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Frowst, 2014Joanna Piotrowska, Mack Books

Tensions run high in these awkward family photos

Meet the Polish photographer subverting classic family portraiture

Staged, dysfunctional, claustrophobic, incestuous – Joanna Piotrowska doesn't capture your everyday family portrait. Frowst (MACK) is aptly-named – conjuring up a stuffy atmosphere that hangs over the freeze-frames of artificial intimacy. In this latest series from the Polish RCA graduate, the darker side to the picture-perfect scene of familial bliss is thrust under the microscope in an almost clinical dissection of what lies beneath our family albums. Inspired by the German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger, Piotrowska incorporates therapeutic methods from his Family Constellations, bringing palpable tension. We caught up with Piotrowska to find out what inspired these oppressive imitations of nostalgia.

Tell us a bit about your background – when did you first decide to become a photographer?

Joanna Piotrowska: I never really decided to be a photographer and I don’t think I ever will. As a person and artist I constantly change and develop my interests. In the last two years I've spent most of my time researching sequences of movements for my models as well as shooting them. I'd say I was actually more of a choreographer with Frowst – I love the stillness of those images.

'Frowst' has been described as 'uncomfortable' – how did you go about creating that atmosphere?

Joanna Piotrowska: I was trying to observe what happens with family members when they're together and I was sensitive to the details, which I was exagerrating later on the shoots. I see a double meaning in many situations in life and that was how I wanted to show family life too. I focused on gestures, which can be seen ambivalently and ambivalence is known to be psychologically uncomfortable. When we're not sure about what you see – when you sense there may be something unpleasant, violent or incestuous but can't point out where exactly it is, you feel confused. Many people have very strong preconceptions about how the world should look, they take things for granted without reflecting on them and questioning common views and beliefs. I think it's really dangerous to have that attitude. Family is mostly seen as a positive value, but I wanted to point to that element of harm which is inherent in family life too.

“I wanted to suggest that as a whole there may be something quite wrong and oppressive in a family” – Joanna Piotrawska

It seems like these staged re-enactments of intimacy say a lot about how little is really on display in typical family albums in real life?

Joanna Piotrowska: There seems to be very little on display in family albums at first glance, because, obviously, family life isn't all about birthdays, weddings and holidays and we mostly see images of that. It's also clear that what is excluded matters much more than what we show. We forget that in not showing those moments we reveal something too.

The image of the two men on the floor, partially nude strikes me as fairly loaded but also still ambiguous enough – there's a sexual tension but also the possibility that they're family members. What was the message behind that?

Joanna Piotrowska: I wanted to suggest that as a whole there may be something quite wrong and oppressive within the family but there are no particular messages behind each image. I generally tried to introduce my critical thoughts and feelings on being a part of a system but without clearly stating anything. I left the final reading to the viewer.

How did Bert Hellinger’s work influence you?

Joanna Piotrowska: I think the most shocking discovery for me when exploring Bert Hellinger’s philosophy was the unavoidable burden of being a part of a bigger whole. On the example of the family system I understood that absolutely everything in the world is connected and that past events can be very present. Suddenly it became very clear to me that politics, culture and history interfere with the very personal, emotional life of individuals. In the microsystem of the family you can follow how one dysfunction affects the whole system.

Will you continue exploring these dysfunction through family portraiture or is something new coming next?

Joanna Piotrowska: I'd like to focus on love and violence, which came up whilst working on Frowst but I'd also like to broaden the context and not only work with family members. There are many other things I would like to do like making a silent movie or writing a book one day. In Frowst it wasn’t just photography that inspired me, but also dance and performance. But I can’t really say anything at this stage because, for me, everything comes out through experimentations and sometimes the original idea completely changes in the process of working. 

Frowst is available to pre-order now from MACK.