Associate Professor of Social and Political Photographic Cultures at De Montfort University Leicester
We tend to think about photographs as images of a world that exists independently, beyond the boundaries of the picture frame. We may subsequently forget that with every photograph we take, we give visual expression to the sights and experiences that we encounter separately, as individuals who move from one place to another according to our own personal pace of life. As our cultural background, education, beliefs, profession, and family history most commonly condition who we meet and who we make friends with, where we live, with whom we choose to build a life and how we understand others, those same aspects also influence where we photograph, when, what, why, and how.
Our photographs must therefore not be considered as mere records of an objective reality that appears the same to anyone looking at it. Our photographs must also not be understood as pictures of a world that means exactly the same to everyone living in it. Each photograph is rather a document of what its producer has specifically chosen to commemorate and share with others. Inasmuch as each photograph reveals what was there and then, in front of the camera when the picture was taken, it equally divulges something quite specific – even if indirectly – about the inner life and lived experience of its producer.
Between November and December 2019, members of the Progressive Jewish and Polish communities in the city of Leicester in the United Kingdom turned to photography with a view to introducing themselves to one another and opening a new world of social and cultural possibilities. Underpinning the initiative was the realisation that despite their shared history and heritage, Jews and Poles rarely connect with each other as minority groups in the United Kingdom. Assisted and facilitated by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Manchester, Project Polska, Leicester Progressive Jewish Congregation, De Montfort University, and the European Commission funded research project Digital Heritage in Cultural Conflicts (DigiCONFLICT), the initiative was therefore designed to help the otherwise largely segregated Polish and Jewish communities to build social, cultural, as well as interpersonal bridges.
For the benefit of those less familiar with Polish and Jewish history, it must be explained that, as two peoples Jews and Poles have much in common. Already in the tenth century, the lives of Jews who lived for centuries in Central and Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi Jews) were especially closely and irreducibly entangled with the lives of Poles. Yet, from the 1025 foundation of the Kingdom of Poland, Jews and Poles began to co-exist under the same rule, and have experienced the country’s many political transitions and territorial transformations ever since – if not always together, then side-by-side at the very least. Owing to the internal social diversity of both peoples, some Jews and Poles had closer relationships than others. Being the two largest peoples living within the same land, however, contact and reciprocal influence on each other’s culture, heritage, and lived experience was a matter of fact throughout Poland’s history. This last statement also takes into consideration some of Poland’s extremely challenging historical periods, such as its 123 years of partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary (1795-1918), its occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (1939-1945), and the country’s subsequent 44 years of Soviet domination (1945-1989).
Bringing together participants from Leicester’s Progressive Jewish and Polish communities to create a space in which they could contemplate their shared history and heritage, as well as reflect on their more immediate everyday realities in the city where they now reside, the photo-based initiative mostly employed disposable cameras, digitisation, and digitalisation practices to engage them in carefully considered photographic storytelling. Consisting of a series of workshops that were delivered to individual volunteers from the two communities, it established an environment and the means for all participants to share, analyse, and discuss photographs that each of them produced in-between the meetings. Gradually the participants began to share with each other a range of other photographs that they considered relevant to their shared interests and endeavour. At first, however, disposable film cameras were used to encourage the participants to slow down the process of picture-taking. In the context of a digital world in which photographs are being taken rapidly and mostly without due attention, using these cameras compelled the participants to take some extra time to capture more considered and meaningful images. Nevertheless, in the initiative’s more advanced stages, digital technology was used to generate a communal, inclusive atmosphere, and as a way to direct attention to visual details that may escape the participants’ attention when engaging with their photographic paper-prints.
In creating and sharing photographs about their homes, families, and domestic as well as communal lives, participants in the initiative entered into dialogue on their origins, backgrounds, cultural legacies and social realities alike. They touched on each other’s perceived knowledge, stereotypes, differences, and similarities, learning to explore and understand the multiplicity of personal, historical, and cultural connections to the Polish country. The photographs in this digital exhibition and the texts accompanying them represent some of the initiative’s creative results. Each interweaves a reference to a personal emotion, memory, feeling, object, landscape, or worldview into a mosaic of others that converge into one relatively coherent sentiment, despite the number of contributors, their age, interests, and backgrounds.