the same photograph are going to tell a different story, when asked to describe what they see. And it is because what they see is filtered by their knowledge, experience and what really interests them. In my case, field research in the area of cultural anthropology and African art studies, helps to run a photographic project from many perspectives, including research techniques. It influences the final outcome of each series, shapes and structures the approach. In case of 'Sacred Defense' series I was trying to put away, as much as possible, my own cultural baggage and immerse into the role of an Iranian consumer of war images. I watched quite a lot of Iranian war movies, some of which were produced in the space where I photographed. I visited war and martyrs museums together with Iranian tourists. I was trying to use Iranian cultural nuances whenever being there. Immersing allows you to get something more atop of just dry facts; it helps to feel some issues instead of understanding it. On the other hand, a solid preparation meant in-depth studies of Iranian history, politics and foreign affairs as well as Western politics towards Iran. It also meant to study the distribution and consumption patterns of the war propaganda related images, which are contextualizing Iran in the Western media. All of these cultural and political interests left a strong mark on the point of view presented in 'Sacred Defense'.

Your internationally acclaimed series 'Sacred Defense' belongs to a branch of photography called “mockumentary”. What led you to this kind of an approach?

WK: I’m not sure if the label “mockumentary” is the right one in that case. But I’m not going to offer other one instead either, as I said earlier I prefer to refrain from sticking clear labels in general. There are many shades of gray. Fiction is an underlying subject of that series. In fact, I’m using fiction to comment on fiction, or being more precise to comment on fiction purposely created to mask the reality. It is a specific situation, where fiction is engaged into a peculiar discussion with reality. A fiction with an ambition to become a heavy über-reality. So for such a subject, using fiction, as a tool seemed the most appropriate approach. Plus the fact that simulation and simulacra on its own, especially in political context, is a subject that interests me a lot. In Sacred Defense images make us believe we see the war or consequences of war. We are looking at illusions, however. And that’s a conscious decision, that’s the vantage point I want to give to the viewer. It unifies content and form, and hopefully gives a context to understand the subject. Illusion, as a general mechanism, is just one of the most popular tricks used by the propaganda everywhere. So I replicated that mechanism. There is an evidence and a counter-evidence, in parallel.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz from the series ‘Sacred Defence’

Tell us more about this project 'Sacret Defence'...

WK: In a nutshell, this project is about building group memory and creating political narrations based on reconstructed historical events. It is also about how the visual content is being used to achieve all of it in the context of war, media and politics. On the other hand it is showing how societies are dealing with a tragic past.

It consists of two mirroring parts. In the first part, project traces existing modes of construction of artificial war images and narrations in Iran. It is embedded into the post-war reality of the Iraq-Iran war (1980– 1988), an internationally forgotten conflict which cost nearly one million lives and caused a deep national trauma with consequences comparable to the impact of the Second World War on Western societies. In the Iranian historiography, this war is called the Sacred Defense War. In that part we follow war simulations in different forms. A cinema-city, which is a permanent film-set constructed only for the purpose of shooting war movies. It was created not to be experienced itself, but to become an image of war. This landscape is just a raw material to be photographed and to produce artificial war images of heavy political and social importance. It is a constantly refigured space. Each time I visited that place it was arranged differently.

We also see museums, which reconstruct and mimic war reality in the smallest detail: destroyed school class, trenches, buildings, private lives of civilians exposed to front line conditions. The level of reconstruction is very high, with a lot of effort spent on details. In the same museums we can see wax figures of particular, recognized by name, martyrs, war heroes. Souvenir shops are selling perfect replicas of antipersonnel mines made of plastic. You can internalize war culture by taking it home or embedding it into office design. All of this is used to maintain a political momentum, but also to heal. It is a kind of ‘slow propaganda’. It has a good and bad side at the same time.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz from the series ‘Sacred Defence’

So this is how the first part of the project works. What about the second, mirroring part?

WK: Both in Iran and here, we are living surrounded by simulacra, which touches mainly commercial and political side of our lives. I wanted to check how it looks in relation to war and history. Artificially generated or amended images are the main tool used to communicate here as well - mainly for propaganda purposes. And what we see in Iran is mirrored in the West. That’s the moment where the second part of the project comes. I amended satellite images of the Iranian nuclear installations with mutually exclusive versions of destruction, which may be caused by the hypothetical Western strike. Buildings destroyed in some images stand intact in others, and all parallel versions of the same event are presented on a ‘single satellite map’. I’m not using past events as a basis, instead I plot alternatives of an event that never happened despite being widely discussed by the media. We don’t know if there is any nuclear weapon program in Iran or not. But what we know is that we see a lot of images with so called evidence that Iranian nuclear program is a weapon construction program. These images are marked with arrows, circles and descriptions ‘explaining’ it. The agenda is to build the case based on fear. Fear is real, but is it reasonable? When you follow the path of these images, which is a very simple thing to do, you will find out that the source consist of just a few ‘think tanks’ closely related to the US administration. More and more analysts, even in the US, are saying that the Iranian nuclear weapon program is just a made up story, same as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Shall we believe in these images and suggested interpretation then? Current warfare is more and more a cyber one, mainly invisible or hardly visible, like the one shown in some of the Norfolk’s and Paglen’s works. Modern warfare allows to destroy nuclear sites using electronic viruses and no one really needs to make a traditional strike. So, shall we believe in what we see on these circulating images? I don’t know. Definitely we should question it, since in majority of cases media are re-distributing and proliferating these images without in-depth verification. We experience a large dissonance between what we should expect from the media and what we really get. We know that already. We may like it or not, but what it really means is that responsibility has been shifted. If we want to properly judge things we have to make an effort to verify it by ourselves. It is safer to question things. And that’s what I do in my project. I’m trying to focus on elements, which prove the misleading nature of many final war images, and to show elements necessary to hold the whole structure together, which are often not visible in final war image, but unavoidable in constructing it.

