Following a historic referendum in 2016, the people of Britain voted to leave the European Union. In March 2019, this departure – ‘Brexit’ – will formally take place. The overarching narrative of post-Brexit Britain is bleak, unfolding against the backdrop of an equally turbulent European landscape. Confusion is the order of the day, political divisions are fierce, and notions of belonging and home have become complicated. Like many, Michal Iwanowski, who is both Polish and British, has felt the tremors of Brexit personally.
Earlier this year, the photographer left his home in Cardiff and walked 1800 km across Europe to his hometown of Mokrzeszów in Poland. Travelling through Wales then England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Czech Republic before finally reaching Poland, the project offers an intimate counterpoint to the dominant media portrayals of the European situation. A rumination on belonging, Go Home, Polish documents this 105-day journey and the people Iwanowski met along the way.
In this interview, the photographer speaks to LensCulture about the power of walking, how his perception of his own identity shifted during his journey, and the value of personal narratives in times of uncertainty.
LensCulture: This is not the first time walking has been central to one of your projects. In Clear of People, you retraced your grandfather’s journey from Soviet captivity back to Poland in 1945, walking over 2000 km. What does walking mean for you? What does it add to your practice?
Michal Iwanowski: The first time around it happened because I was mimicking a certain story. I remember thinking, “What must it have felt like? There’s only one way to find out.” I felt very emboldened by this idea, and I found absolute joy in the process. It’s so meditative. There’s such a strong correlation between the rhythm and pace of walking, and also of thinking. The two are parallel. If you’re driving, you’re going too fast to interact with the environment. If you’re sitting down, it’s too slow. But if you’re walking, it’s exactly the same pace.
I also think that, for me, I need to make physical work. If I just take images, I feel like I haven’t earned my keep. The act of photography is pretty straightforward. Once you know how to press the button and compose a shot, you’re decent. I think that the physical effort put in – the blood, sweat and drudgery – really informs and validates what I do. And it gives it a lot more meaning. My images wouldn’t have that much importance if I hadn’t physically worked on them.
LC: Tell me about what sparked the idea for Go Home, Polish. What was it that compelled you to embark on this second journey on foot?
MI: I first saw a tiny piece of graffiti on a wall in Cardiff that said ‘Go home, Polish’ in 2008, when the financial crisis across Europe was starting. I wasn’t really offended by it, but it stayed with me. Am I the addressee of this? Am I Polish? Am I home? Should I be going home? At that time, I had lived in Wales for seven years, and I was still in this kind of transient state, so I didn’t really know. I sat on the idea. In 2015, when I first heard about the EU referendum, I thought that things were going to change. It was the right time to start thinking about this project.
At that time, I had already walked my Russian track. I could see the link to my grandfather walking 2000 km from the East to Poland. He knew exactly where home was, and had no doubts about his identity: he was Polish, and he wanted to go home to Poland. And there I was, 70 years later, a privileged white male, pondering: Am I home? Am I not home? It’s a very luxurious situation if you think about it – safe and sound, dry, free to think about artistic output. But there was a parallel about how both these stories were going to the same place but from different directions, at different times in history, not that far apart.
LC: In this time of uncertainty, what did you hope this long journey ‘home’ would bring you? What was your initial aim when you set off?
MI: It was very exciting for me because I knew it was my own journey, as opposed to my grandfather’s and his brother’s. This journey was about me literally leaving my home in Cardiff, shuffling my feet along until I saw my own mother. That gave me a sense of completion, but I also saw it as a personal pilgrimage – a test of endurance, which is very childish in a way. Could I make it? And of course it’s possible, but you never know! I’m 41, and I’ve had three knee operations.
There was a certain challenge, but I knew it was important. I’m a coward in many ways. I admire people who put their life on the line for a socially important issues, but I play it safe. I’m used to hiding. I’m gay, and growing up in Poland you learn to contort in order to avoid confrontation. I spent my time being invisible. But then, I always had this ambition to talk about important things that not only affect me, but millions of other people. I don’t want to only pursue self indulgent projects. For me, it was a personal challenge to speak up and use this voice – however quiet it might be – to be part of Brexit, rather than just sit and wait to see what happens with it. I wanted to offer an alternative perspective to the people behind Brexit: me, you and all the other people around us. We exist, and this is hurting us the most. By showing this story, you open up a channel for people to relate to.
LC: I’m curious about how you planned your route. What was your mapping process?
MI: I just drew a straight line on the map, from Cardiff to Mokrzeszów, where my parents live. From then on I just tried to stick to it. Every night at my accommodation, I would sit and look at my computer and find the next stop in the 20 km radius. Usually, there was always a problem. It was hard work to push through after a whole day of walking, trying to be creative and clever about stuff in the heat.
Sometimes, it was three hours of planning – I hated it! You know, to be an artist or a photographer, you have to be a one-man band – you have to wash, cook, walk, talk, write, take photographs, be your own PA, pop your own blisters. I made these videos on my phone to remind myself to never, ever do this again. But I don’t remember any negativity. Even when I crashed, I would think: this is it. Now, I see things through rose-tinted spectacles!
LC: Let’s talk about the images. Among pictures of vast landscapes, paths and borders, we see your solitary body almost blending with its surroundings. What was your working process?
