The Neoliberal Photo Museum Is Not Your Friend

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The main problem with the neoliberal photography museum — such as Fotografiska — is not that it doesn’t treat photography or photographers properly. To insist on such proper treatment is to miss the place’s mission entirely: what is on view is not photography. Instead, it is neoliberal capitalism itself as it manifests itself through a combination of consumption and of a proper mindset. The photographs on view are merely ornaments.

I should note that we’re stuck with a bad term — museum — that has us evaluate one locale against another. The are many glaring problems at a number of museums. The Whitney Museum board included a producer of tear gas, MoMA has ties to fossil fuel, the British Museum (and many others) is filled with looted goods.

So the fact that Fotografiska isn’t a museum in some ways (the way it is dealing with photography) but very much a museum in other ways (the unseemly control wealthy people control what is on view) tells us that to focus on the what a place might have to do to be called a museum is a grave mistake.

To begin with, though, the idea that you can’t have a museum without a collection is ludicrous. It only serves to preserve the power of existing museums. It’s also self-defeating, since many museums don’t have the purchasing power to operate in the contemporary art market.

In the end, what matters is the quality of exhibitions put on display. This includes not only curating in the narrow sense of assembling something under a theme (“Nudes made by female artists”) but also creating a solid framework around it that intends to enrich the audience’s understanding with wall text or multimedia presentations or simply old-fashioned catalogues.

In 1971, Hans Haacke was supposed to have an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York City. Haacke wanted to include a piece about real estate: “The works contain no evaluative comment. One set of holdings are mainly slum-located properties owned by a group of people related by family and business ties. The other system is the extensive real estate interests, largely in commercial properties, held by two partners.” It was not to be. The show was cancelled, the curator in charge was fired. (You can find Haacke’s words in the article.)

The 1971 Haacke incident obviously has nothing to do with Fotografiska Berlin. But it actually has everything to do with it. To understand this better we need to understand that the neoliberal museum serves more than one function. A minor and relatively unimportant part of the functions is to showcase photography (regardless of whether the staff are actually aware of this or not).

The main function is something different: it’s commercial. Fotografiska Berlin is part of a real-estate development in Berlin that is geared towards the very wealthy. The museum’s role is to serve as an ornament, as a token. It provides a veneer of culture in an environment that otherwise is devoid of it. Not every neoliberal museum is attached to an effort to zhuzh up real estate, though. But you want to always see whether there might not be some other purpose when another one of these places opens somewhere.

Neoliberal capitalism will happily appropriate anything and use it for its own goals (well, almost anything, I’ll get to that). And art in general provides a brilliant opportunity to kill a number of birds with a single stone: you can invest in art (satisfying your financial needs). But through that investment you can also buy cultural and societal cachet, and you can showcase how much you care or pretend to care about larger societal themes (such as diversity or feminism or whatever else).

If you think about it, that’s brilliant. What else can you buy that delivers such a broad return on investment? If you look at things from this angle, traditional museums are not necessarily exempt from the criticism I’m leveling here. As I already noted, the boards of many museums are filled with people who view their presence as a commercial investment and who will use their influence accordingly.

We need to be talking about all of these institutions in general — even as some might be a lot worse — or maybe blatant would be the right word — than others.

By the way, none of the above or of what is still to follow is intended as a criticism of the photographers who for some reason or other agree to have their work shown at these places. Theirs is the world of precarity that the people behind these institutions exploit. Specifically, the Berlin based artists exhibiting at the local Fotografiska are part of the many Berliners who have trouble finding or keeping affordable living spaces. In addition, they might struggle having or finding affordable studio spaces.

Fotografiska isn’t any more dedicated to photography than Pier 24 was. Founded by a wealthy venture capitalist, for a while Pier 24 upended the United States’ photography scene in general and San Francisco’s in particular, establishing itself as a locale where photography was going to be celebrated (never mind the insanely elitist way photographs were supposed to be viewed). This went well until the city stepped in and demanded a fair rental contract for the prime location in question. It was at that stage that it was announced that the collection was going to be auctioned off, with Pier 24 closing down.

