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Michal Solarski: whimsical photos of weird sanatorium treatments

New East Photo Prize 2018

London-based Polish photographer Michal Solarski visited the magnificent Soviet spas that can still be found sprinkled across the region in varying states of decay

3 October 2018
Interview: Liza Premiyak

After receiving a wide range of entries from 26 New East countries, the New East Photo Prize 2018 is back with a new set of 16 finalists, with projects exploring modern-day witchcraft, graduation albums, legendary cosmonauts, contested territories and more. We caught up with the photographers to find out what drives their work. Join us for the opening of an exhibition of their work on 11 October at Calvert 22 Foundation, when we will announce this year’s winner.

From the 1920s until the collapse of the Soviet Union, sanatoriums were a prominent feature of Soviet life, providing treatments for labourers to rest and re-energise with a pseudo-futuristic health regime in preparation for the working year ahead. The question of leisure was one that preoccupied Soviet thinkers — ideas of free time and work were closely connected and regular sanatorium stays for workers were seen as a way of increasing productivity. London-based Polish photographer Michał Solarski visited a number of the magnificent spas that can still be found sprinkled across the region in varying states of decay, yet largely still functioning.

Where do you find inspiration for the themes of your projects?

I always thought that my work is deeply influenced by my own experiences and memories. Most stories I have done so far are somehow connected to my youth and the place I grew up. Perhaps the most obvious example is a series called Cut it Short, which I did together with Polish photographer Tomasz Liboska, with whom I spent my teenage years. We revisited our shared childhood in a small town in southern Poland, recreating old memories and experiences with the help of two boys. Looking at this body of work now, I see it has many universal images that relate not only to myself and Tomasz but to the memories and shared experiences of many others, giving the work a much wider meaning. I truly believe that growing up in Poland in the 90s, which was going through tremendous political and social changes, had a massive influence on me as a photographer, but also as a person in general.

My childhood was a happy period of my life, so a lot of my work is driven by nostalgia. My shortlisted series INFIRMI is a continuation of a project I started eight years ago about the culture of “holiday making” behind the Iron Curtain. Coming from a little town in communist Poland we could not dream of going to Spain, Italy or Greece for our holidays. Crossing the border between eastern and western Europe was a privilege granted to a very few people. If we were lucky enough, we could go to places like Lake Balaton or somewhere on the Black Sea coast. I like to think that INFIRMI is in fact also deeply rooted in my own experiences.

Pick one photograph from INFIRMI and tell us something we would have never known about it.

It was when I photographed a circus troop before their performance at one of the sanatoriums where I was staying. I noticed the monkey perching on the edge of the auditorium chair and thought it would make an interesting photo. It would somehow reverse the expectation of an animal on stage entertaining people in the auditorium. I was told I was not allowed to take the monkey off the leash unattended. It could run away or attack me or some passerby. The keeper of the monkey was quite a big chap, who would break chains and wrestle a metre long python on stage. Hiding him from the frame was quite a challenge. It took me a good ten minutes to squeeze him behind the seat well enough, so that none of his body parts were showing in the image.

What was the last photo story/ film/ book that touched you?

I am an avid photo book collector. Recently, I came across this amazing book by Slovak photographer Martin Kollar called Field Trip. The work is a series of images taken in Israel over a one year period. Kollar captured images of strange otherworldly beauty that are loosely connected to one another, but together create a haunting reality that make you flip through the pages over and over again.

What do you think are the most overused tropes in photography?

Cliches are always dangerous. We need to be careful not to always walk the same path as the thousands of others before us. Certain trends and aesthetics are so easy to adopt and repeat. We live in a world of documentary and fine art photography, where smiling is banned and dramatic pictures of an object against a grey background are the norm. At the same time, stories that are “politically correct“ so to speak, flood our computer screens and magazine pages. I guess it is also important not to get paranoid about it. Whenever I work on something new, I see stories on similar subjects, or shot in an identical way all around me and I start having doubts about the value of my own work. The truth is almost every story has already been photographed before, and what really matters is how you approach and execute it.

What keeps you motivated as a creative person?

To be able to live solely from photography means I have to take on less inspiring stuff like commercial photography. But doing something more ambitious, working on stories that are dear to me, is what keeps me sane. Being sane is motivating enough!

If you could get a scholarship to a prestigious art school, a chance to assist your favourite photographer or a plane ticket anywhere of your choice which would you pick and why?

I once saw a video of Nobuyoshi Araki at work during a studio photo shoot. He was running back and forth, changing frames, switching equipment, experimenting with different formats, assisted by several photographers, make up artists and so on. The guy was like a volcano of energy! Being part of this would be quite an experience. Of course, I would not say no to a Harvard Scholarship.

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