Agata Grzybowska, photojournalist: I carry a knife and teargas in my pocket.
Oct 23, 2018
Interview with Agata Grzybowska.
Text: Grzegorz Szymanik
Translation: Aleksandra Szymczyk
GRZEGORZ SZYMANIK: What do you need this photography for?
AGATA GRZYBOWSKA: Since childhood I’ve been obsessed with the world ‘frozen’ in images. First, I preserved it in drawings, then I started to take photos. I was drawn to photojournalism by Marian Schmidt, my professor at Lodz Film School. He said that I had a good approach towards people.
– I preferred to tell stories about people’s problems rather than deal with fashion. What might stylized photography tell us about the condition of humanity? A human who’s entrapped, who experiences extreme poverty, who suffers and is on the verge; forgotten, abandoned and silenced – I feel a great need to talk about such people and give them a chance to be heard. I feel responsible somehow. That’s why I started going to conflict zones – in order to find these people. Besides, I guess, I have predispositions to do so.
– Distorted sense of fear.
I remember. Hardly did we cross the bordering river in Syria and get onto the land and you were already chasing a truck full of heavily armed insurgents to take photos. You never pull back, do you?
– I never pulled back at Maidan. I didn’t think of it at all, I got as close as possible. Only later, in Donbas, at the front line, I realized that I have no control over it. However, it is always hazardous, either something happens to you, or not. You get out of the dugout and suddenly, just a while after, a stray bullet gets through the tiny window and knocks somebody’s jaw off. You go through a field and out of a sudden a soldier who accompanies you clutches your arm. ‘I told you to put your feet up higher’. He points at a thin line, just in front of your foot. At the end of it, there are grenades attached.
In Ukraine, everything was quick and abrupt. I wasn’t able to define what was going on with me. I left for the Bieszczady Mountains with my cameras to re-organize my life, to put it in order.
In general, I want to take better care of myself; to go the psycho-therapist after some more extreme or demanding assignments – to analyze and work through what happened there. I start to set my own borders, to feel responsible, also for the close person, who stays at home, when I am away.
Is it more difficult for a woman to be a war photographer?
– I have already mentioned my distorted sense of fear. But there’s one exception. I feel the fear only in situations, male reporters and photographers have no clue about. Because in the wilderness or in the trench there will be always a guy, who will think that the fact, I take photos of him, means something else. And then will start treating me as an object, will start besetting me. In the Bieszczady Mountains, I photographed the loners; once one of them held my arms and said: ‘I had a hard-on all night long. What are you going to do about it?’. We were in a cottage, in the middle of the forest, miles away from other people. In the end he let me go, but I am really angry that I experience it so often, that I always have to take it into consideration.
How do you deal with it?
– When I am away, I don’t get out without tear gas. Neither do I go out to the streets in the middle of the night.
Have you ever had to use the gas? Do you think that something bad might happen to you at all?
– I always take into account that something might happen to me. I have never had to use the teargas and better for me, but some time ago, in India, the knife appeared to be useful. I traveled on my own, I was in the middle of nowhere and eight men jumped out. They surrounded me, started to touch me up and say what they were going to do to me. I had a knife in my pocket and I punched one of them with a shaft. He pulled back and I used that situation to escape. I do my best to be well prepared. In Warsaw, I train a lot to be in a good shape.
Do you have any masters?
– I used to have: the entire Bang Bang Club, the group of photojournalists, who worked on documenting the downfall of Apartheid in South Africa. Later on, however, this style of conflict photography started to get on my nerves: a war photographer is usually a white guy from a rich and privileged country, a bit of a macho type, who goes to photograph wartime suffering and poverty and then he comes back to bask in glory, to enjoy a legend of a hero and get a Pulitzer. It has nothing to do with courage. The heroes are those who have to live there or doctors who save their lives. That’s why today I value photographers for their approach, their ethical spine, sensitivity and attitude to another person. And to me, this kind of patterns to follow are a correspondent, Marie Colvin (killed during the fighting in Hims, Syria) and Lynsey Addario (kidnapped in Libya).
