Art & Photography / Culture Talks

The Talented Photographer Using Gesture to Empower Women

Polish image-maker Joanna Piotrowska uses her medium to challenge notions of female passivity

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Joanna piotrowska Untitled 2 Hi res
Untitled, Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015© Joanna Piotrowska

"[Photographer] Alec Soth told me that the themes I’m trying to deal with are quite epic and that I should chill out," says Polish-born, London-based photographer Joanna Piotrowska, musing upon the most valuable advice she's ever been given. And indeed, with works spanning concepts of history, memory and repetition, and most recently that of anxiety and the effects of global and political events on the individual, Piotrowska is not one to shy away from big ideas. 

That said, her evocative photographs – most frequently rendered in black and white – stand alone as images of exceptional beauty, allowing the onlooker to take as much or as little from the subject matter as they desire. A girl in a striped dress, her face shielded by her hair, performs a cat stretch on an empty staircase; three fresh-faced youngsters lie entwined on a patch of grass and yet, each lost in reverie, appear completely detached from one another; two sets of arms and hands interlock in a strangely moving, and characterful manner. Gesture and movement are always at play in Piotrowska's pictures, adding subtle layers of meaning to the captivating compositions in a delightfully original manner.

This unique approach has resulted in widespread acclaim for Piotrowska, who received her Masters in photography from the Royal College of Art in 2013 and has already received multiple awards for her work. Most recently, she won the Jerwood/Photoworks Award 2015, alongside fellow image makers Matthew Finn and Tereza Zelenkova, and with it the funding for a beguiling new series. These arresting, untitled images – which go on display in the Jerwood Space as of tomorrow – capture a number of young women recreating poses from self-defence manuals in a bid to challenge the passive role encouraged of teenage girls. Here, in celebration of the show's opening, we sit down with the talented photographer to discover more about her influences and thought-provoking practice.

On falling into photography…
 “I don’t remember having a wish to be a photographer. It started quite innocently – I was just taking images of my friends. But then, with the support of the people I was showing my work to, the machine started. I don’t really think being a photographer was ever my intention.”

On the value of interesting conversations...
"I consider all the people I've had good conversations with to be my mentors, in a way – no matter what the conversations are about, and they are actually hardly ever about photography itself, interestingly. You can learn how to take pictures by learning how the camera works, I think that everything else has to do more with learning how to make art."

On the importance of gesture to her work...
"The way I position my subjects is related to the gestures that arise from different aspects of my research. This ranges from self-defence manuals to the work of feminist and psychologist, Carol Gilligan.

This new body of work developed organically out of the research I did for my series Frowst, where I developed a strong interest in Constellation Therapy. The movements and gestures that can be observed during some of these therapies are very minimal; intense and complex psychological states can be unconsciously conveyed through simple, almost extracted acts of the body. I think that this translation of a state of mind into a physical position or gesture is quite fascinating. When using self defence positions the body is strongly engaged in an interaction, but the perceived discomfort of the position suggests to onlookers that this interaction is overpowering the subject. The boundaries between defence and attack become fluent – neither are recognisable. All that is left is a constant struggle."

On her fascination with the human figure...
"The human subject is everything; how a figure is embodied and conveyed through an image can affect us on multiple levels. My work raises questions about how we relate to one another and ourselves. This is partly why many of the works are hung in free-standing frames in the space – they mirror human scale, physicality and movement.

On what makes an interesting photograph...
"I think it's simply about having a good idea and the ability to translate that idea effectively to an image."

Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015: Matthew Finn, Joanna Piotrowska and Tereza Zelenkova is at the Jerwood space from November 3 until December 13.

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