Szymon Stępniak’s portraits document the euphoria of Berlin’s famed queer festival
Last year, photographer Szymon Stępniak experienced WHOLE Festival for the first time. Alongside hundreds of others, he made the pilgrimage to a lakeside industrial park just a few hours from Berlin, where he “danced like crazy” to sets of disco, house, techno and more. The annual festival is a creative sanctuary made up of queer collectives from around the world; according to the website, collectives from Mexico, Uganda, Brazil and beyond are all involved. Come for the high-octane DJ sets, stay to meet some of the world’s most innovative queer artists. Stępniak was instantly hooked.
“I met a lot of people like me,” he tells Dazed: “queer, easy, thrill-seeking, horny, and loves to dance!” This year, the Poland-born, Berlin-based photographer returned with his camera and his sister, who came from Warsaw specifically to attend. “It was very important for me to be there with her,” Stępniak says. “I was proud that she came, and finally met all my international queer friends.”
The resulting imagery is sexy, queer and euphoric, a melange of sweat-soaked bodies and grinning faces. “I loved meeting DJs, photographing people taking showers together, bumping into friends or flirting with boys, and documenting participants in kinky poses,” recalls Stępniak, of his favourite moments. “I followed my friend, taking pictures of his butt the entire time. A passing guy pulled down his underwear and screamed: ‘Better take a picture of this one!’”
Heavy rain couldn’t dampen the mood – in fact, Stępniak describes the downpour as “sensual and sensational,” a refreshing antidote to the summer heat. After a night of non-stop dancing on Friday, he wandered the festival grounds with his camera and speed light. “It felt good because everyone was in an excellent mood,” he explains, “which made it so easy to approach people. After a long walk, I returned to the arena stage, where I saw these muscular guys posing in this super provocative, slutty way. What a catch!”
WHOLE is known as a queer utopia, a place where skinny-dipping, cruising and dancing with strangers are welcomed. It’s a brief respite from the wider world, which can feel hostile and unwelcoming, to say the least. “At the festival, I loved how people were affectionate to each other, and expressed love and desire without limitations,” explains Stępniak. “Affection is a big subject for me, especially when it comes to queer people. My expression was very repressed when I grew up and lived in Poland, but I learned to work on it and overcome my fears.”
Capturing these moments of joy has always been political, much like Stépniak’s work. “When the right wing took power in Poland, I was finishing my studies at Warsaw’s Fine Arts Academy,” he tells Dazed. There, he met “lots of fantastic people, who were socially-engaged and sensitive.” As Polish leaders peddled “Islamophobia, racism and homophobia” Stępniak grew increasingly motivated to “voice our opposition; every weekend, we would see each other at parties and then protest. I always had my camera with me.”
At the time – the late 2010s – Stépniak credits Polish photography with developing a “journalistic aesthetic,” one that’s “dynamic, dramatic, with flash and fuzz.” Although still part of his own visual signature, he's grown increasingly fascinated by light. “Photography makes it possible to capture its traces, discover shapes and textures, shape impressions and memory.” Using a combination of analogue and digital techniques, he’s able to capture “the imperfections, grain, dust – the materiality of photography, the accidents.”
Technique aside, it’s the characters, the social dimension of photography that truly sustains Stępniak’s passion: “I love interacting with people, creating connections.” WHOLE was the ideal setting to facilitate these connections. “I’m happy to surround myself nowadays with my chosen family and my little social bubble, which apparently isn’t that little,” jokes Stępniak. “WHOLE is part of that: vibrant, free, positive, taboo-breaking, queer and colourful. This is the reality I have dreamt of.”
Visit the gallery above for a closer look at Szymon Stępniak’s portraits of WHOLE Festival.