I am also very attached to socially sensitive photography. Gordon Parks, the black photographer, who documented low-life, racial segregation and effects of the Great Depression, did a great job. There is one photo which relates to the famous painting, American Gothic: a black housekeeper, Ella Watson, is standing with a mop against the background with the American flag. Parks photographed her life, work, her family. He didn’t leave her after this one shot. He would still accompany her and keep in touch with her. That is why this story is deep, complex and moving.
And you? Do you keep in touch with your protagonists?
– Always. I can’t leave them just like that. I would feel terrible, if I dragged out the stories from them and then I came back to my relevantly stable and good country, where I have money and water in the tap.
What kind of contact is that?
– If they ask me for something, I do my best to help them. Sometimes we simply talk or text each other. One of my protagonists from the book about the Bieszczady Mountains, keeps it under the pillow. Sometimes he calls me and says that when he goes through it at night, he doesn’t feel that lonely any more.
Can photography change the world?
– In a global sense – absolutely not. It could in 1960’s, when we were not as flooded with photographs and images as we are today. But it still can change the world in the micro-scale. Someone will see the photo and will donate some money for an organization who helps children whose lives were affected by war. Someone else will see a human being in a refugee.
Your most important photo?
– I guess it is the one from Kramatorsk, from the refugee camp for women who fled from Donetsk occupied by separatists. It depicts a little girl with a growth on her face. Doctors said that this growth had started to evolve into carcinosis and that it should be operated as soon as possible, but the mother had neither money, nor possibilities to have her daughter treated. After publishing Igor Miecik’s article with my photographs the money was immediately donated, and the girl could be operated on. Lambre Foundation, which helped children affected by war in Ukraine, thanks to the exhibition of photographs taken there, could provide a great support to other children as well.
But sometimes you feel that you’ve failed, right?
– Always when I don’t manage to arrive in time. And the more I travel, the greater sense of failure I have – or the injustice of the world – but also a greater disagreement, a revolt against it, and a need to talk about it ever louder, to reach as many recipients as possible, for them to see what the world outside their safe bubble looks like. I would love to cover the whole city with photographs.
Is there anything in this work that gets on your nerves?
– Financial issues. I am not talking about earning whole loads of money, not at all. But when I have problems with paying the rent or I can’t realize my projects the way I would like to, and I have to work in a hurry instead, it is just extremely frustrating.
Should a photojournalist get involved?
– Get involved in people’s lives? Help them? Of course. And in a conflict? Never. Sure, your heart might be on one of the sides, because there are the weaker, the innocent and the attacked there. But still you should go and talk to everybody and show the arguments of both parties. And definitely stay away from guns and weapon. Do you remember the militant from Syria who put Kalashnikov magazines in my bag as a joke? Today I know that he crossed my line. But then I was only learning, I felt that there was something wrong with that, but I wasn’t able to name it yet, to define it.
Today everybody takes photos with their mobiles. Is there still a room for photojournalists, when they will always get there later then the local people?
– The news will be always sent sooner by those, who live there, by local photographers. And it’s good. But photo-reportage can describe why such a situation takes place, you can tell long stories through it. The times have changed and there’s nothing wrong about it. It’s high time to stop living with the myth of correspondents and photojournalists from 1960’s. This is what I would tell myself from the perspective of these few years: stop chasing the news. I don’t want to rush and publish photographs of people whose names I don’t know. Instead of going somewhere for a week, I want to go there for half a year, I need to understand those people and tell their stories. Like Gordon Parks. This way my work is fair.
But even more lonely.
– I believe that loneliness is inscribed in this profession, that as a photojournalist or a reporter who travels to conflict zones you doom yourself to loneliness. But this was also the reason for which I chose to go to the Bieszczady Mountains: by trying to understand people who laid up in the mountains, I wanted to understand myself. If you talk only to other photographers, you lose the distance, but also the contact with people around you, even those closest ones, that’s why I decided to take care of myself, as I would like to work in this profession as long as I can.
Agata Grzybowska, fotoreporterka: Mam w kieszeni nó¿ i gaz
Czujê lêk tylko w sytuacjach, o których reporterzy mê¿czy¼ni nie maj± pojêcia. Rozmowa z Agat± Grzybowsk±, fotoreporterk±