Shooting communist-era buildings in his native Poland and beyond, Karol Palka hopes to "tell a story about power and its impermanence"
Born in 1991, Polish photographer Karol Palka has studied at the Krzysztof Kieslowski Film Department in Katowice University, and the Wajda School in Warsaw. He’s currently working on a PhD at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, which he hopes to finish in 2021. His work has been recognised in awards such as the PDN Photo Annual 2016, and published in titles such as GUP Magazine and The Calvert Journal. His series Edifice documents communist-era buildings in Poland and neighbouring Eastern Bloc countries. It includes shots of the Polana Hotel, once owned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and the former office building for the management of the Nowa Huta Steelworks, which was once visited by Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.
BJP: How did you get into photography?
Karol Palka: I went to film school, so photography has been with me for a long time. But Edifice is my first important project.
BJP: How did you get the idea for the series?
KP: I try to be guided by my intuition, and I found the first location by accident. But I made the series because I wanted to tell a story about power and its impermanence.
BJP: Was it difficult to shoot?
KP: Finding the locations was easy and fun, but sometimes it was difficult to get permission to shoot them because it was difficult to find the current owners or caretakers. Some are abandoned though, which meant I didn’t need any permission.
BJP: Were you surprised by how the locations had been left? Some look like they were abandoned very quickly?
KP: Those spaces stopped in time. Many of these buildings are expensive to maintain and, while these costs didn’t matter under socialism, nowadays they do. This means it’s difficult to find a use for the buildings, so some have stood empty for many years. They are living museums, suspended between political and economic systems.
BJP: How did you shoot the pictures?
KP: It’s taking time and patience – I’ve been working on this project for two years, and I haven’t finished it yet. But I felt an intuitive connection with these spaces. When I shot these rooms, I had the feeling that their former occupants were there.
BJP: What do you think about this architecture? I think it looks great, but is it perceived differently in Poland?
KP: In architecture, socialist realism became monumental constructions with neoclassical ornamentation. They were designed to emphasise the power of communism, and often used symbols such as flowers, sunlight, the body, youth, flight, industry, new technology and so on. These poetic images were supposed to show the utopianism of communism and the Soviet state.
Some people in Poland think this architecture really great, others think these buildings are a symbol of Soviet domination and should be demolished. Perhaps they think that demolishing communism symbols would destroy any memory of communism. I think memories don’t work like that though. For me, this is a part of our history.
BJP: Is there something special about Polish architecture from this era?
KP: The most pivotal post-war building in Poland is the Palace of Culture and Science. It is also the most divisive and controversial. A “gift” from Stalin, it was built by 3500 Soviet workmen, who were housed in a special estate during its construction, surrounded by post-war ruins. It is the eighth-tallest building in the European Union, and one of the tallest on the European continent. Both loved and hated, the palace stands as a symbol of Warsaw’s destruction and its resurrection at the hands of Soviet-imposed government.
BJP: There are a few projects now presenting Soviet architecture more positively, for example socialistmodernism.com. How do you feel about these projects?
KP: I support them. This architecture deserves to be remembered. During this era, all areas of social and political life were dominated by the Party. Communist power built hotels and holiday resorts in the 1970s, to create a utopian vision that actually didn’t exist. This architecture became a surveillance tool used by the State.
But in Poland, this is a time that many would rather forget. In December 1970 at least 42 people were killed and more than 1000 wounded after the Polish People’s Army and Citizen’s Militia put down riots. The number of people who lost their lives during martial law (1981-1983), at the hands of secret police, in street demonstrations, and in the wake of persecution, is thought to exceed 100, though the exact number is unknown.
I wanted to get away from taking the usual architectural pictures, so I wanted to find a content beyond the surface appearance of the buildings. I wanted to work both aesthetically and in terms of the background story.
BJP: ‘Ruin porn’ seems to be a perennially popular subject for photographers, why do you think that is?
KP: I think it’s because visiting abandoned buildings brings a rush of emotion and adrenalin. It’s addictive.