Michal Iwanowski is a Polish born photographer, who has been working in Cardiff, Wales since 2001. He gained an MFA in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. Since completing his studies he has been working as a freelance photographer and a lecturer in photography at Ffotogallery, Cardiff. His first book, ‘Clear of People’, is due to come out in June 2016 and retraces the footsteps of his grandfather escaping a Russian gulag.
Hi Michal! For ‘Clear of People’ you retraced your grandfather’s 2000km escape route, tell me a bit more about the project and the journey attached to it?
He and his brother, having spent a year in captivity in Russia (arrested for partisan activity), along with 2 other friends, made a break from a military camp. From mid August to mid November 1945 they crossed some 2000 km on their way to find their family. They moved at night, taking it in turns to sleep and to keep the fire going. They foraged for food, but they also had some supplies with them, like crackers and tobacco, matches and some sugar, which my grandfather had been collecting for months before the escape. My journey was very different, but the track was the same. I had a map, drawn by my great uncle, and I was able to follow their steps quite faithfully almost 70 years later. It took me 10 weeks to complete.
You have approached a very human story through landscape photography, avoiding people both during your journey and in your photographs. How do you feel that landscape photography can convey such a story, that is part of a very difficult time in history?
Removing people from images has allowed me to create a place that belongs to every viewer. I was interested in the common denominator – the landscape – and how through different administrations, enemy occupations, nationalities or social status, it represented the same things for so many people. It did not discriminate. It had no agenda. It became an impartial witness to personal tragedies. It represented both home and graveyard.
Because of the story I had in mind, I focused on the fugitive experience within that landscape – the hiding, running, avoiding people, the persistence and determination of an individual in the face of adversity. Just how far can they push it? I wanted the viewer to experience the landscape from that perspective, to access the feelings of fear, of meaninglessness, but also the feelings of hope and comfort.
And finally, I was interested in the many ways in which a person can perceive a landscape, especially during a long journey. It is neither a friend nor foe, but it becomes either, depending on our circumstances. At times precarious and at times pastoral, landscape has a very important role in our navigation, both literal and transcendental. It facilitates our ability to relate to the world, it is crucial to our spirituality; it helps us deal with our mortality. And we all seem to respond to it in a very similar way. It became more apparent during exhibitions of this work. I noticed that some people cried. Then others came up to me to shake my hand, in silence, as if it were a funeral. As if they were able to access their own journeys through these images. As if the simplicity and the symbolic elements in these images offered a porthole into a collective, emotional vault.
“Removing people from images has allowed me to create a place that belongs to every viewer. I was interested in the common denominator – the landscape – and how through different administrations, enemy occupations, nationalities or social status, it represented the same things for so many people.”
“I am drawn to projects that focus on the personal, rather than on the global. Because in the personal starts all that later becomes global. I guess I like to start at the source, that is how I relate to the world.”
What was the most challenging thing about doing this project?
It might be a disappointing answer, but the challenges I faced along the way, while researching and making the images, pale in comparison to the efforts it took to raise the funds for the book. This is by far the most challenging aspect of this project. It is one thing to be an artist, but another to be a marketing expert, a promoter, a PR, a designer, etc. To say it has been hard work is an understatement.
How do you feel the project fits into the current conversation surrounding the movement of people, so many of them also fugitives?
Unfortunately, the subject of this project is very current and is likely to remain so. The locations keep changing, but the fugitive escape continues. It’s part of the human condition. I would like to think that something can be done to remind people that war is always one order away, and that this harrowing journey could be ours. I would like to think that greater levels of empathy could be generated.
A lot of your work is very autobiographical, focused around your family, what drives you to make such personal work?
The reason I do that is simple – I know these stories and I know how to tell them, but I also know that through these project I address universal questions. I am interested in experiences that most if not all of us have to deal with, like fear and determination in the case of ‘Clear of People’ or coming to terms with grief in ‘Minus The Mother.’ I am drawn to projects that focus on the personal, rather than on the global. Because in the personal starts all that later becomes global. I guess I like to start at the source, that is how I relate to the world.
‘Clear of People’ is also being published as a book this summer, did you always envision it to become a book?
I had been thinking about it, but the one question I kept asking myself was ‘do we need another photbook?’ I strive not to be self-indulgent, and I do not have £20k lying around, so it was not a fickle decision to make this book. But the feedback I was getting during exhibitions, festivals and portfolio reviews pointed to the conclusion that there was a purpose the book could serve. That it could do some good, and that this particular visual stimulus should exist beyond the gallery walls. And I was finally convinced I should make the book when designer Tom Mrazauskas agreed to work on it with me. I had been a fan of his work, so it was the sign I needed. Tom is tuned in, and has such a clarity of vision that allows him to translate complex ideas into the most direct, touching books. I am very proud for mine to be the first book that comes out of his brainchild – Brave Books.
You funded the book with a Kickstarter, do you feel the internet and websites such as Kickstarter give photographers more opportunities or oversaturates?
I choose to believe it creates more opportunities. Photobooks are having their heyday, so oversaturation is bound to happen. But it is temporary, and I do not think it is solely related to crowd funding. People fund their books in all sorts of ways. Contrary to the common belief, it is very difficult to raise money on Kickstarter or other platforms. And oversaturation is not necessarily a bad thing – it may mean you have to sieve through a lot more work, but good projects will stand out regardless. I guess it is only down to photographers to judge whether there is a good reason for their book to be produced.
You are also a lecturer of photography, what is the one thing you try to pass on to your students?
Think very carefully about what it is that you’re trying to communicate with your images. Photography is a powerful language, but it’s easily misunderstood.