A Conversation with Karolina Gembara

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Ever since my first trip to Warsaw in 2016, I have been following events in Poland. To begin with, the year before the far-right PiS party had won the elections, in many ways foreshadowing what the US went through in 2016.

Especially Warsaw is home to a large number of young and very active artists, writers, and curators. In many ways, the city has possibly the most underrated art scene in Europe, having preserved the can-do spirit that in a place like Berlin has largely been replaced by complacency after waves and waves of gentrification.

In addition, unlike many of their especially Western European counterparts, more often than not Polish artists, writers, and curators are politically very engaged. I can only speculate about the reasons. It might have something to do with the fact that many of them — certainly the ones old enough — experienced the fall of communism in their country as children.

Over the past few years, I have stayed in touch with many of the photographers I met. I have been following what they have been up to, in part through photobooks made in Poland. Last year, after massive protests erupted all over the country as a consequence of abortion being outlawed completely, I noticed how photography became an active part of these protests.

I decided to approach activist, researcher, and photographer Karolina Gembara, to speak with her about the protests, the role of images, plus her own photography. The following conversation was conducted over Zoom in mid January 2021. It has been edited for clarity. Given its length, it’s going to be published in two parts (with the second part coming next week).

Jörg Colberg: Poland has been ruled by a right-wing government. Late last year, the Supreme Court basically prohibited all access to abortion. Can you talk about the political background a little bit and how it affects you as a person and a photographer?

Karolina Gembara: Well, when it comes to political background, things have been very different since 2015 when the right-wing party won the elections. Back then I was already terrified. Just like when Trump won the elections in America, people were thinking “this is the end.” But you still didn’t know what was going to happen. You expect a lot of shit to happen, but you don’t know the details. I remember coming back to Poland in 2016 from India, and I asked myself, if it really was a good moment to come back. I was considering going somewhere else, maybe to Germany, because after seven years of being in India, I had seen what right-wing politics look like.

I had kept the potential of going home as something that would be liberating because in Poland I would feel safer. But that was not the case. I remember thinking in 2016, especially with the war in Ukraine, that we’re at the edge of a serious military conflict. Something really drastic might have happened. I was panicking and wanted to get out. But then things started happening to me professionally. I started my Ph.D. research which is politically engaged, I was invited to join Sputnik Photos. I became very busy with work and also became involved in some activism. So I thought that there’s so much to do here work-wise.

The Women’s Strike started in 2016 with regular Black Protests. The right-wing government proposed that abortion would be banned. We already had a very strict abortion law in in Poland because of a compromise between government and church that goes back to the beginning of 1990s. With our resistance and mass protests we managed to postpone drastic changes. But what happened last year was very surprising. It just shows how extreme it all became. This was especially surprising, also for the Catholics.

The more liberal part of society and more progressive groups always thought that the abortion compromise is something that we had to change. But at least there were these few cases when we could terminate pregnancy. But now everything was suddenly gone. think people just got so angry that this was happening, and it was happening behind our backs, without any understanding of widely supported proposals for a new bill.

A few male judges, presided over by a woman judge, decided that terminating pregnancy in the case of severe and irreversible disability of the fetus or an incurable life-threatening disease is unconstitutional… That’s when people took to the streets, organising the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of communism.

All of these demonstrations that have been happening in the last couple of decades are part of new movements, new movements that are more about values than, let’s say, labor law. For example, we have protests about climate, protests defending democracy, and so on. But in the case of Women Strike, it’s something very basic. Very quickly, this protest turned from women’s fight into a fight against the government. Many people joined because of that. This is an opportunity for them to express how angry they are.

An interesting aspect of the protest is that communication — verbal and written — became very radical. There are many “bad” or nasty words and expressions. Before this happened you would be called rude if you used them, especially if you’re a woman. You would be told “don’t express yourself this way”, you would be told not say to say “fuck off!” because nobody will take you seriously. There was an understanding that when it comes to verbal expression, we have maintain some level of civility. But something broke.

The day when the constitutional tribunal announced their decision, women already brought a huge banner. I think they had been getting ready for that. It said “Fuck off!”. There are many slogans like that. The cardboard banners that people bring to the protests are direct, vulgar, or use intimate symbols. No one is surprised to see a vagina drawn on a banner.

(Odwagi — translation: have courage)

I feel that the language was the easiest to break because it is a mode of oppression. But even liberal media get hysterical over “filthy language”. I mean really? Shouldn’t they get hysterical about real discrimination, real violence? Why is there this expectation that I have to be polite? Cursing doesn’t diminish me as a person, as an artist, as a woman, as an academic. I have to shout because asking and waiting has never increased my rights.

