A well-known visual artist Rafał Milach tells us how he ended up as a photographer and how to work with this specific medium. He also reveals how important it is for him to be a lecturer and shares his opinion on competitions.
Patrycja Głusiec: At this moment of your career, everyone in Poland who has an interest in photography knows your name and at least several of your works. International audience recognises your photographs as well, after all you are a member of the legendary Magnum Photos cooperative. Could you briefly tell us how you ended up as a photographer and how photography became the main mean of artistic expression to you?
Rafał Milach: Everything started quite spontaneously and not very romantically. As a student at the Graphic Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice, I needed to get a credit in my obligatory course in photography. Paradoxically, I had never really held a photo camera in my hands before. I chose this specific study programme because I planned to become a poster designer later on.
What we do for a living is, to a great extent, influenced by the people we meet along the way. For me personally, an important figure during the initial stage of my path as a visual artist was Piotr Szymon who taught photography at the Academy in Katowice. He saw some potential in the works I presented during his classes. It was quite a surprise for me. Especially now, when I remember those photographs, I am not really convinced that they were anything special. They for sure did not indicate what my future projects would be like. Anyway, I received so much encouragement from my first mentor that I quickly stopped thinking of other visual art disciplines and focused on photography alone. I started to watch everything that surrounded me very attentively and I analysed it from the perspective of social and later on, political transformation.
PG: In your works you focus on transformation of the states that gained independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as on the Central and Eastern Europe. You document reality but you do not use a traditional form of a documentary. In your opinion, does the topic of a photo series determine its form? Or maybe it is the other way round – you first think of a form and pick the topic at a later stage? What advice would you give to young photographers? Should they focus on form or rather on the topic?
RM: In my case the topic always comes first and it determines the solutions I use in terms of the form of my projects. In this respect, the visual language understood as a distinctive feature of an artist is a blurred notion when it comes to my works. Nevertheless, I try to nurture this approach in me. It allows me to freely move across different conventions and this is always very refreshing. For this reason, I strongly encourage young artists to experiment in terms of form and concept. This always allows to learn the broadest possible scale of expression and, on this basis, to select suitable tools to present a given issue.
When it comes to me, conventions I use constantly fall apart. As soon as I manage to establish a certain array of visual gestures, it is instantly scrapped with every single new project I work on. This is a very exciting process involving a never-ending search and questioning the methods and means of expression which I use. What works perfectly in one project is not necessarily what clicks in the next one. This is why I like artists who are alert, able to take a closer look and assume a critical approach in relation to their own practices.
PG: You work on projects, which are often like closed chapters in your oeuvre as a whole. Why did projects become so usual for you as an artist? Do you think that working on subsequent projects is what most of contemporary photographers usually do? Why is it so?
RM: I have been practicing this working pattern for many years although I am aware that not every single artist works in this way. Some people just prefer working in a continuous mode and do not intend to organise their works in any specific entities or series, a single exhibition or a book. An open form became much closer to me in recent years, however. For example, “The Archive of Public Protests” was never supposed to be a conceptualised artistic project. Its form is very open but from time to time it materialises itself as an exhibition, strike paper, or poster campaign. A concept of an archive is close to me because its status is not finally established and it resembles a morphing organism which responds to the stimuli from space and time.
Although I am now a proponent of this paradigm, not a very long time ago I used to think differently. I used to work on specific modules e.g. I prepared a project which would result in an exhibition being organised or a book being published. When this happened, I considered a project closed and would start working on the next one. This strategy changed after I worked on a project entitled “Refusal”, which showed mechanisms of state propaganda present in certain political systems e.g. in authoritarian regimes or hybrid democracies. My new approach allowed me to work for an extended period of time and react to the constant changes in political context in the locations where the project is currently carried out. “The Archive of Public Protests” also has an open form but from the perspective of its concept and form it is on the other side of the spectrum. The project is about collecting gestures showing the rebellion of citizens and their opposition to violations of human rights in a form of press photographs. Both projects are carried out simultaneously, so I can definitely confirm that finishing a project before starting a new one is no longer the principle I follow in my work.