MI: With the self-portraits, it was definitely my plan from the beginning to include the presence of a person in the landscape. The real ‘canvas’ of humanity: not administration, not passports, not borders. We understand landscapes, because that’s where we came from. We understand the smell of a river, whether it’s Germany or France, so I wanted to become part of that landscape. I had this wonderful, dreamy state of thinking: Do I belong in here? Or do I not belong? It was a dichotomy of elements. I was curious about where the boundary is for the audience to say, “Yes these elements do work together, he does belong,” and when they might say, “No, this is jarring.” Because we all have different scales of what is acceptable. Am I British enough? Do I fit?
Whenever I found elements that drew me in, they were usually things that responded to stories I heard along the way, or things that had happened to me that were symbolic. I’m also interested in how nature replicates what we do. Because I am Polish, I could be seen as a fungus, eating the tree that is Britain. Who is exploiting who?
LC: I noticed that the images are mostly natural landscapes – there didn’t seem to be any recognizable cityscapes. It seems very universal.
MI: Yes, they all blend into one. I’m a hippy in that sense – and I don’t mean it in a derogatory way. I really do see myself as citizen of the planet. If you look down from space, we’re all in this together. We’re all spinning on this rock through space, and really, we all have similar problems.
LC: There’s an interesting mix of solitude and interactions with people that seem to have shaped your journey. It’s a strong dynamic. Who did you encounter and what kinds of conversations were you having?
MI: When I started, I was forcing myself to interact with people. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I get a commission like this, but all these forced interactions left me feeling a little uncomfortable. I was kind of fake with people, and I wasn’t even sure what to ask them. Then I stopped and thought: just be and see what happens. And that was an act of courage, because that required me to let go of my intense productivity. I had to tell myself that it’s ok to walk one day without saying hello to anybody. And that’s when things really started happening.
People would look at me and smile, and then start talking to me. That’s where the gold really was. It wasn’t these profound meetings where people rip their heart out and give it to you. That never happens in real life, and I guess I had initially wanted that. After a few weeks I realized that the beauty was in the silent glances and small words. There was a lady that was so upset about Brexit, she said: “You know, I really want to fix this, but you can’t eat an elephant whole, can you.” It was so sweet. Another person told me that after Brexit, she had to go to a funeral, and she wasn’t sure who she was crying for – the friend or the country. Those are the important moments, because they mean so much but they don’t necessarily come to you in a profound, staged conversation.
LC: In your notes, I was struck by these overlapping ideas of home in people’s stories – as something that kind of overflows passports or static labels – something that is ‘here and there.’ Were the encounters different to what you expected?
MI: The were the polar opposite, because I had become quite cynical. You read the news in the morning and get stomach cramps. One negative voice resounds ten times louder than fifty positive voices. Nobody reports nice news, because it’s boring, right? I was expecting quite a lot of negativity and, not necessarily open aggression, because I’m not an aggressive person and Britain is not really like that, but I did anticipate quite a lot of problematic confrontation. But it never actually happened, and that still baffles me.
It was much gentler, and more human. I started this project with a very political premise, and I was expecting to carry that on for three months. Then you realize that the political parts don’t interest people as much as the personal. If you ask all the people you meet where home is, they’re not going to say Germany or wherever else. They usually touch their chest and say their home is where their mum is, or where my husband is, or where they grew up. It’s always something much deeper. It’s the same across all countries. Very few people were interested in talking about politics. It was reassuring, because we are all one in many ways. It really restored my faith in people.
LC: Why did you choose to represent your encounters with people through text and not images?
MI: I took some portraits of people, but I thought it was lazy. It just seemed like the usual morsel you’re presented with in a photo essay. You look at the person, you read about them, and you move on. Then you don’t really have to do the work at all. So that’s why I thought I would write out these stories. Then my audience will have to make an effort to create these people in their own minds. I walked for 105 days – you can put in the effort to read, use your imagination and create that person – or maybe even become the person yourself. If you make the effort, things stay with you. If you don’t, it comes and goes, right?
LC: Yes, there’s something special about having to fill in the gaps. It’s less specific than if you have a visual representation of someone – you’re already an other to them because you’re a spectator.
MI: Absolutely – you don’t ‘other’ the person. It’s so easy to do. You see them and it’s not you! In this way, it’s like looking in a mirror rather than looking through a window at somebody.
LC: Did your notion of home change during this journey?
MI: People would always talk about my Polish identity, and about my British identity. I was trying to reconcile the two. But I realized that I don’t have a split personality: I have one identity, and this walk really centred it. I’ve risen above this fight between the two. There is no fight. I’m at peace, and I don’t need to explain myself. I have these layers – I live here, I live there – but I am whole as one person.
It was really wonderful to feel this. I feel at home when I’m in Germany, in Poland, in transition – I don’t need to be rooted in one place. And I definitely felt more comfortable coming back to Wales. I think this comes down to the fact that I haven’t lived in Poland for 17 years now, so when I go there and visit, I’m looking back over my shoulder at what once was. In the time-space continuum, that life is not home anymore.
LC: A gesture of hostility started this work, along with a backdrop of post-Brexit confusion. Bringing this back home and having seen the division across Europe firsthand, what do you hope others will take from the project?
MI: I hope that people will see a mirror rather than a window. I would like this work to be more about reconciliation – I do not wish to be confrontational. Who knows, though? It’s tough, and it’s often naive to think in that way. But if anybody who has any doubts sees it, I would like them to look at this work and feel that it could be them. You could be in my position. Nobody chooses to be the underdog. Nobody chooses to have to run, or to be rejected. Casual racism, umbrella terms, generalizing – it’s very dangerous. I hope the person who wrote ‘Go home, Polish’ sees this and thinks: I wrote this thing, and this guy walked thousands of miles. Language has its consequences.