New East Digital Archive

‘Even weeds can have a soul.’ Finding joy with photographer Kuba Ryniewicz

4 November 2021

“I love the idea that everything that surrounds us has the potential to give joy,” says Kuba Ryniewicz. “It’s up to us to recognise that, or embrace that, because it’s there but you have to look. It’s up to you to find the joy.”

We’re talking about Ryniewicz’s book, The Daily Weeding, a heartwarming celebration of everyday life in Newcastle. Featuring people and places close to Ryniewicz, the book was partly inspired by a family photo album and, like family photos, is structured as a series of mini narratives. Some individuals, such as his husband Jon, appear regularly; others just pop in and out. In between are small, tender moments captured by Ryniewicz: a flower catching the sun, washing billowing on the line, or a flock of birds changing direction in a neighbour’s garden.

It feels like a celebration, and this feeling — and philosophy — runs through all of Ryniewicz’s work, including shoots for style magazines like Fantastic Man or Dazed & Confused, and fashion brands such as Loewe, Balenciaga, and Levi’s. Ryniewicz regularly features his friends and family in his fashion shoots, but even when he’s photographing stars such as actors Callum Scott Howells and Josh O’Connor, his images have an informal, joyous feel. His shoot with photographer Walter Pfeiffer for Fantastic Man back in 2018 showed the 70-something in a series of wacky outfits, by turns funny, creative, and liberating.

“Walter is one of my biggest inspirations!” says Ryniewicz. “I discovered his work when I was still living in Poland — he’d show some guy he just met in a gay bar, just meet people and photograph them. I was like ‘Wow! Who is this? His photographs are so honest and free.’”

Born in a village near Poznan, Poland, Ryniewicz studied philosophy before moving to Newcastle, a former industrial town in northern England, to study photography in 2004. He spoke no English, and was required to study for an extra year because his Polish degree wasn’t recognised in the UK. But Ryniewicz was inspired by the tradition of British documentary photography and British fashion magazines of the era, which included shoots by image-makers such as Pfeiffer.

Graduating with a degree in contemporary photographic practice from Northumbria University, he soon established himself in fashion and editorial as well as participatory art projects, shot with passersby or in schools and shown at venues such as the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. He met his partner, Jon, and they settled in Newcastle, establishing a network of close friends. It is a seemingly idyllic narrative, proof of a life well-lived. But meanwhile, the political climate was hardening, both in the UK and back in Poland.

In 2016, the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union, unleashing a wave of animosity and an officially-sanctioned “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants. Meanwhile in Poland, the right-wing Law and Justice party took power in 2015, bringing with them an anti-LGBT stance that includes opposition to same-sex marriage or any other form of legal recognition for same-sex couples. During his successful 2020 election campaign, Polish president Andrzej Duda pledged he would ban teaching about LGBT issues in school. At the time of writing, nearly a third of Poland’s provinces and municipalities have declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”.

It is a dark time, and Ryniewicz has felt its impact. He received a British passport in 2016, but he found the process long and difficult. He still faces regular xenophobic “unpleasantness” despite being a fully-fledged citizen. “It’s the whole idea of Brexit, that Britain is a little island and you will always be a foreigner,” he says. “Even if you can communicate [in English], you will always be a stranger. There was this vote, which was about you but which you couldn’t participate in [as only UK citizens could vote in the referendum]. It felt like a direct attack.

“If someone tells me they voted Brexit, I instantly feel I don’t want to talk to them,” he adds. “But at the same time, I don’t want to be like them. I want to listen, not have this same rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them’. If I start going for the big rhetoric I’m falling into all the same weaknesses. It’s important to show we can do better.”

Ryniewicz hunkered down among friends and family, taking photographs, naturally. He bedded down into his own private world. Yet he also wanted to open that intimate space to others, in a bid to provoke dialogue. When art director Mathieu Meyer asked if he wanted to publish a book in 2019, he immediately thought of the work.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns which followed gave Ryniewicz time to reflect and continue shooting, and the resulting book, The Daily Weeding, has just been published. Mainly photographed over the last two years, it also includes images from as far back as 2015. But despite being shot both in and out of lockdown, The Daily Weeding keeps things close to home. The entire book was shot in Ryniewicz’s house, garden, or a nearby field.

Ryniewicz lives on a working-class estate and his friends aren’t size zero models. Yet none of this matters: he’s uncovered joy in what could be banal. He’s even found beauty in a bunch of weeds, in fact, which he found his husband grasping after his daily tidy-up in the garden. Ryniewicz photographed Jon holding them like a bouquet, the sun warm against his red t-shirt. The image came to sum up his project, and gave the book its title. “It’s almost a form of animism,” Ryniewicz says, “even weeds can have a soul and a beauty.” It’s a perspective that suggests that everything has value — or even, perhaps, that individuals shouldn’t be ”weeded out”, whatever their immigration status or with whom they fall in love.

The celebration of these small moments meant that Ryniewicz ultimately wound up with hundreds of images for inclusion (the photographer is especially grateful to both Meyer and his partner Xavier Cariou at Note Note for helping him edit it down.) The book also features texts by respected writers Olivia Laing and Yelena Moskovich, both included because Ryniewicz felt a personal connection to the authors. He originally met Laing on a commission for The Plant magazine but they bonded over her dahlias; he got to know Moskovitch because she’s a friend of the publishers.

“We had many long phone calls and talked about our mutual backgrounds,” says Ryniewicz. “We have lots in common so, though our lives have not been the same, they’re parallel somehow. She’s from a similar part of Europe, she’s queer, she had the same experience of trying to find herself in a new world, of trying to keep her identity but also develop a new one.”

Many of the images are shot in the field by Ryniewicz’s home, a place that’s public but can be claimed simply through the act of using it. Ryniewicz says he was keen to include these photographs in an era when public space is increasingly becoming privatised, another metaphor for society, who can be there and why. The same theme has played into Ryniewicz’s current work, which he shot over five weeks this summer among LGBTQ+ activists in Gdansk, Poland. “What’s happening in Poland is scary, but the pride of the queer community is incredible,” he says. “I had so many incredible conversations there. The struggle is strong, the fight is real.

“It’s important to me to have a strong voice [as a gay man] — not necessarily in Britain but in Poland,” he adds. “Jon and I got married in 2019, and it was important for us to make a statement [with the wedding], so we had our party in a Catholic social club. That was key for me, the idea that we’re queer and we’re here. The people who run the club were surprised, but we had such a nice party. Even they enjoyed it.”

The Daily Weeding by Kuba Ryniewicz is published by Note Note Editions and available now.