Given that previously, the site’s focus and dedication to photography had been talked about so much, the obvious question is how much dedication there had been in the first place. I know that its staff very much care for photography (I’ve spoken with a number of them, and I admire their dedication to the medium). The photographs could have gone to local museums, or some other locale could have probably been found. But for its owner, Pier 24 might just have never really been about photography in the first place.

The interior of the Berlin Fotografiska, based in Berlin’s Mitte district, a completely gentrified hellhole of shallow consumption, features graffiti made by squatters who occupied the building until they were evicted. Given that the graffiti is legally protected (as noted by Berlin based newspaper taz), removing it would not have been an option. But gentrifiers love graffiti because it confers a sense of edgy credibility.

A lot of appropriation is obscene, but this one is particularly so. Visitors pay good money so that the new owners of an old building show them how adornments made by people hoping for a more just and equal society now serve to demonstrate how the state (city) conspired with capital to defeat what both saw as a threat to their dominance.

There’s a telling quote in a recent New York Times article about Berlin’s Fotografiska. “What’s happening in Berlin is, we had a great time drinking out of plastic cups,” Yoram Roth, the person behind the place, is quoted as saying, “But we have an audience now that wants a nice glass of wine, a sensible meal, and to be part of the cultural landscape.” That “we” in the first part — that’s the revealing bit. That “we” includes Roth and his peers: wealthy individuals, property developers, bankers, people who inherited money — the Mitte district crowd. And that “we” has now decided that it would rather swap out those who can’t be too picky about their drinking receptacles of choice for those who can. So it goes.

It’s the old story of gentrification: artists occupy run-down spaces, create a cool — if edgy — atmosphere, and rich vultures buy them all up and transform them into a “cool” shopping centers. And finally the well-off can finally enjoy “a nice glass of wine” and “a sensible meal” without having to worry about the creative underclass and their uncouth ways of living any — even as, of course, they keep their adornments for show.

Of course, it would really not be the New York Times if the article did not include gems such as the following: “Although their models might be different, there is some overlap between the Tacheles’s objectives and those of Fotografiska Berlin”. Someone from Fotografiska gets to explain why that is (I guess cribbing from the place’s PR notes would have been too obvious?). The article’s final line gives away whose perspective you’re reading: “In the meantime, maybe Berlin will finally offer a decent martini.” The New York Times writes for the “we” crowd.

I already noted that the neoliberal photography museum is not interested in photography. It is also not particularly interested in photographers. If there is support for photographers, that support is merely a side effect of the larger endeavour. Of course, at this stage the world of art photography is so starved of meaningful financial support that the moment someone steps in to offer anything, that will be seen as an incredible improvement.

However, I maintain that any initiative that does not address the systemically starved support system of photography is not interested in helping photographers — even if selected individuals might indeed rake in some money. Any initiative that does not engage and cooperate with already existing local photography institutions or museums is not interested in furthering photography in the particular city it appears.

What makes this all more complicated is the fact that the people behind Fotografiska are diverse. This should be the lowest of all bars but, alas, in Germany certainly isn’t. For example, over the past few years the main exhibitions at C/O Berlin have been dominated by very old (mostly white) men, many of them from the US. That’s just really, really bad.

However, even as the neoliberal museum and its patrons will indeed express a keen interest in societal issues, maybe even embracing intersectionality (the fact that individual topics should not be seen in isolation from each other), such intersectionality always excludes money and class. In 1971, the Guggenheim did not want to talk about money and class. Today’s neoliberal museums don’t want to discuss these, and neither do the denizens of Berlin’s Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg districts. This mirrors larger parts of the art world that has made itself dependent on capital.

We might note that historically, the arts have always been closely enmeshed with powerful wealthy people who threw artists some crumbs to further their own interests. I suppose for me it’s fascinating that I am able to observe in real time what I previously read about in history books, with contemporary Andrew Carnegie types throwing around a little money to whitewash their name while furthering their businesses.

What ended up driving me to write this article was not the emergence of yet another Fotografiska, the one in Berlin. Instead, it was the way Pier 24 folded after it was unable to extend its lease with the city. Deciding to close it all down and to sell off the collections — that struck me as such a temper tantrum. Who does that? Who builds up a pretty amazing collection of photography, talking about their love for photography — only to then just dump it?

