So far, you have been focusing on photographing nature untouched by man. The themes of your series have been the Warta river, Rogalin oaks, meadows. What made you turn to farm animals? And how was this different from working in the open air?
I have always been interested in photographing contemporary farming. It is a path parallel to the photography of nature, although these are seemingly two different worlds. One – fully controlled by man who has the status of God to farm animals – they decide about births, lengths and conditions of the animals’ life and death. In the other one, the mark that man leaves on nature is consciously controlled and the distance kept is supposed to give other organisms freedom of development. And although these two worlds are tightly separated from one another by the walls of pig and cattle farms, they still affect one another by showing their teeth to the suprised and absorbed with technology man. Work in a pig or cattle farm actually has quite a lot of things in common with that in the „wild” open air: it requires time, patience, humility. You need to listen to the creatures whose instinct perfectly decodes our intentions….
In albums: 900 000 000 dedicated to pigs, and WHITE&BLACK – to cows – you show the intimate lives of these animals. While watching these shots, you have an impression that you are in a group of individuals who experience their longings, tragedies and joys. These photographs present stories which make us laugh and move us until we get to the moment when – the cows – taken out of their herds, stand in a laboratory-like milking parlour and turn to a product. Has it been your intention to objectively document the lives of these animals or is there some kind of appeal behind it?
Can you objectively document another being? Can and should we dispose of the filter of emotions, fascination? I am mostly interested in the behaviour of animals, their everyday lives when there is no man around (except for me). When left to themselves, after many hours, they finally stop paying attention to me. I become unimportant, but never – transparent.
Some technical measures that you have used, eg. black and white photography or addition of an ear tag to 900 000 000, could prove that you try to evoke certain emotions in the viewer after all. Why did you decide not to document the slaughter of these animals?
I believe that you could get deeper to the conscience of the viewer by showing them photographs devoid of aggression or cruelty. By using love. Black and white photography perfectly brings forth emotions which color often disturbs and obscures. It is a perfect way to tell such simple stories. The ear tag was added to the album deliberately. It intrigues, irritates and it makes it impossible to just put the album amongst other books, forget it.
You show animals in pig and cattle farms, but you do not show man. It is only hands or legs that slip into the shot, never a full person. What is man in these two stories?
In 900 000 000 album there is no man whatsoever. There is only their creation. We are left man-less in the pigstry from the first to last page. The actors on that stinking and claustrophobic stage are the animals who however do not act, they are always themselves. It is one-to-one contact, with no anaesthesia, no chance to go out and take a deep breath of fresh air. In WHITE & BLACK album man is a supporting character. Always in the context of a specific activity or procedure. I came to the conclusion that the portrait of the cow is key to this story and with time it turned out that this fragmentary presence of man in the photographs says more about them than literal picture of the whole person.
Please, tell us about the background of work on these albums. How much time did it take you to compile them? Was it difficult to get the consents of farm owners? How graceful to photographs are pigs and cows?
I photographed pigs from the early 2000s, with time more and more consciously. It was never easy to convince the farmer; imagine having to explain to them the need to spend many hours, sometimes days, alone with the animals. This, however, wasn’t most difficult while working on the pig album, but rather how to obtain enough money to publish it. The proposal to finance this publication was usually welcomed with a sneer or expression of disgust. Those handful of the brave thanks to whom this album was ultimately published were found after two years of intense and literal mendicancy.
You are currently working on new projects: Panopticum an apothesis of wild birds and an album dedicated to poultry farms. These are two extremes. What are your feelings while working on these projects?
These two apparently remote realities actually have quite a lot in common. At this stage, I do not want to reveal the scenarios for these two albums as I am only halfway through… I avoid saying too much about unfinished photographs as then they magically drift away from me…. I can only say that this is the most difficult topics I have taken up in the past twenty years of my experience as a photographer. It is the sum of all my expriences.
A show of your works is upcoming which will be organised by MAK Gallery in collaboration with Vox Artis Promocja Polskiej Sztuki i Designu Foundation. Can you tell us more about this exhibition?
I see this exhibition as an attempt to put together mostly unpublished photographs from the two projects I have just spoken about. I have never done this combination before and honestly it is very tempting for me. Especially, in the context of public space of Bałtyk building where the photographs will be presented. It is after all the center of a big city, rather than countryside where these pictures would be something quite obvious. One of the intentions for this show is also the preparation of space for work on the poultry album which will close the trilogy of animals created by man and bred for their purposes.
Interview held exclusively for MAK Gallery by Michał Begiert