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Queer Gaze from Poland
From the Between Us series, 2012Photography Krystian Lipiec

Portraits of love and desire and what it’s like to be gay in Poland

A queer Polish photography exhibition celebrates pride and hope despite the country’s deeply homophobic climate

Despite homosexuality being legal in Poland, 70 per cent of the population believe same-sex relationships are unnatural or immoral – and they are backed by the Catholic Church and majority of heavily right-wing politicians. Beyond belief, homophobia manifests itself on Polish streets, like pride parades in Warsaw or Krakow that are antagonised by violent neo-Nazis who chant death threats at queer people, or the church who actively suppresses homosexuality. The reality of LGBT life in Poland reflects how homophobia is a deeply rooted social issue that extends beyond parliament: in order to change the reality of queer people in Poland, the fight must be taken beyond politics.

Picking up on this exact idea is London’s first ever queer Polish photography exhibition, Queer Gaze from Poland: A Portrait of Love and Desire, on show at London's Bermondsey Project Space until 26 May. The show unites over ten photographers whose works illuminate the everyday lives of queer Polish youth in order to show the human life at the brunt of Poland's blatant homophobia. From a self-portrait of pregnancy between a lesbian couple, to queer gazing Polish masculinity, and portraits of lovers found in gay clubs and Grindr, there is a deep emotional charge in every single photo: uncovering the struggle and the pride of what it means to be young and queer in Poland in 2018.

Giving these artists space to show their work in London finally gives them the freedom to celebrate their queerness without fear of discrimination. “It feels to me that it’s not a good time to show queer projects in Poland,” explains one of the show's photographers, Mateusz Cyrankowski, in the press release. “It is difficult to say whether any art gallery really, without fear of losing financing, vandalism or harassment, would decide to put up anything that aroused controversy, because the area of art has already been absorbed by politics.”

To celebrate the show’s arrival in London, we speak to its curator, Grażyna Siedlecka, about the reality of queer life in Poland, and how the future can be changed.

In 2016, Poland was voted one of the three worst places in Europe to be queer. What makes it hard to be queer in Poland?

Grażyna Siedlecka: Polish society is really traditional and a big part of this is the far right government, which pushes national patriotic and Catholic feelings onto our country. 90 per cent of politics are against queerness: there's no chance of allowing gay or lesbian couples to get married or adopt children. We're not ready yet. There are some little changes – in a few years, may see some Polish movie productions, like romantic comedies with some gay and lesbian people shown in very nice and positive ways. I guess these kind of productions may introduce queer people as something normal, like everyone else. It's slowly, slowly changing. I'm from a little town and when I come back, I talk to my old friends and most of them are like ‘I have nothing against...but.’ It’s like LGBT doesn't exist there. You would never see in my town a same-sex couple holding hands or kissing or anything like that. You might see them in Krakow or Warsaw, bigger cities, but not in smaller towns.

How do you think this affects young people growing up and youth culture?

Grażyna Siedlecka: A lot of youth have lots of trouble with their families. The artists who are in the show, none of them had big issues with their family, luckily. That's probably why they're in the show and why I knew about them because they don't hide what they do. There were a couple of artists, girls, who I wanted to invite, and they all said ‘no, I don't want to be connected to this.’ They didn't want their family to find out. For most of them it’s hard because you can't really be who you'd like to be. It’s gotten more complicated in the last couple of years because the government is really far-right and has lots to do with hate speech and nationalism, so people are more and more afraid of being different – it's pretty fucked up. There's no real LGBT rights at the moment, the only thing that is protecting them is the general anti-discrimination law, which says no-one can be discriminated for any reason. But that's all.

“90 per cent of politics are against queerness. There's no chance of allowing gay or lesbian couples to get married or adopt children” – Grażyna Siedlecka

How do politics affect life for queer people in Poland?

Grażyna Siedlecka: It's about the hate speech that politicians use. People who are already homophobic, racist, or nationalistic feel more free to say what they think and to show their feelings – it's an acceptance of haters. People on the streets feel they feel they can speak about hating others when before it wasn't that kind of socially allowed or allowed in media. But is getting worse regarding LGBT hate speech.

And what about religion?

Grażyna Siedlecka: The main aspect is the way priests and bishops, and the official church speak about it. They state that being queer this is immoral, that God made us to have a family and children and people who are having sex with the same sex person are sick. Many people follow and go to church every Sunday so they think that what they feel, including hatred, is okay and how it should be because the church says so. I know there was one place in Poland that was built a couple of years ago where they were trying to 'fix' queerness. You can go there if you want (it is not something obligatory) but they still think it is a sickness. It’s very unhealthy stuff for minds of young people who are already lost.

How does this intense homophobia affect the way that artists can show and display their work?

Grażyna Siedlecka: Regarding photography, I have a feeling that they don't really put much politics in the things that they do. I know that abroad you hear about queer activists who make artworks but in Polish photography, I couldn't find an artist who deals with this. There might be some performers or people who do videos or sculptures, but in photography I haven't met anyone.

“Many of the portraits are taken by a person who is in love, or they show very close relationships, so this perspective is tender” – Grażyna Siedlecka

So the photographs in the exhibition are about everyday life, love and experiences, as opposed to overtly political?

Grażyna Siedlecka: Absolutely yeah. We just tried to show this warmness and closeness. Many of the portraits are taken by a person who is in love, or they show very close relationships, so this perspective is tender. It is kind of a soft show but there is some erotica as well.

Why was it important to show everyday life and everyday experiences, instead of something political?

Grażyna Siedlecka: I guess my reason is that there is no political photographer and there are platforms and as a media curator we work only with photography really, sometimes we involve other visual arts but rather as a supplement than a main medium on an exhibition and that is our profile basically, photography.

One of the photographers had taken a self-portrait with her baby that she had had with her partner.

Grażyna Siedlecka: Yeah. Her name is Pamela. It’s a self-portrait taken straight after birth.

At this point in time, it would be unimaginable for women to have a child together in Poland, so in a way these artists kind of represent a utopian vision of what Poland could be for queer people. Why is it important to reflect this and make artworks that reflect this and give hope to the future?

Grażyna Siedlecka: These artists who are involved are surrounded by a safe environment and I think photography is what fascinates them, so they are trying to catch these moments. It’s not every day they are photographing queer topics, some are fashion photographers other ones are doing all kinds of projects. I think they were just documenting what they love, I don't think they were trying to build anything. I guess also that they wouldn't think that anyone would ever see these photos because it is a very closed environment and Poland doesn’t have a photography culture. It is a very closed circle and I don't think people would believe it would change anything,

How do you believe the future of the LGBT community of Poland can be changed? 

Grażyna Siedlecka: The important thing would be to change social and political environments. What people consume through the media is taken as truth, so it would be very important to stop talking about these things in a negative way. The language used in debates must change. At the moment our main media is controlled by the government, so, all main channels on TV are controlled and you can hear hate speech everywhere. There is also one more chance for change. There is one president in one city in the north of Poland, he is called Robert Biedroń, a fantastic man and he is openly gay. He is very active on social media, photographing himself and his boyfriend and he is loved by all young left people, liberal people because he changed his city. He basically made a perfect city to live in. His city was homophobic before but people start to like him because he is just great and they slowly started to change their minds. A few months ago there was a poll and Polish people voted in the presidential elections and although he said he would never try in this election, he was third on the list, 12 per cent or something. This is a chance – if this man became president of our country, everything would change.

Queer Gaze From Poland is on at Bermonsdey Project Space, London, until 26 May. The show was organised by Fresh From Poland. You can find out more here