JC: I can’t read Polish but I saw some of these slogans or curses in the newspaper that you had a role in. I think it was made by a collective of photographers. Can you talk a little bit about this? Are you photographing? How did you contribute to the protests?

KG: Are you talking about the Archive of Public Protest?

JC: Yes. Can you talk about this a little bit and about your role?

KG: It’s called APP [Archiwum Protestów Publicznych — Archive of Public Protest]. This is Rafał Milach’s idea (my friend from Sputnik Photos). He invited other photographers who have been present in the streets since 2015 or 2016 to create an online platform where people could look at images from different places, from different protests, and use them.

I never took pictures during the protests apart from snapping something with my phone. At times, I was in a dangerous situation and I would manage to do a live stream. So I do have this rather irresponsible drive, but I never worked as a reporter.

In 2017, I enrolled at the university where I started researching the visuality of protest and how images of recent events have contributed to the way we see the protests. These public gatherings are a relatively new phenomena in Poland. It also is a good opportunity to talk about the agency of those images. Are they oppressive or emancipating? I thought that as a researcher the Archive would be a great study case for me.

But I don’t intend to contribute to it with images because the competition stresses me out. Right now, we have many great photographers, many of them women, who do a great job. I feel that I have nothing better to add.

I do go to protests, but not to all of them. I like to feel that I’m part of this amazing energy. These gatherings have become very spontaneous, they are like a street game. The police warn us that being on the street is illegal, which isn’t true. According to the constitution, even during the pandemic you cannot ban these gatherings. So they chase us and we run away. Then they cut us off somewhere. Some people have to stay, the rest is going to block the street and traffic stops…

As you probably know the police have been very brutal. They use tear gas, they beat people, attack people using undercover cops. Let’s say this is like a participatory research that I’m doing. I observe how people behave, what they do and what they say, how sometimes even the presence of the photographer changes everything. This is something I can notice because I’m not a photographer at the scene.

So I’m present or try to be present, but I’m not as present as I wish. There are people who are real activists, 90% of them are women. They are there every day. They go to the solidarity demonstrations that happen in front of the police station if somebody gets arrested. They are amazing. They devote so much time and effort to show their solidarity. I don’t do that. I wish I had more time. Maybe I wish I was less egoistic because sometimes I decide that I don’t want to go because I feel tired or depressed. Sometimes I am afraid.

Coming back to the archive, at some point Rafał invited me to join the group because he said there’s this great energy, and he would like me to contribute somehow. I was afraid he would ask me to take photographs [laughs] so I offered to write. Right after the October protests we decided to publish a zine, a newspaper, with photographs. I wrote an introduction about the possible performance through the Archive.

The Archive obviously has a structure that reflects a certain way of thinking. There also is an aspect of power and maybe even violence when you go deeper into the nuances: we show certain situations and we do not show other things. It’s selective. So we thought that the newspaper should become a performative object that can be used freely.

It’s a collection of photographs but also of slogans. It’s something that you can hold in front of yourself when you go to the protests. The slogans are taken from different banners. They’re common, and people are familiar with them. There is also the symbol of the Women’s Strike, the red flash designed by Ola Jasionowska.

My job also was to distribute the newspaper during the protests. I walked around with those big plastic IKEA bags and handed it people. They opened them at the protest, they hung them in windows and cars. We pasted them on walls at night. This happened even in Berlin where Polish girls have organised many supporting events.

We’re hoping to spread the idea of an active archive. The images of protests are not only for online contemplation. Thanks to crowdfunding, we’ve just been able to publish the second issue. The text I wrote this time focuses on the state of emergency. Giorgio Agamben describes Western democracies as pseudo-democracies where things have been organised in a way that you can always find an excuse to ban something or interrogate somebody. There’s the naked body, which can be controlled in so many ways, also biologically.

I think that in this very case this idea really applies to the bodies of women who are objectified in the name of religion, twisted tradition etc. We also included quotes from people who have been detained by the police. They talk about what they went through emotionally and how they were treated. So this issue focuses on power and authorities. It focuses on the emergency situation that we already have and on the law that does not really protect us. You avoid dealing with the police. I’m sure you can identify with this issue when it comes to events in the US.

Both newspapers have been delivered to small towns. The first issue had quotes from women who were part of the protests in very small towns. Here in Warsaw, we think of ourselves as Warsaw photographers, Warsaw activists. But we want to be able to hear other voices and include them.

The newspapers travel to places where it’s extremely difficult to protest, for example when there are roughly 50 people in the streets in a small town like my hometown. Everybody knows everybody, and people think that being engaged politically is shameful. Some people will face problems at their workplaces. It’s very different when you are a part of a crowd of 100,000 people in the middle of Warsaw.

(Part 2 of the interview)