“Violence begins in the nervous system, from an impulse that runs through the body and makes someone press the shutter. It ends in an archive, the place where information and images are stored.” So reads the description of curator Beata Bartecka and photographer and curator Łukasz Rusznica’s new publication How To Look Natural In Photos. All of the photographs in the book are assembled from the Institute of National Remembrance: Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes against the Polish Nation (IPN), which examines Polish history between the early 20th century and the fall of the totalitarian system. Taken specifically from the archive of the Polish secret police, the pictures reveal the colossal and entrenched use of photography as a tool of power, manipulation and violence in operations that took place between 1944 and 1989.
Symbols of violence begin to reveal themselves almost immediately in this book. In amongst an onslaught of imagery—hundreds of pictures across 300 pages—we see bruised eyes and burns, car wrecks and crime scenes, armed officers and arrests. And there’s scenes significantly more painful than these ones too. One of the very first images in the book is of two dead bodies in a worn-out cart, half-hidden by rags. Figures walk past in the background, activity ticking on. The mundanity of the scene is appalling—so much so, in fact, that I’m not even sure I registered what I had seen the first time I leafed through the pages. As it turns out, that happens a lot here.
These images of violence appear to be sporadic at first—punctuated throughout the edit with seemingly mundane pictures of street scenes and gardens, windows and rooms, people crossing roads and climbing stairs. A strange, disorienting sort of theatre emerges and all sorts of characters appear, though any actual story is hard to pin down. It’s only when you go back, you look again, you read the essay, you consult the index, that you understand more, and you realise that all of the images in this book denote violence—not just the obvious ones, but every single one. And that’s because every single one of them was taken, by agents, for the purposes of surveillance and blackmail of suspects.
There are no captions or dates printed throughout How To Look Natural In Photos, and it’s only in the index at the end that descriptions for each photograph are detailed. This is a crucially important aspect of the book, and one of the best things about it, because it gives readers a choice. It’s like the decision between using footnotes and endnotes in a novel—one offers outside context as the reader goes along, while the other offers full immersion to the reader without disrupting the flow of what’s right in front of them. Relatedly, in a recent interview with the Calvert Journal, the editors of this book said, “This is not a book about the past, but told by the past.” Perhaps what is meant by this is that the world in this book comes from history, but that this is not a history book; the expectation to neatly package up a narrative isn’t required. What matters most here is how the images speak to one another, and how they speak to us.
What’s brilliant about this book is how it tricks you into finding links between scenes you haven’t fully understood yet.
When you do get to the index, and to the accompanying essay by historian Tomasz Stempowski, the scale of the operation really becomes clear, and some of the more abstract pictures from the book begin to make sense. It’s here we learn how cameras were hidden in walnuts and on belt straps, hence the still lifes of such disparate objects; here we learn how persons of interest were stalked through the streets and followed on journeys, which explains the paparazzi-style photos of people at train stations; and here we learn how the apartment photos we see were taken as reference so that homes could be put back exactly as they were found after clandestine state searches.
It’s also here we learn that all of these photographers have remained anonymous—unnamed and uncredited novices provided with cameras and trained through a special programme that taught the particular and detached style of photography we see throughout the book. “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them,” said Hannah Arendt. I thought a lot about that here—how the book so skillfully makes us aware that the photographers themselves were faceless parts of the greater whole. In a totalitarian system, individuality is obsolete, and this extends to the authorial ownership of photographers too—as far as the state was concerned, if there were any author of these pictures at all, it could only be the state itself.
These unknown agents were told to try to capture suspects in the most natural way possible, as witnesses might remember them, just going about their days. And the fact that these pictures were caught awkwardly, from hidden devices by amateur photographers explains so much of the aesthetic we see through the book—haphazard compositions, blurred or tarnished occasionally with light-leaked or chemical accidents. Ironically, these mistakes are one of the most human things about the pictures, because they prove a human was behind the lens.
How to Look Natural In Photos can, in essence, be read as a visual catalogue of action—falling and fainting, hiding and pointing, killing and dying—and its bodily consequences. A labored, strange sort of rhythm pulses through the pages, enacted through various different sequences of pictures. One particularly chilling sequence comes in the form of a set of photographs, spread out across a number of pages in amongst other scenes, of militiamen performing a set of choreographed movements. It appears like a sinister sort of dance, their hands gripping each other’s belts as they move in formation.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing this book taught me is that sometimes cameras were used for purely aesthetic reasons, with no film in them even, to threaten potential rule-breakers. The mere presence of a camera was enough to scare people into line. And that’s the thing about photography isn’t it? It’s a weapon. A dangerous one. Knowing this piece of information, I went back through the book and found myself imagining all of the photographs that weren’t taken throughout these years; the tense scenes or the worried faces, or the people awkwardly performing normality for an obviously watching lens. Thinking about it in this way, it becomes clear that the only way to really look natural in photos is to not know they’re being taken.
There are ghosts among the pages of this book. Hundreds of them, having silent conversations between themselves, pointing things out to us, telling us things. Some are the people in the pictures—the suspects and the subjects, the guards and the officers. Some are those that took them—the agents and the spies and the learn-on-the-job rookies. Some are simply passers-by who may never know their images live on here. Some are the watchers and some are the watched; some are named and some never are. It’s almost overwhelming, the emotional impact of all those individual lives and bodies and the sheer nebulousness of information, but it’s just enough to have you completely hooked. As a reader, you will constantly find yourself checking your own ethical boundaries with this book, and berating yourself for not noticing something so clearly sinister on first look. But ultimately, you’ll find yourself feeling around the edges of your own humanity too.