New East Digital Archive

Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov: post-industrial Silesia, but not as you know it

City of Gardens focuses on the Polish city of Katowice in Silesia, once an important region for coal mining, now searching for a new identity

23 November 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. The exhibition is on display until 2 December at Calvert 22 Foundation.

Ukrainian photographers Elena Subach and Viacheslav Poliakov have been working together since 2012. Their City of Gardens focuses on the Polish city of Katowice, once an important region for coal mining and industrial steel production. Today, Katowice has been rebranded a “city of gardens” following a transformation aimed at the cultural development of the region. Situated within the historic Silesia region, most of which lies along south-west Poland’s Oder River, Katowice retains a strong sense of local identity and tradition. Against a backdrop of globalisation and fears of an increasing consumerist uniformity, City of Gardens reflects a search for a unique Polish aesthetic that lies on the border between East and West.

How has the place where you grew up affected your work as a photographer?

Viacheslav: I grew up in a small provincial town in the south of Ukraine. My childhood coincided with the collapse of the USSR, and towns like mine suffered heavily. The factories closed down, and there wasn’t really anything else besides them. There was the kilometre-wide Dnepr river, the sea two hours’ drive away, and then there was the town — with all its unemployed and criminal types, its industrial ruins that were 40 degrees in the shade, a place where reality was being replaced by so many legends. And an unusually strong artistic community. That’s where everything began.

Elena: I’m also from a small, rough mining town. It would be more accurate to say that my work as a photographer developed in spite of the place where I grew up.

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

Elena: I get my inspiration from stories. If a place or an event has a story attached to it that people want to tell, or that people can listen to until they forget what they were talking about in the first place — that’s how you know it might work for a project. We chose Silesia, where we shot our Polish project, because of the wonderful stories our friend told about it. She spent her childhood there and was able to convince us that not only was it where Thomas Mann wrote The Magic Mountain, even the doves were a brighter shade of white there.

What do you think makes a compelling photo story?

Viacheslav: There are no rules. It’s always a matter of plucking something out of nothing, out of nowhere. If you know in advance what you’re going to do and how, then that’s industry, not art — it becomes uninteresting.

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

Elena: For the past six months we’ve been immersing ourselves in Polish culture. Angelus by Lech Majewski is a film about the life of a group of naïve artists-miners-occultists from Katowice, based on real events. It reminded us straight away of both ourselves and our friends. Plus, the photo project A-Z (Educational Cabinets) by Andrzej Tobis.

How do you think Instagram is influencing photography?

Elena: On the whole, social networks have totally devalued image-making. And that’s an important step, because now you really have to ask yourself what you’re doing and why. They are also an invaluable educational resource for those who don’t live in big cities: if it wasn’t for the internet, we never would have discovered the photography we love, or not to this extent.

Was there a moment you ever regret taking a photo? How about a moment you didn’t take a photo but wish you had?

Viacheslav: I’ll never take a photo if I feel like there’s a chance I’ll offend someone. And I constantly wish I had taken shots I didn’t. For example, I really wanted to shoot in Qatar, but people there don’t like that. Or in Odessa — people always presume that a man with a camera is up to no good. And I often lack the empathy to figure out the extent of their suspicions.

Elena: I try to minimise the chance for regret over untaken photos. If there’s some hesitation over whether I should shoot something or not, I always try to shoot it. So my regret often comes from overlooking things that are in front of me, not realising their significance in time.

What keeps you motivated as a creative person?

Elena: Beauty. The world has enough horrors. We value everything that is the product of labour and love.