In a myriad of ways, the pandemic has intensified our experience of the nuclear family, with what feels like a collective homecoming into spaces where full-time occupancy previously felt like a distant memory. For many, childhood traumas have been unanticipatedly excavated and laid bare, inviting harkers-back to distance themselves from and reject connections to their lineage as a way of coping with immediate distress.

But for Tomasz Kawecki, returning to his childhood home, its atmosphere saturated with ancestral magic dwelling in its surrounding thicket, a goosebump-inducing reacquaintance has been a long time coming. Reinstating himself in his grandmother’s home in a small town in southern Poland called Witowice Dolne during the lockdown of March 2020, he decided to translate the stories of this world into photographs.

A Lair. Bed where my grandmother used to sleep. © Tomasz Kawecki

Kawecki likens his grandmother to a spirit guide. Her house in the village, where he lived with her as a child while his mother was still in college, sits beside a large forest full of “magical creatures”. Throughout his entire life, Kawecki has treated the mysterious place with a deep reverence. “My grandmother is a biologist, specializing in mycology,” he explains. “I remember when I was younger and no longer had the strength to walk during our excursions, she would carry me through the forest with a basket full of mushrooms, sprigs and other treasures. She taught me the names of mushrooms, explaining which ones were edible and how to identify them. She would even anthropomorphize some of them, taking them home with her.”

Over the years, more and more treasures, including dried plants, natural objects, and old photographs collected by Kawecki’s grandmother, slowly filled the empty space in the house. “She never throws anything out,” he explains. “Once she brings something inside, it remains with her forever. The house, together with her, grows old—everything within its walls is subject to natural cycles.”

Flowers. Flowers collected by her many years ago. I used them to create chochoł — a straw man. © Tomasz Kawecki

When he returned to the house to isolate, he started helping her clear the swathe of dust-covered companions—particularly dried flowers—out of the space. Kawecki and his girlfriend decided to make a straw man out of the dehydrated foliage, akin to a German strohbär, a character whose iterations can be traced throughout European folklore, often marking a shift in seasons. They took their straw man to a pond and burned it, Kawecki documenting their intuitive ritual through the lens of his camera. “We wanted to honor the time that had passed and the efforts of my grandmother in this place,” he explains. “It was our way of creating a dialogue with the land—a way of giving it some order.”

Chochoł — A Straw Man. After moving to an old house owned by my grandmother, who’s a collector, I had to face an excess of old things belonging to the past. Where I was finding everywhere dried flowers and plants collected by her for past 20 years, I impersonated them in the mulch. I carried him through the whole village to the forest and there in the pond I ritually burned it. © Tomasz Kawecki

Fleshing out his grandmother’s anthropomorphic abilities further, Kawecki’s images depict natural objects like shells and branches in sentient setups. The pieces of this natural collection feel more like pets than debris, crawling across his grandmother’s body, curled up in the middle of a bed. Kawecki’s grandmother appears quiet and reverent, demonstrating her inseparability from the nature she feels at home with, its curves and contrasts reflected in the dust floating throughout each room, illuminated by the natural light pouring through aged windows.

Portrait with Roots. Grandma’s portraits are a collective work. Mine and hers. These are long conversations about her collections and past. There is history to each of these things. I have the impression that thanks to the items she collects, it is easier for her to remember a past. © Tomasz Kawecki

In the series, aptly titled A Lair, Kawecki also incorporates old photographs he found peppered throughout the house. “I tried to draw as much as possible from her story,” he says. “I looked through my grandmother’s photo albums, and in almost every photograph of her, she is surrounded by nature. She was raised by her own grandmother in the countryside, too, and even as a child, she loved the natural world. It was a part of her—just like it is within me.”

Archival Photography No.2. My grandmother when she was 7 years old during holy communion. © Tomasz Kawecki

While many find a deep connection with nature and their ancestors a bizarre practice of times past, Kawecki finds immense comfort in this natural setting, no matter the dark and shadowy atmosphere it presents. That balance between light and dark is felt in his photographs. “No matter how dark and strange this place seems to my friends, I feel happiest when I’m walking on this land. I feel full of a peace that I’m only able to achieve by being close to the forest of mountains.”

Self Portrait. I made a performance in which I take clothes out of her wardrobe one by one and put them on one by one. Losing more and more ability to move, my character is getting bigger and wider. Each successive layer that grows on my body is a heavy coating of history and memories of their previous owner. I calmly try on each of them, knowing that there will come a time when it will overcome me © Tomasz Kawecki

Through his work, Kawecki hopes to encourage others to explore our own heritage and background, not only to better understand our ancestors, but to better understand ourselves. He is fixated on the mountains and forest, reveling in their lifelong impact on his interpretation of the world. “When I was a child, we slept in the attic,” he remembers. “Walls let in the wind, carrying the sounds of the outside. I had the impression I was sleeping in a treehouse in the heart of the forest. The mountain wind sweeping through the room gave me shivers, but I wasn’t afraid. We were safe because we were protected by my grandmother’s charms. Enormous roots resembling animals, bunches of plants and pebbles arranged on the stove, all kept their watch over us. The reconciled home for me in the dark woods.”

Editor’s note: A Lair was a Juror’s Pick in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2021. For more exciting new discoveries, take a look at the other winners!