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Zuza Krajewska's Imago
UrodzinyPhotography Zuza Krajewska

Life inside a young offenders institute in Poland

Photographer Zuza Krajewska captures the pendulum of adolescence and adulthood in a touching series about a group of troubled, young men in a Polish borstal

Old enough to commit a crime but too young to go to prison, juvenile offenders in Poland are sent to borstals where adolescence and adulthood are in constant flux. It’s a jarring opposition that Polish photographer Zuza Krajewska captures in her series Imago where she captures the everyday life of boys in a borstal in Studzieniec. The reasons for them being detained range from playful teenage rebellion to shocking sex crimes.

Presenting the teenagers with a peculiar mix of innocence and strength, the portraits reveal boys who have seen too much for their age, yet, their eyes are often filled with optimism and laughter. Admittedly, Krajewska formed emotional connections with some of the young offenders, admitting that they would hug her when she arrived to document them. Because of this, she found it difficult to finish the project. Explaining that she keeps a sense of optimism about the work that the borstal does for the teenagers, she adds that she believes it can help those who are determined to change. As she shares the project with us ahead of its corresponding exhibition (opening tomorrow in Warsaw) we speak with her about the community she encountered, its tragic stories and violence, and the reality of the lives of these young men.

What drew you to capture this combination of both childhood and adulthood?

Zuza Krajewska: I got involved in this mixture of feelings and concepts: innocence, silliness, childlike enthusiasm and simplicity, combined with bloody darkness, spoilt childhood, adolescence, cruelty, mafia and surrounding bad people.

Can you tell us some of the teenagersstories, and how they ended up in the borstal?

Zuza Krajewska: I have been told many amazing stories by the twin brothers. They were most magic ones that I met in the borstal. Now there is only one left, as one of them passed away. They wanted to see an escalator in Warsaw and they got caught at the railway station. They were about ten years old then. Later, they robbed 30 flats, broke into a kindergarten, stuck chewing gum on CCTV and watched porn movies on the tutor's computer. They didn't steal anything and ran away. They were my favourite couple in the borstal. When they arrived in the institution they couldn’t even sign their name or lace their shoes. One of them drowned while he was swimming in a former gravel mine – where was their mother?

Despite their tragic histories, was there a good sense of community between the boys, and did they have any rituals?

Zuza Krajewska: For sure, they bully freshmen. It's sometimes funny. But most of the time it is a violent fight for the domination in a peer group. In my opinion, it will always be like that at schools, dormitories, housing estates. I often focus on the weakest individuals and try to explain they might become the strongest.

“I got involved in this mixture of feelings and concepts: innocence, silliness, childlike enthusiasm and simplicity, combined with bloody darkness, spoilt childhood, adolescence, cruelty, mafia and surrounding bad people” – Zuza Krajewska

Were there any hierarchies in the group?

Zuza Krajewska: That's a difficult question. I try not to pay attention but hierarchies are always formed as only the most-cruel and stubborn are respected by peers. The Studzieniec borstal quite efficiently eliminates these groups and tries to protect the weaker individuals. In some extent, they admire the ones who threatened people's lives. It works like how it is in a prison.

How did they respond to you taking photographs?

Zuza Krajewska: I was the centre of attention and we cooperated quite well. Later our relationship was more than just my photography as they got bored fast. Now they approach me to cuddle when I arrive. I am quite upset I won't be able to spend time with them anymore.

What did the teenagers like to do in their spare time?

Zuza Krajewska: They write hip hop lyrics, listen to rap and Polish dance music, play football, make bets. They have the same pastime like all teenagers, excluding partying and dating. In Studzieniec they are also allowed to go horseriding and take care of animals which is very engaging. Unfortunately, they are forbidden to practice more violent sports, which could be a good outlet for stress, I think.

What is the public opinion of borstals in Poland?

Zuza Krajewska: I am not familiar with general public opinion concerning all borstals in Poland. I read some reviews, not very positive, about tutors' brutality and depravity among children. However, Studzieniec is an unusual place – liberal, lenient, treating teenage boys like children. I believe you can lead a normal life after leaving Studzieniec.

Do you think they are open to change the way they used to behave?

Zuza Krajewska: Some of them for sure. They learn a new life and new rules. I am not sure if they take advantage of it. Afterwards, they return to bad parents and a pervasive environment.

Were they optimistic about a different future?

Zuza Krajewska: There is no rule. It's very typical of them to make plans of what to avoid to live a better life. They are daydreamers who want to develop and improve but financial issues usually deflate them. After leaving they get depressed, unemployed, with no support. I admire those who are determined enough to change their life.

What do you see in their futures?

Zuza Krajewska: One out of 15 will succeed. A borstal separates them from a negative environment. The place where I worked tries to broaden their mind but their success depends on their determination and strong will. They were born in deep shit and have to get out of it on their own, being only children. Therefore, it is very important to help them to deal with it.

Zuza Krajewskas Imago is on show at Griffin Art Space in Warsaw, Poland from 16 – 25 September 2016