In 1940, following the invasion of Poland, German forces established a ghetto in the northeastern section of Łodź. Over 160,000 Jewish residents were isolated and forced into the area. By 1942, almost 40,000 Jewish people were deported from Germany, Austria, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Luxembourg into the district, bringing residential numbers up to 210,000. One of the most impressive picture collections that survived WWII was collected by Henryk Ross (b. 1910), a photographer who secretly documented the conditions of the Łodź ghetto. He illegally took photos of everyday scenes and atrocities and buried the negatives so an archive could later be dug up. The collection is exceptional, as it portrays life during occupation, moving from disturbing moments of despair, to more surreal instances of simple pleasures. Ross’ work emblematises photography as willpower. It also marks the site of Łodź as a place of courage, determination and regeneration and establishes the city as one of Europe’s cultural capitals of photography. This month, Fotofestiwal Łodź returns for its 22nd edition, from the 15 – 25 June, under the theme of Hope. Directors Krzysztof Candrowicz and Marta Szymańska have curated seven group and individual exhibitions, each depicting “various forms of resistance, support and cooperation in Eastern and Western Europe, South America and the Middle East.” They say, “hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope,” as they unite powerful communities “in defiance of common, fatalistic narratives about our reality.” This year, the festival also invites Month of Photography in Minsk and Odesa Photo Days, both of which are unable to take place in their home countries, to find a “temporary home” in the city.
Photographer Ugo Woatzi (b. 1991) is part of the group exhibition On The Verge, with a series on hiding and revealing. Surreal images depict faces obstructed by driftwood, handkerchiefs and swathes of wallpaper, as they question the performative aspects of our lives. Here, Woatzi simultaneously opens up conversations about fitting in in a heteronormative society. The work lands in the midst of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party’s (PiS) anti-LGBTQ+ campaign, where according to the Human Rights Watch, in May, PiS have proposed a bill that seeks to prohibit the teaching of gender identity, reproductive rights and sexual orientation in schools. Woatzi’s photographs depict moments of self-camouflage, using fabrics and surfaces composed of different colours, shadows and shapes. The artist is motivated by social practice. In a 2023 interview with Container Love, they describe, “I love when an artist is political, especially with photography, because this is a genre that’s actually capable of changing norms in society.”
Another artist dedicated to telling human stories is Rami Hara. They feature in the exhibition In Our Hands, where their work underlines marginalised communities in multicultural cosmopolitan societies. Glittering hijabs and shiny durags create portraits that maintain a quiet dignity. Similarly to Woatzi, Hara plays with themes of alienation and anonymity, contrasting these with moments of sensory playfulness. Azure blue, gold and purple tones frame figures in poignant individuality, forming a tableaux of privacy and texture. Hara describes, “Underneath the burka, each person is a unique individual.”
Elsewhere Chloé Milos Azzopardi (b. 1994) and Gabriele Cecconi (b. 1985) look at the impact of capital on landscapes. Azzopardi, Winner of the Aesthetica Editorial Award, is interested in the “unprecedented environmental transformations triggered by human activity in overdeveloped countries,” creating works that reconnect the natural world post-capitalism. Butterflies balance on fingertips whilst eyes peep through cacti in shots that straddle the boundaries between surrealism and documentary. Imagination is also central to Cecconi’s practice, as the artist introduces TiàWùK (2023), a series that traces the line between fiction and reality. The artist stages “a fictional planet” that has “recently been colonised due to the discovery of a secret source of energy.” The work considers the relationship of power and wealth in a fabulated world, as it incorporates elements of Kuwait’s history — a reversal of the exhibition’s title. Cecconi highlights Western influences on the region, where from 1899-1961 the country fell under the British Protectorate, whilst more recently it has borrowed an “economic and social model” from the US following the Gulf War. Images span technological and cultural artefacts, moving from spaceship simulators to annual festivals. In one photograph, inflatable dolphins and horses stream through the desert, producing a multicoloured herd that stretches across the sky. The image demonstrates one of the region’s most celebrated occasions — National Independence Day on 25 February — as it nods to Cecconi’s negotiation of dystopian and material realities.
Agnieszka Sejud (b. 1991), meanwhile, uses digital and analogue collage, creating kaleidoscopic and psychedelic images that celebrate form and perspective. The artist employs deconstructive techniques to illustrate points of repetition and rupture. In her series Mimesis (2023), a woman lounges in a pool, carried by three men whose faces have been removed. Their profiles dissolve into the water, replaced with a pasted imprint of the subject’s reclining head. In another picture, a bird-like creature crosses her legs on grass, hands spread out and multiplied, emulating the wings of an eagle. The work echoes the photographs of Widline Cadet through cloned limbs and body doubles, where each image approaches optical illusion.
This cut-out technique continues in the intimate photographs of Ngadi Smart (b. 1989), an artist who looks at how people self-identify and present themselves in front of the lens. Her project Wata Na Life is the winner of the British Journal of Photography x WaterAid Climate Commission in 2021, as it bears witness to the water crisis that faces residents of Sierra Leone. Smart describes, “I’ve always been interested in what makes a person. For this project I focused on photography mixed with collage. I took pictures of elements around each location and used them to add to the portraits so that they’re a true representation of each person.” She adds, “Sierra Leoneans are very – I don’t want to say resilient because that’s what is always expected of Black communities…and we are. But it’s a shame we always have to be. We can never really rest. In Sierra Leone, a lot of people are doing things themselves, working as a community to improve the situation as much as they can with the small means that they have.”
In a continued collaboration between Łodź, Odesa Photo Days and Month of Photography in Minsk, guest features include The Transition State and Inbetweenland, two exhibitions that reflect changes and protest movements in Belarus, Georgia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine over the last 30 years. Photographs capture the fight against inequality alongside the demand for freedom of speech, in a reassessment of governments’ state-building roles. In these moments of communal action, the programme encourages us to look closer our contemporary world. As curator Marta Szymańska notes, “cooperation is one of the most important words that define Fotofestiwal,” proving that “even in the times of the deepest darkness and in the cracks of uncertainty, we can develop some hidden positive scripts.”
1. © Agnieszka Sejud
2. © Chloé Azzopardi
3. © Gabriele Cecconi
4. © Rami Hara, from the Do-rag series (2022)
5. © Rami Hara, from the Hooyoo series (2022)
6. © Julia Klewaniec
7. Wata Na Life, commissioned by BJP x Wateraid © Ngadi Smart