Post-Industrial Silesia, 2001-2006 text

Many Polish photographers after World War II have attempted to wrestle with one of the most difficult themes in Polish reality, which is Silesia. How to depict its synthetic vision and first of all its people and their problems, and also degraded environment and architecture?

Also Jerzy Wierzbicki (born in 1975), who had earlier depicted the suburbs of Gdańsk (he has recently published his book entitled Gdańsk Suburbia), made such an attempt.The photographer emphasizes the meaning of monumental architecture, which in Silesia can appear as the set in a theatrical stage – empty spaces evoking the feeling of existential emptiness. Is there any way out of this dark situation and depressing space, which can be compared to hell on earth? Possibly, our hope for the better future are children who still did not yield to alcoholism. At least not entirely! Perhaps we can find hope in symbols of religion, which lasts intact, for instance in the form of roadside cross. But for how long? It may be that the rescue lies in revitalization of that territory and reconstruction of industry or at least in a partial change of its status. That is the shortest summary of the historically-sociological issues, which I observe in suggestive and powerful in their visual message photographs by Wierzbicki.The style of his photographs undoubtedly is not homogenous, nor concentrated on one esthetics. The photographer uses a wide-angle lens which magnifies and deforms the depicted reality. He likes frames like in the 19th-century photographs, in which architecture, without people who were considered unnecessary, was presented in a monumental way. In these pictures I can notice nostalgia for the bygone greatness and importance of that exceptional region.

Other photographs depict ethos of work, although that theme is very dangerous and inconvenient for the newest photography because of the Polish tradition of socialistic realism, which vulgarized that issue. Wierzbicki, however, wishes to refer to the idea of Sebastiao Salgado, who in a very suggestive manner presented declining forms of industry all over the world, including shipbuilding industry in Poland (around 1980). Wierzbicki successfully searches for symbol-sign of that region. He finds it in fragments of the reality, as well as in such details as hands, pickax or coal. He depicts drudgery of everyday life in which the only available job is collecting scrap metal or exploiting closed mine headings, what is very dangerous and proves tragic situation of many people in this region. Everything is gray and terrifying in its hopelessness. Note of nostalgia appears in the photograph depicting ethnic minority, namely Gypsies. The problem of the lack of acceptance of distinctness is still present in nowadays world. Here unequalled example to follow is still the famous series by Josef Koudelka from the 1960s Gypsies. However, it is a very difficult theme because of the lack of collaboration between a photographer and a photographed. In some of his photographs Wierzbicki reaches to traditions of photojournalism and reportage, including the contest World Press Photo which, unfortunately, has lost its significance that it had in the 1970s or 1980s, because it excessively idealized the presented reality instead of showing its critical vision, which is extremely difficult. In his e-mail from February 2006, Wierzbicki wrote to me about his inspirations: “Moreover, in the course of time, I have noticed that my reception of Koudelka’s works was influenced by the fact that I like quite dark and contrastive photographs taken with a lens falsifying the perspective, and the book about Gypsies is exactly of such stylistics.

I used to be fascinated by Jindřich Štreit because of his warm and heartily photographs, and later by several less known Magnum photographers, such as Jean Gaumy or Lise Sarfati. I should also mention Witold Krassowski and Tomasz Tomaszewski.” Wierzbicki’s artistic works are characterized by visual awareness which existed in the best period of Polish reportage in the era of Solidarity Movement. There is also, but not that often, modern frame manipulation which was used in the 1920s in “new photography”, but also later in the 1950s – 80s – starting from photographs by Robert Frank who proved that documentary photography can also be of surreal expression. Wierzbicki depicts sadness and melancholic life of Silesia, emphasizing the problem of citizens losing themselves in life, everyday non-existence which, to a large extent, appeared as the result of lack of work and poverty. How can we help them and can this be done by means of photography? There are no certain answers to these questions, yet presenting this problem is already an attempt of finding its solution.

Krzysztof Jurecki