On the other hand, in your other series entitled 'Demerger', you do not play with fake narration. Is this project a classic documentary? What is it about?

WK: 'Demerger' is a specific project. It mimics the documentary approach to record things in a subjective way, but it is not a documentary for me. In 'Demerger' there is no fake narration and actually there is lack of any narration. I was trying to tell the ‘story’ without it, I wanted physical space to take control over any narration in that project. Space and how different groups of people in conflict, experience that space. How they transform what is around them to prove their case. We have competing groups from the government backed by Chinese and Western companies building dams and large water reservoirs on Nile, we have gold-seekers, we have local farmers and finally we have archeologists who try to get the treasures out of the land before it is flooded by water. Each group represents different philosophy. For each of them different attributes are important, hence they convert the space accordingly to their symbolic stand points. They build opposing meta-narrations and they use land to manifest it. It is a conflict zone, but it is usually a hidden conflict not an open warfare, despite some victims. That project stemmed from the same political interests, but mixed with geography understood as experience of space. I was trying to stand back, do not take any side in it. I decided to withdraw from telling it from the perspective of humans. Instead I gave the voice to the landscape, which become a politicized subject both in reality and in the project. That was my way to merge the form and content.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz from the series ‘Demerger’

What do you like to look at? Do you have any photographers that truly inspire you?

WK: In the first instance I’m inspired by the non-photographic things, mainly texts, various ones but predominantly anthropological and sociological. The real inspiration is linking things, which seems to have no connection. I mean things, which fit together once intertwined, despite a feeling they are from a very distant origin. I like the moment when we discover how certain things work. I like questioning things, leaving the comfort zone. That’s something one may call inspirational, I guess. From the visual point of view, what I like to look at is rather a wide mix. I like works of many different artists, a pretty eclectic gathering: from Wall and Demand to Rosler and Farocki, from Bałka to Hasior, from Richter to Pepe and so on. I love How to hunt series by Søndergaard & Howalt, but also traditional African art, which is very different as it works in other dimensions. I love collages of Wangechi Mutu and paintings of the polish expression of the 80’ties, both very different, but energetic. There is a lot of interesting art in the Middle East and in Africa. I’m also amazed by works of Barbara Probst. She represents a very stable and solid art practice, patiently extended and enriched over the years, but based on the same, relatively simple, yet very strong concept. Her works are constituting a separate world.

© Wawrzyniec Kolbusz from the series ‘Demerger’

Could you comment on the condition of the Polish photography scene?

WK: Ohhh…! A very difficult question! We have definitely very good artists in Poland, strong personalities, a lot is going on.  And what is going on is intriguing. Look at Urbanautica – you dedicated a separate page, related to Poland, as a first country from the region. I think it tells something. We are strong as individuals, but we have a problem to form equally strong group. We still have to learn how to support each other, how to make it as a whole group. And it is not specific to photography, it is enrooted deeply in our national psyche. There is a need to create institutional support, oriented to promote polish art as a general. It feels like the process has started, but still it is not as vital as it should be. I would like to see a lot more galleries, but there are obvious barriers, so we will see that process of creation spread over years. It will happen eventually, thanks to a wide artist base, good schools, lots of tradition, great names in the past and a lot of creative young people. But institutional animation is needed, since we don’t have a deep and dynamic art market like in China or in Persian Gulf states. I’m sure there is plenty of great stuff not reaching the surface, due to the limitations of the system we still have in Poland.

Are you working on something new now?

WK: Yes, I’m on early stages of something new, it evolves so all I can say at this stage is that, in a wide sense, it is going to be a continuation of my interests - it is going to be related to the politics, artificiality and a kind of a conflict.

There are some plans to continue exhibiting Sacred Defense. What I enjoy about that project is its flexibility to be exhibited in a very different ways. What was presented in Paris was very different from exhibition in Wrocław, and so on. I’m working on exhibiting it in Tehran and that’s very important for me. I’m sure Iranians are going to be the most challenging audience I could think of. But this year I’d mainly like to convert it into a book. That project contains distinct chapters, so I hope book is going to be a natural habitat for it. Will see…


Wawrzyniec Kolbusz