In September 2015, Polish photographer Ilona Szwarc self-published a book called “I am a woman and I feast on memory,” a memorable and telling title for a project that quickly gained international praise from the photography community and beyond. A book in three parts, Szwarc’s publication includes “I am a woman and I feast on memory” as well as two additional sections called “I am a woman and I cast no shadow” and “I am a woman and I play the horror of my flesh.” The book nimbly and sharply confronts timely and important subjects: traditional forms of portraiture, the female place in contemporary society, and the true underpinnings of identity.
The resemblance between Szwarc and the model she used for her project is no coincidence: the artist held a casting call for models in advance of the series with the aim of working with someone who shared some of her physical traits. Given her previous interest in documenting American society—American Girls in 2013, or her project on junior-rodeo cowgirls in the American southwest—it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Szwarc was, at least in part, hunting for her American equivalent.
Szwarc’s take on the (self-)portrait is complicated by her “supporting role” in many of her photographs. These images shake the viewer loose from their comfortable seat: no longer are we looking at a direct representation of the artist. Instead, we watch as Szwarc dabs face paint over her model, obscuring her physical features and seemingly changing her character before our eyes. It feels oddly intimate, as if we’ve entered Szwarc’s mind and we’re watching her as she fiddles or experiments with aspects of her identity.
As the model transforms, new words slowly float to the tip of the tongue: “old,” for “I am a woman and I feast on memory,” and “heavy” or “grotesque” for “I am a woman and I play the horror of my flesh.” In each of these parts, Szwarc deftly faces different constraints and expectations—age, weight—that surround and suffocate women in contemporary society.
The final series, “I am a woman and I cast no shadow,” is the culmination of what came before. Szwarc creates a mask, a perfect replica, of her model’s face, capturing her exact likeness. With this act, she seems to ask: has she captured her character, her identity? This process is violent at times (those scissors!) and uncomfortable to witness. The plastic material gradually dribbles down the front of her model’s face, blurring and obscuring her features completely. She has been stripped of her jewelry, makeup, and hair. These symbols of identity lose any meaning.
Szwarc’s images pose a number of questions to the viewer. Is our identity fixed, or are we able—as these portraits suggest—to abruptly shift them, conforming to expectations and personal ambitions? To what extent are women compelled to do so? And what—if any—are the true markers of identity in our increasingly image-obsessed society?
Editors’ note: In 2016, Ilona Szwarc was named a FOAM Talent.