And then I realized the type of person behind it: someone who has interests other than photography in mind. It’s pure neoliberal capitalism: if something doesn’t work, destroy it and move on to the next thing (regardless of who or what falls by the wayside). If something needs a little whitewashing — let’s say the gruesome gentrification of Berlin’s Mitte district into a neoliberal Disneyland — then let’s add on a little museum that ticks a few important boxes.

In 2020, Art in American described Fotografiska as one of the “virtue-signaling institutions”, and that seems about right. That is neoliberal capitalism as well: exploiting the planet and then sipping the wine (mind you, out of real glasses!) in front of art that, you see, is critical.

The difference between, say, MoMA and Fotografiska Berlin might come down to the following. The former is a museum that comes with a gift shop. The latter is a gift shop that comes with a museum. Both are controlled by wealthy people with very specific interests that are defined not by what is included in its spaces but what is excluded. Whether one is really so much better than the other is absolutely not clear to me.

Where this leaves photographers also is not clear to me. In a nutshell, as photographers we are in desperate need of a much larger and much more robust support system. We’re not going to get it from politicians, and for sure we’re not going to get it from the people who fund neoliberal museums.

So how can you go about what you want to do?

Obviously, individual photographers will have to make decisions for themselves. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with photographers working with neoliberal museums. If it makes you money or gets your work in front of an audience you think you want, that’s great. Just don’t forget about the larger picture.

What it comes down to, though, might be something a friend told me the other day. Museums might simply be comparable to malls: relics of the past that are failing. The question is what might replace them.

Given that many photographers share the same struggles, cooperatives or similar structures might provide a good way to create mutual support systems. Creating and working in a shared exhibition space also might be much easier if you can share resources and skills.

Given the troubled real-estate situation in places like Berlin, such spaces might simply be temporary. But temporary spaces might be able to re-produce some of the exciting and creative atmosphere that neither traditional nor neoliberal museums can offer.

For this to work, artists will have to consider their own needs much more than they do when they make themselves dependent on the trickle-down support offered by the wealthy.

They also need to reconsider who their audience actually is — or whether they really want to make art only for other artists, for curators, and for the occasional rich person who waltzes in to pick up another investment.



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I don’t want to know how Lucy Raven’s Socorro! shadowgrams came about. I have my reasons. To begin with, knowing about the details of the underlying process collapses the images’ possible meanings and their impact.

For better or mostly worse, the world of photography’s insistence on overemphasizing the details of process often reduces such images to less than what they could be. Photography is a visual medium, and we ought to be able to engage with its imagery at that level — instead of jumping to explanations for why things look the way they do.

If photography really aspires to be a form of art, then photographers and anyone else involved in the field will have to learn to engage with photographs accordingly. This means to stop asking for explanations of craft/process (or, for photographers, to stop providing them) and to talk about the pictures on a purely aesthetic level. Not: why does this look the way it looks? Instead: what is this doing with me? What am I seeing, what am I feeling? And what might these two mean for me?

There also is the fact that I studied physics, and I am familiar with imagery that is similar. This is where my own life experience might differ from many other people’s: I am able to read many images that arise from a physics background because I was trained to do so. But I don’t work in that field any longer, and I do not want to read these images in a scientific fashion, regardless of their possible scientific background.

Socorro! is a relatively large book (27.9 x 36.3cm or 11″ x 14.3″). I’m immediately thinking that the images in the book are facsimiles of the originals, and I find that interesting. While a photobook’s viewer always is only able to see a translation of its source images, typically photobook makers intend to make that translation as accurate as possible. By “translation” I here mean that you try to get images that were printed using ink to look like images that arose from traditional photographic materials (silver-gelatin paper).

When I was much younger, I went to a concert where the band sold t-shirts that stated “The songs sound all the same”. On the one hand, that obviously wasn’t true. On the other hand, it kind of was (which created part of the appeal The Wedding Present). I suspect that a casual viewer will react to the images in the book in the same fashion: the images look all the same. It’s true, kind of; but it absolutely isn’t.

I find that interesting, too, and it is this fact that had me want to write about the work. Not so long ago, I started to appreciate music that is quite abstract and that broadly speaking falls into the genre of ambient music. It might not surprise you that when I listened to The Wedding Present, I would have considered such music boring. But it’s not really boring at all — quite on the contrary. Given that I don’t write about music but about photography,  Socorro! seemed like a perfect opportunity to understand and write about images that — and this is a terribly superficial comparison — are the equivalent of Martyna Basta’s music (I’m thinking in particular of Making Eye Contact With Solitude).