PG: Apart from photography, you are also engaged in teaching and you work as a lecturer in the Film School in Katowice and in the Institute of Photography of the Silesian University in Opava, Czech Republic. Apart from that, you are one of the mentors in the Sputnik Photos programme. How important is it for you to work in the field of education?
RM: It is very important and it takes a lot of my time. I like teaching but I like meeting my students even more. These are always occasions to inspire each other and to share experiences. I also learn a lot from interactions with young artists. Quite often I feel that works by students are almost at the artistic level of my own pieces. The main difference is that I have more experience but I am always willing to share it with others. I hope that I am useful to my students in this respect.
I am always satisfied when my former or current students enter the market and achieve success. I personally find such situations very rewarding and treat them as a source of motivation to continue my work. Of course this refers to students who are serious about their work.
For me being a teacher means motivating young people and encouraging them to keep going. This is, however, definitely not about approving every single work by a student with absolutely no critical remarks. Everybody has a different attitude and approach, and must be treated individually.
PG: You are a prize winner in many competitions, such as World Press Photo, and a finalist of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize. How important competitions are for you? Did your participation in competitions influence your work as an artist in any way?
RM: Recently I have not been participating in competitions but earlier I had done it much often. I think that it is better to see “new faces”. I am not going to convince you that my works could potentially win a competition but I’ve decided to give up on competitions just in case. There are only a few exceptions from this rule.
I have always treated competitions as a side effect of my work, although they can obviously be very useful. Some of them are a perfect platform to make the wider public aware of certain issues which we present in our projects. Another positive aspect of competitions is prize money. It is the financial support for artists who are almost always short on funds. On the other hand, competitions can cause disappointment and frustration. Only a small group of individuals can be winners and winner selection is based on arbitrary decisions of jury members. As strange as it may sound, it is better not to have too high expectations after sending your submission to a competition. If you manage to win, you should treat it as something extra and unexpected. You should not be upset if your works are not awarded a prize or noticed by jury members. We always have to remember that these are all subjective decisions where very different personalities are in confrontation.
“I am trying to go along unpaved ways”. In conversation with Andrzej Chyra – juror of Allegro Prize 2021
Andrzej Chyra is a jury member of this year’s Allegro Prize, an international competition for young visual artists. In this interview, he tells us what his expectations regarding the competition and its participants and talks about his collaboration with artists.
PG: You are now a member of the Allegro Prize competition jury who will be evaluating works by visual artists. In your opinion, why is it worth participating in this particular competition?
RM: Apart from financial benefits for the winners, I like the fact that this competition is really multidisciplinary. I am also happy that people representing different artistic circles are among jury members. The competition is a good platform for promoting artistic activities, especially for young artists.
PG: Will you be looking for submissions which have something in common with photography? What will you pay attention to? What will you be searching for in particular?
RM: It is really hard to say.
I will mostly look for important stories, works that discuss our complicated reality. The specific field of art will be a secondary thing to the message.
If I notice a good photo series submitted for the Allegro Prize, I will obviously try to make the jury notice it and consider for a prize but I am definitely not going to be biased in favour of photographs only because I am a photographer myself.
Courtesy by Rafał Milach
Courtesy by Rafał Milach
Courtesy by Rafał Milach
Rafał Milach, Poland, Warsaw 02.11.2020 For the past 12 days women and supporting men have been protesting against introduction of more restrictive abortion law. It have been the most massive protests since the fall of communism in Poland. New abortion ban proposal has been raised several times by the right wing government in the past few years and it has been always protested. On October 22nd politicised Constitutional Court declared the abortion in cas of severely damaged fetus illegal.
Courtesy by Rafał Milach
Courtesy by Rafał Milach