Commissioned to photograph Wrzesnia for a year, and given free reign to shoot what he liked, Adam Lach created an extraordinary portrait of a place
Born in Poland in 1983, Adam Lach is based in Warsaw. He is the co-founder of Napo Images, and works as a photojournalist for international titles such as The New York Times, Le Monde, L’espresso, Die Zeit, GEO, Newsweek, Le’Magazine, and Svenska Dagebladet. His work was also recently included in Vice’s Photo Issue, where it was paired with Alec Soth’s images. Lach’s photography has been exhibited internationally, and he has published two books, Stigma (2014) and Neverland (2016). BJP caught up with him to find out more about his career to date and the Neverland project, which was shot on commission with a very open brief for the Wrzesnia Collection.
BJP: How did you get into photography?
Adam Lach: I bought my first analogue camera when I was in high school, a Zenit. From the very beginning I started photographing out on the street but it wasn’t typical street photography, I tried to learn how to get closer to people. My dad took pictures too, and we had a developing box and an enlarger at home, so I had the opportunity to process my first film by myself, in the bathroom. We didn’t have any tutorials on YouTube at that time, so I had to learn everything from the books.
By the end of the school I had begun to think that photography was what I would like to do in the future. I went on to study photography at the Academy of Photography WSF AFA in Wroclaw, Poland.
BJP: You have a successful career as a press photographer, how did you get into that?
AL: It was a very long road, and hard work. While studying I worked for Panorama Dolnośląska, a daily newspaper, but from the very beginning I knew I didn’t want to have a full time job. I wanted to be a freelancer, although I was 20 years old then. Then I started to work for my first agency – Eastnews, who helped me commit to reportage. Two years later I started to work for Newsweek – it was something unusual, I was 22!
That was the beginning of a long collaboration, and I learnt a lot there. I had the chance to work with famous editors, who spoke with me about my pictures and critiqued them, but also looked out for me. In 2008, when we created Napo Images agency, international press editors started calling – New York Times, Le Monde etc, and that’s how I started to work with foreign journalists and magazines.
BJP: What do you focus on in your long-term projects? Your style varies quite a bit?
AL: I focus on people, relationships, emotions, and intimacy. I like to work on portraying the lives of small communities. For me, photography is a medium in which I’m constantly searching for a certain form of expression. For many years I have noticed that the more simple and more sublime approach to the picture, the more the story becomes real and truthful. I always try to match the means of expression and the technique with the subject.
Stigma tells the story of a family of Romanian Roma, and I shot it in colour because the way they emphasise colour in their culture seemed an inherent part of the story. But I chose to shoot Neverland in black-and-white because I liked the idea of imposing very specific way of photographing on myself – analogue, medium-format, with additional flash. I decided to reject colour because it could distract the viewer’s attention from what seemed to me most significant.
It forced me to get closer to people, to reduce the distance, sometimes to enter the private sphere, to earn their trust. I tried to work like a press photographer in the 1930s or ’40s, very intuitively. I prepared for it for months.
BJP: How did the Neverland commission come about?
AL: Neverland came via my participation in the Wrzesnia Collection, a long-term photography project and ongoing photographic residency which is creating an ever-growing photo archive on the Wrzesnia Town and Commune. Every year, the Mayor of Wrzesnia Town and Commune invites one photographer, selected by the curator, to spend some time in the town creating a personal series of images that illustrates the district and its inhabitants.
I had a very open brief, it was completely up to me how to portray the place. It’s an extraordinary little city, but it also seems very boring and calm on the face of it. I had to work like a journalist, cooperating with the local newspaper and researching every local event, initiative, meeting or story that could be interesting. All these events were an opportunity to meet the people, to spend some time with the community.
I shot it over a year, making trips back and forth to Wrzesnia, always sleeping in a hotel. I ended up with about 130 negatives and some digital pictures, which I edited with Filip Cwik, a photographer who is also with Napo Images.
BJP: How did you choose what to shoot in Wrzesnia?
AL: I photographed what was important for the community, in such a small city every special occasion attracts people. I noticed that these special occasions give the public a sense of belonging to a community, and at the same time they gave me the possibility for seeing differences and divisions between people.
BJP: There are quite a few photographs of children in the series, why is that?
AL: Children are an important part of the community. One of the most important people for this story and my book was the 12-year-old Nadia Smolarkiewicz. When I found out that there is a girl from Wrzesnia Commune who writes poems, I asked her to write something for me about her home. This poem opens the book. But she also showed me other poems and I realised that they could bring a remarkable reflection in the story. There are four poems in the book and Nadia has written more, but we decided not to show them yet.
BJP: The picture of the young men brandishing their fists looks a bit sinister, did you mean it to?
AL: They are the supporters at a MMA fight tournament, who I suspect are connected with the far right. In the book this photo is symbolically connected with the picture of black canvas at the train station. It supposed to indicate the xenophobia problem in small cities.
BJP: Was it difficult to win the people’s trust?
AL: I’ve never had any trouble with winning somebody’s trust or making new relationships, probably because of my mum! Trust is the most important thing in my photographic mission. I’m always honest with my subjects, I take the responsibility for them, it’s my duty. I’ve never lied. Even if my image shows somebody in negative context, he or she is aware of it. I believe that that’s the reason I’ve hardly ever had any issue with winning people’s trust. Nowadays, working in accordance with the journalists’ codes of conduct is one of the most important issues emerging in documentary photography. I’m kind of a fighter for an ethic.
BJP: Did you show the people the images as you went along?
AL: The final presentation of the project took place on the main square in the town of Wrzesnia – many people came, including those I portrayed. It was very positively received, and many of the residents now have the book at home.
BJP: Did you always intend to make the project into a book? How did it come about?
AL: I think that the presentation of a project in the form of a book is closest to me. Only a book can create a space that offers the possibility of experiencing a moment of reflection, drawing a breath, reviewing an image, reinterpreting, confronting with one’s intimate, personal perception. Neverland was planned as a book from the start, and I had that in the back of my mind while working.
BJP: Polish photography seems to be gaining more and more international attention, have you noticed that?
AL: Undoubtedly in the last few years lots of good things have happened in Polish photography. We have three very well-known photographic festivals in Poland (Fotofestiwal in Lodz, Krakow Photomonth, TIFF in Wroclaw), which are doing a great job in promoting Polish photography worldwide as well as introducing international artists here. We are also delighted that our Sputnik friends are doing so well. For me Polish photography has an extraordinary future, due to its exceptional truthfulness and sensitivity.
BJP: Which photographers inspire you?
AL: I think many photographers in their own way, but the moment I saw The Mennonites by Larry Towell it made me start looking at photographs differently. No doubt Weegee, for his directness, Alec Soth for the beauty of simplicity, Antonin Kratochvil or Larry Sultan. But for me, one of the most important creators in both the visual arts and in human history is Mike Leigh. He is often my inspiration. It is remarkable how, without artificial perfection, he can penetrate into people, their stories, experiences, and feelings.
BJP: Is it helpful to look at work by other photographers? Or do you try to avoid it?
AL: I don’t look at other photographers’ work as much as I did 10 years ago. I don’t want to be too inspired or overwhelmed by the images. I like to take pictures intuitively, and need a pure mind.