If you wanted to describe the images in Socorro! you might be tempted to reach for visual comparisons. Some of the images look like sections of a stained concrete wall whose material has deteriorated with age. Others resemble what out-of-focus X-ray images might look like (even though I have never seen one).

There are images that feature cones with objects at their apices, or rather their shadows. Here, I can’t help but think of images of a jet breaking the sound barrier, producing a shock wave around it. But I am also compelled to think of the imagery produced by a US newspaper that tried to visualize the effect of bullets from military-grade weapons tearing through the human body. And then there is a photograph by Shomei Tomatsu that I can’t help but think of as well.

Some images are pitch black and feature only a few dust specks sprinkled on them. There’s the occasional Gerhard-Richter-is-squeegeeing-a-canvase effect, and some images remind me of what happened when Idris Khan took a large number of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers or gas tanks and layered them on top of each other.

The less detail you have, the more you’re able to associate with the small amount of information given to you. I find this interesting. It points at something Siegfried Kracauer wrote: “If […] one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.” I suspect I shouldn’t use the word “boredom” in a review. But I might as well point out the richness of experiences discussed in Documents of Contemporary Art: Boredom. I feel that the richness of those experiences is mostly underappreciated in the world of photography; this book brings me close to them.

Maybe you have experience with meditation, and you’re able to connect with these images in such a fashion. This is not to say that the images in Socorro! are meditative (they’re also not boring in case that wasn’t clear from the preceding). That’s such a terrible word to use to describe a piece of visual art (much like “poetic”). The images are not meditative. But you could engage with them in such a fashion that your experience might bring up aspects of meditation.

I remember that Ludwig Wittgenstein once said something to the effect of that when he went to a museum, he preferred to just look at just one painting. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate the actual quote online. But let’s pretend that he said that. I think that approach would be very good for the book. In fact, that’s how I engaged with it ever since I got it in the mail. I open it at some random location, and then I spend time with one of its images, however long I feel is right at that moment. Sometimes, it’s a short moment. Sometimes, it’s quite a bit of time.

I think that this approach might help those who struggle with the images. Unless you’re already attuned to this kind of ambient imagery, leafing through the book might tempt you to compare and contrast. You don’t want to compare and contrast these images any more than you want to come to any conclusions. You just want these images to be, and you want your thoughts and feelings about them to be. That’s enough.

It is a gorgeous book. Like I said, it’s rather large, and as is often the case with this publisher it’s very attractive. There are two sections that contain essays; these are printed on a bright yellow paper (a very different stock than the rest). I can’t say anything about the essays. I will read them once I feel that reading them will not spoil my ability to engage with the images.

Maybe I still can’t write anything coherently about these images. But I’m not sure that is a problem. If you’re an artist, you know about the importance of moving out of your comfort zone. As a viewer, you want to be able to do the same.

I know that I now see a little differently, and I experience photography a little bit differently. Not being able to write about it perfectly has me think that I’m still in the spot where the engagement is freshest. I know it will not last; for now I will cherish these moments.


Socorro!; photograms by Lucy Raven; essays by Pamela M. Lee and David Levi Strauss; 120 pages; MACK; 2023

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Confusion and Hostility

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“Today,” Sean Tatol writes, “the mere suggestion that some things are better than others, particularly in the arts, is met with confusion and hostility.” Tatol’s is a long piece that — almost inevitably — mixes real insight with what you might find questionable. Where in particular these two separate out — again almost inevitably — might differ from reader to reader. If anything, for me that’s the beauty of engaging with art: where else are you going to clash with someone else’s subjectivity in such an elaborate fashion?

For a critic, writing about criticism of course involves a large amount of naval gazing. This is inevitable. However, if you engage with it to confront your own contradictions, which I believe is Tatol’s goal, then there is insight to be gained not just for your readers but also, and this is the most important part, for yourself. After all, as a critic you periodically want to evaluate what you do and how you do that: Criticism can always only be imperfect, and it’s from that imperfection that its true value is to be gained.

