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Joanna Helander, Ladies Looking: Photographs 1976–2012

Krakow Photmonth Festival

The leitmotif of Joanna Helander’s oeuvre is the world as seen from the perspective of women, of neighbours: those from next door, as well as those who know nothing of each other, even though they coexist on neighbouring frames of a contact sheet.

In 1968, Helander’s studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow were interrupted when she was arrested and sent to prison for protesting the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1971, she emigrated to Sweden. Between the years 1976–1986, when she began to visit Poland again, Helander gathered material for two projects, later to be published as albums in Sweden. She worked on a series of photographs and texts based on interviews with Polish women she knew, which became Kobieta: en bok om kvinnor i Polen [Woman: A Book on Women in Poland]. There was also Gerard K: breven från Polen [Gerard K: Letters from Poland], a book about her father.

Her photographs from this period amount to a collective group portrait of the family and community that shaped her, and serve as a testament to a land regained: places where the artist felt a new bond, less with the soil than with the dialect and culture animating life upon it. Travelling through the cities, towns, and villages of southern Poland, she documented the reality of daily life, for women especially, in the communist Polish People’s Republic (PRL)—a reality to which she, as an émigré, no longer belonged. With characteristic sharp-eyed humour, she also revealed the true absurdity of social life in the PRL.

Helander’s output from this period is sometimes compared to Zofia Rydet’s Sociological Record documentary project. Notes Iwona Kurz in the exhibition catalogue, ‘One can easily get the impression that Rydet and Helander entered, or at least could have entered, the very same interiors; even so, they “left with” differing images’. Rydet’s Record, she continues, ‘with its thousands upon thousands of negatives, lends itself to sociological interpretation and statistical analysis. It highlights, in both qualitative and quantitative terms, what we call collective imagination, particularly via the reiteration of the motif. Meanwhile, in the photographs of Joanna Helander, it is the individual who takes centre stage, the subject who is paramount, commanding wonder even when turned away from the lens. The document which is fashioned’ by Helander, concludes Kurz, ‘is more of a poetic than sociological record’.

The exhibition focuses on the women closest to the photographer, from her milieu in both Poland and Sweden. Above all, however, Helander positions herself, the unseen photographer, within this web of relations as an emigrant of entwined Polish-German-Silesian-Jewish roots, and as a correspondent between two countries. As an enthusiast of life, who with equal curiosity examines all of its stages. As a devotee of literature, film, and theatre. And as an artist, portraitist, and documentarian. It is difficult to precisely categorise her body of work. She photographs her nearest and dearest with the same avid concentration as she does luminaries from the world of art and literature.

The exhibition is organised by the Culture of Image Foundation (Fundacja Kultura Obrazu), in partnership with the Foundation for Visual Arts and as part of Krakow Photomonth 2019. It was financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage via its Promotion of Culture Fund.