The Mieleszki Project – The Polish photo documentarist Pawel Grześ made something natural, something that has been tested out many times throughout the history of world photography, perhaps we therefore could add that he made something banal or out of the current interest: He portrayed inhabitants of the village Mieleszki not far from the Polish-Belorussian border. People themselves or in groups are standing in front of their houses, calm and concentrated looking into the objective, as we are used to from family albums, old photographies or from works by many world photographers of the past. The enchanting seriousness of this work is hiding in the smallest nuances that come forward when taking a closer look at it, and especially in the concistency with which the project was realised by the photographer. Pawel Grześ took pictures of Belorussians from a distinctive Polish village in front of their houses. He captured not only all the village‘s inhabitants in a very thorough way, including a woman who died suddenly who‘s portrayed in a coffin, he also captured all the houses these people live in. The black-and-white photographies he made were enlarged until they got the size of one meter and with generous help from locals, he put them up on fences in front of their houses.
Direct Look Into The Objective – This document, until recently totally extraordinary in Polish photography, has during the past few years gained a more important position. The principle of motionless documentary photography, where the portrayed person is standing en face to the viewer, fully aware of that he or she is being taken a picture of, which is a principle that has been of interest in German or American photography for some time now and has again during the last years been searching for an expression in the photography of Central Europe. A number of works by important world photographers of the past have been serving as sources of inspiration and Pawel Grześ too is able to connect his works to excellent Polish tradition, represented by the works of Adam Bułhak or Zofie Rydet.
The tendency of motionless „documentary“ photography that doesn’t interpret the reality, but aims at being a close recording of the reality and gains from the reading of its content, is astonishingly presented as a broad and heterogenous stream. Frequent are embossed pictures using large size verism. Accentuated is authenticity, concretism, photographs‘ description ability. Descriptive photography leaves many possibilities for the viewer‘s gradual seachings and findings. Such photographs are not a matter of empathy, they‘re “read“, which sometimes leads to what’s elsewhere in the society considered as detailed „looks inside“. In terms of action and drama, they renounce, just to make the most out of the strong contact between those who are photographed and the viewer. It’s storytelling without a story, more or less a description, a selection of what’s going to be focused on, what’s going to be captured and what not. Many times there‘s even an obvious effort of hiding the photographer behind his work. The sober creator’s aim here is not to influence, not to manipulate, just look, sort out and interpret. Such a photographer usually aims at formal as well as technical simplicity of the picture, which should reflect the reality as much as it can.
A direct look into the objective as we’ve got rich experiences with from the photography‘s very early stage is the photograph’s frankest procedure, whatever artistic strategy is hiding behind this picturing. Directly looking into the objective namely doesn‘t only presuppose acknowledging the photographer’s activities, but also explicit or at least quietly acknowledged acceptation of the roles between the photographer and what is photographed. It’s a mutually accepted game, which both participants understand very well. The portraited is magically aware of how important the moment of her or his immortalisation is. The photographer may interfere into this game, but he may also leave behind a maximum space to those photographed for his self-presentation; choose a pose, gesture and expression, eventually clothing and other attributes too, according to how he would like to be captured. Thus his individuality and efforts on self-presentation may be called attention to: The validity of various ikons, clichés as well as media strategies.
Mieleszki Faces – During the decades, as far as portrait documents are concerned, a number of distinguished portrait strategies have been developed. Grześ‘ predecessors attached importance to types, elsewhere they wanted to portrait unique human individuals or even bizarre aspects. An important part of such works was to pick out the right model. Pawel Grześ gives up this opportunity. Consequently, he pictures all persons from one single selected village. The project’s concept doesn’t presuppose a selection. He’s stressing objectivity, even a scientific approach and consequent compliance with the original concept.
If we’re not the inhabitants of the village, we can’t see the neighbours‘ faces, nor those of the relatives, friends, our attention is directed towards searching for general features. On every of the photographs there’s a close relationship between those portraited and the environment, the house they’re living in and which charakterizes them in the best way, with a surrounding garden, pets. The expression of the age is obvious not only in the relations between the portraited and the background context they’re pictured on – their house, garden, fence, but also in terms of clothing, attributes of the items they are holding in their hands, the animals they‘re portraited together with, but also in the gesture, in the character’s posture, self-consciousness that she or he uncovers with the face to the camera. By examining the portrayed, we see not only their own pose but also its limits, given by the relationship with a partner, family, together with whom they’re pictured. Not accidentally does one and the same gesture by a hand or one look characterize members of one family. Without seing each other in the moment they‘re being photographed they’re automatically taking after the others‘ pose and mood.
According to our point of view, if we are looking at Grześ‘ photographies with the eyes of a Mieleszki inhabitant, a villager, a photographer, sociologist, demographer, biologist, there’s always a serious piece of work standing in front of us, communicating with us intensively by its natural humanity. Pawel Grześ portrayed in his project inhabitants of the village he’s from, people close to him, Belorussians with Polish citizenship, one social unit, a genotype-close society, farmers from Central Europe in the beginning of the 21th century, a human society threatened by contemporary changes. If some site has got the fortune that it was taken notice of, emphasized above the rest and thoroughly adapted, gains an invaluable gift for the future: It isn’t forgotten. It’s becoming an example for every other similar region, a model example for a specific type of life that is set into a certain time and in a certain place. Mieleszka is here becoming an example for all frontier zone villages, and not only in Poland, but in whole Central Europe actually. Traditional settlements are nowadays dying out, new generations are heading for the cities, leaving the villages for better jobs and a better life, only old people stay.
Galerie Mieleszki – With the installation of photographies on fences and house walls, Pawel Grześ has transformed a frontier zone village going to the dogs into one huge gallery out in the open and all citizens of this society become models, co-producers, performers and viewers. The exhibition is in addition to photographic portraits the second, but as important part of the project as the first one. It peaks the project and gives it a new meaning. The whole village, made up by people, an urban structure, with its history and social relations has become a complete piece of art. An important dimension of this project is the power of empathy into the photographs from the locals‘ point of view. They were photographed and they again became the first viewers. It’s not easy for us to understand what a crucial moment such an event is for this village; in all probability the very first art exhibition in its history. This while’s distinctive mark is in an almost magic way stressed by the fact that on the exhibited works the inhabitants alone are portrayed. Every single inhabitant of the village is here laying herself or himself open to the viewers and neighbours, exposing family relations, offering a look at himself or herself. Driving through the village with portraits of the inhabitants on the sides of the roads, he’s offering us an experience of a glimpse into this society’s structure. Pawel Grześ gave this vanishing farmer society an opportunity to see itself.
September 2, 2006