I like reading about criticism, and I like thinking about how I approach my own. It’s not that I need to do it every day or every week or even every month. I just need to do it somewhat regularly. It’s finding pieces like Tatol’s that usually has me engage with it again.

What drives me doing this — meaning this site — is the goal that I will be growing both as a writer/critic but also as a photographer and a person. The hope is that some of that growth might be shared in some fashion with readers, however indirect that might be.

Rarely, if ever, do I go back to my old writing. It’s not that I dislike it. I think many writers cringe reading their old work, realizing that this or that aspect could or maybe should have been better. There’s that. But there also is the fact that the person who wrote some piece five years ago is not the same any longer as the one who reads it now.

Furthermore, I am frequently baffled by people telling me about something I wrote in the past, especially if that past is removed quite a few  years. I might hear that (this is just some random example) six years ago, I made a comment about a photographer in the context of talking about another photographer. But now, in a recent piece about the first photographer, I somehow did not address that comment. How come? Well, to begin with, I actually do not remember everything I’ve ever written or said. That aside, though, in those six years I’ve changed. There is no simple connection between past and present words even as there is the temptation to believe otherwise.

“The value of the arts,” Tatol writes further into his piece, “is the capacity to teach intelligence by learning to perceive intelligence, which is itself the content of art; the expression of perceptivity in whatever form.” I think that’s a really good way to express part of what makes art art. Obviously, there is more to intelligence that the intellectual kind. As long as you also accept emotional intelligence, you might find yourself in agreement with Tatol.

A number of ideas expressed in the piece come down to differences in taste, education/biography, or simply in style. As I said, I disagree with quite a bit; but none of that matters much for the larger point.

My main problem with Tatol’s piece is his treatment of what he calls bad art. “The disappointment of bad art is its inability to be anything more than what was expected,” he says. While that is true for some bad art (public art is maybe the best example), there is a lot of art that I think is bad for very different reasons.

Possibly my biggest disagreement focuses on the following: “Most contemporary art writing uses interpretation as a way of sidestepping the problem of quality, but interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad.” I’m going to ignore the aspect of quality that Tatol insists on throughout his piece. It is the latter — “interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad” — that I object to most strongly. I’d argue the complete opposite: interpretations are most interesting and important if the art itself is bad.

As a critic, you have to work so much harder if the art you want to write about is bad. Or rather if you think it is bad, because on its own a piece of art is simply a piece of art. The hard work involves writing a piece that a lot of people don’t want to read (especially not the artist in question and certainly not her or his publisher and/or gallery).

It also involves writing a piece that many other people want to read because a bad review is so rare; the spectacle that can (and usually will) be created from it plus snide social-media comments will almost inevitably mar the impact the piece could have if people didn’t freak out so much.

The hard work involves making yourself write about something that you don’t necessarily want to write about. Who wants to deal with bad art? The hardest part of that hard work is to somehow arrive at a piece that makes its case in an intelligent fashion. Often, you’ll find that your judgment is based on misguided ideas. At other times, it takes a lot of research and thinking to figure out why the art really is bad. It’s usually a lot of hard work. But it’s very rewarding.

In a two-part essay, Ben Davis uses a different approach to respond to Sean Tatol’s essay. There’s much in those pieces as well. I’ll just pick out one that especially resonated with me: “To Tatol’s three horsemen of the Critical Apocalypse—greed, indifference, and literal-minded sloganeering—I would add a fourth, slightly less voluntaristic: “degeneration of the media environment.””

If you look at the photography ecosystem, you might find yourself in agreement with Davis: “In some ways, more culture writing circulates than ever before, but with fewer resources invested in any individual piece of writing. What you get is a great sense of redundancy and thinness.” (I would like to think that you don’t find the latter on this site, but as always your mileage might vary.)

I still believe that this site should exist, and I still believe that there is value to it. It’s reading about and responding to pieces that center on criticism that re-ignite part of the passion that inevitably gets depleted when I’m writing into what often feels like a vacuum.

That said, if the ecosystem in which real criticism exists continues to get depleted even further, instead of talking about criticism we might as well be asking whether the descent of vast parts of photography into providing a feel-good adornment for glorified shopping/life-style centers for the well-off isn’t what we really need to be discussing.

APP: Three Years Later

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It was roughly halfway through a conversation with Polish photographer Rafał Milach when I realised that my original premise for this piece was misguided. But let’s start at the very beginning.

Poland’s ruling neofascist party, PiS, understands that for it to destroy the country’s democracy and cement its power it needs to undermine the judiciary. Finding majorities for its far-right agenda is sometimes difficult, especially since the courts might stand in the way of implementing measures that violate the constitution. Thus, a few years ago PiS set out to “reform” the courts. “Reform” here means stuffing them with lawyers who aren’t interested in the law but who instead do what they’re supposed to do (this might sound very familiar to Americans).

A huge fight erupted with the European Union (EU). The rule of the law is the main basis of the EU, and the EU would have none of PiS’ judicial manoeuvres in Poland. But the EU was powerless to prevent Poland’s “reformed” highest court from declaring that abortion was illegal (again, this might sound very familiar to Americans). In late 2020, Polish women thus became second-class citizens.

All over the country, huge demonstrations erupted. There had already been large demonstrations against the judicial “reforms”. But the abortion ruling triggered the largest wave of demonstrations since the fall of Communism. A large group of photographers joined in and took pictures of what was happening in their communities. This is where the situations in Poland and the US diverge.

The Polish photographers decided that their separate work needed to come together and live in a shared space: the Archive of Public Protests (APP). In addition, the work would be shared not only online but also in physical form, as a mass-produced newsprint publication that was going to be handed out at demonstrations: the Strike newspaper was born.

There quickly was a succession of these publications as the political situation in Poland spiralled out of control while a number of other crises popped up. There were additional Strike issues about climate protests and the migrant crisis at the border with Belarus. After the war in Ukraine started and a huge wave of refugees arrived in Poland, there was a newspaper about that as well.

As you might remember from a number of articles on this site, I have been extremely interested in APP and the Strike newspaper. I don’t believe in the idea that photographers should set themselves apart from the societies they live in. I also don’t think that it’s a good idea that photographers are only making work for their peers and a small select group of curators (typically trained in art history or curatorial studies, whatever the latter might be) and wealthy collectors.

Karolina Gembara handing out Strike newspapers in Warsaw

The Strike newspapers made these Polish photographers active participants in the protests. Not only did they share their photographs for free, they also incorporated slogans from the protests. Someone picking up a newspaper might use it at a protest or maybe hang it in their window for other people to see.

Now that about three years had passed, I was curious about how things had evolved. I decided to approach two of the members of APP that I know well, Rafał Milach and Karolina Gembara (I spoke with them separately).

Specifically, I thought, it would be great to learn about the impact of these newspapers. And that’s where I had it all wrong. Or rather I realised that while seemingly rejecting standard photoland thinking — where the impact of something is measured by how many copies it sells and by how much of a commotion it triggered, I had internalised that very thinking after all.

“We never had a plan,” Rafał tells me, “we were aiming for one edition of the first issue. I was receiving so many good images. I knew that they’re going to disappear, even if we put them in the Archive. It’s possible to find them, but it’s difficult. So when you have this tight edit of very strong images, that can bring you back to this time and energy around the protests.”

I suppose the lack of a plan cuts both ways. On the one hand, you’re driven by your energy, and you push things a lot faster than if you were to proceed more cautiously. And how could you be cautious if there’s a civic emergency right outside of your kitchen window?

On the other hand, once you roll the boulder down the hill (to use a rather imperfect metaphor), the hill — not you — will decide where it will go. “Recently,” Karolina says, “I participated in a workshop for activists with a focus on the theory of change. This is a theory where you sit down with your colleagues and discuss the change you want to make. There are certain steps and one of them is to establish the goal: what would be the outcome of our activity? And how do you measure it? How do you know that we achieved the goal? I realised that we applied none of this to our work at A-P-P.”

A simple way to measure impact would be to look at the numbers of newspapers produced. Rafał: “It’s certainly above 30,000 [newspaper copies so far]. Maybe more. It’s a lot when we think about the photobook world. It’s even a lot when you think about mainstream print media. Print runs are dropping because everyone is cutting costs. In the Polish market, weekly magazines that used to have 300,000 copies now operate at the level of 50 or 60,000 printed copies. Of course, we have a total of 30000. And I’m not saying that we compete with mainstream media outlets. It’s a relatively small, but relevant number of printed newspapers that can be used in the Polish context.”

“I would say that the newspapers contributed to the visuality of the protests in Poland,” Karolina says, “we see them in windows, in people’s houses, in cars. A lot of people send us pictures of these displays. They use them as a way to communicate — to their neighbours, to the streets, to pedestrians — what they stand for.”

It’s exactly here where my original idea for this piece stopped making sense. Looking at numbers of newspapers, thinking about a direct, measurable impact — this thinking reduces the whole idea to only a narrow utilitarian aspect.

Both Karolina and Rafał were a little stumped when I asked them about the impact their work has had. “The best feedback that we can possibly get,” Rafał tells me, “is that people are sharing images of the newspaper on social media. And we see how the newspapers are used in different locations, how they are reused. Very often, it’s in the background of mainstream TV broadcasts.”

The larger impact is hard to assess, though, as Karolina explains: “Sometimes we would send 100, 200, or 300 copies to a place that requested those newspapers, such as a university or a photography festival. We trust the people, we trust the kinds of events that the newspapers were used for. But their impact is hard to measure. Maybe newspapers got stuck in someone’s basement? Having said that I wish we had more resources, both in terms of people and money, to send it to more places.”

I suppose what this all comes down to is that if your work becomes a part of a civic engagement that explicitly rejects some of the mechanisms from the bubble you operate in, that engagement follows its own, larger societal rules. You drop the big stone into the pond and you allow for the ripples to move outwards — without expecting too much back in return. After all, real civic engagement lives exactly off of that: actions that are the means to an end that exists in a different sphere altogether.

Both Rafał and Karolina made it clear that there were a number of other aspects that in part were unforeseen (possibly in part because they might have been unforeseeable). “Photography has a handicap as a medium when it comes to communication,” Rafał says, “text is so much stronger. All the electricity is about the text, about the language, about the slogans, about something that is very much verbal and non-visual. I’m not saying that the visual representation [of the protests] is not important. But the most electrifying things are connected with the language and with the text. That is something I learned from these publications.”

I think in the world of photography we often think that our pictures will do more than they actually do, in part because we overestimate what they can do. Can a photograph compete with the symbol of the red lightning that’s part of the women’s rights movement in Poland? It would seem that the answer is no.

And there were other insights. “To me making a newspaper is a way of coping mentally with the problem it raises,” Karolina notes, “when the war in Ukraine stared I responded to almost every request: finding transportation, accommodations, hosting, or simply making sandwiches for people arriving at the train station in Warsaw. I was really terrified and exhausted as there was no end to the needs. Then we started making the newspaper, and although it felt less practical, I knew this tool and I knew it worked. Some people are simply far more effective when it comes to psychologically taking care of others.”

Maybe this is the big lesson from the APP newspapers: What matters is that they were made and brought out into the world. Whatever ripple effects might be produced is something difficult to predict — unless, as Karolina noted earlier, you adopt the tools and methodologies of activists.

But there is another aspect: locale. I had long been wondering why the idea of the free newspapers had not been adopted by people outside of Poland. After all, there are plenty of problems in many countries.

As it turns out, for a number of reasons, things might not be as simple as that. “My personal experience with the newspaper devoted to the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border in Berlin was quite upsetting,” Karolina tells me, “I went to some protests because we had published that particular issue also in German. People didn’t want to take it from me. There was an argument around the paper. They didn’t want the waste. But I also felt that there was no trust in what it is: maybe a propaganda? I was trying to explain what the newspaper is about but a very few people actually took one from me.” As a consequence, she says, “it is maybe fair to notice that in Poland the newspapers are known, requested and used. But abroad they get more attention in the institutional context.”

This might also explain why we haven’t seen similar initiatives outside of Poland. The US protests against the abortion ban were much briefer, and there was no equivalent of the Strike newspapers.

I will admit that I had some naive hopes that APP and their newspapers would trigger similar initiatives elsewhere. But this does not appear to have happened, which might say more about different civic cultures and societal differences than about photoland itself. Given that the newspapers are now finding their ways to Western cultural institutions and festivals, there always is the chance that their spark might light a local fire after all.