IMAGO, a long-term project that resulted in a book, is a photographic tale about underage boys from a reformatory in Studzieniec, Poland. For Zuza Krajewska, who had been visiting the place throughout all 2016, it was a chance to see through the stereotypes and social stigmas regarding juvenile delinquents and reflect upon the entire idea of “badness” attached to them.
Photographs and text by Zuza Krajewska
The beginning of the project, the first months. I remember every trip back from Studzieniec. I remember every word the staff and children told me about their mothers and fathers, how they were forever drunk, trawling, cruel, stupid. I remember how I wanted to smash those drunken faces of the parents. I couldn’t find a way out of that feeling of helplessness while watching the road through my tears. I couldn’t make sense of the bright lights of newly European Poland, of super-sized McDonalds, new, clean homes with landscaped hedgerows, the unbridled euro-standard. Why bring them into the world? In a drunken haze, barely aware of what was happening, only to punch, kick, frighten, humiliate and abandon these children.
I came to Studzieniec because I wanted to find those “bad” kids, I wanted to know where the bad comes from, where it begins. I found one, maybe two, with that wild look in their eyes, that gaze that was meant to terrify you. The rest, the other 27 boys, were children who had inherited this “badness” from their parents. It was all they ever got from them.
Studzieniec facility has been re-socializing children for 145 years. It was set up, without government funding, by ordinary people as a social institution. The Agricultural Settlement Society (Towarzystwo Osad Rolnych) made an effort to bring in homeless, troubled kids and help them adapt to society through work and contact with nature. It is one of the first such initiatives of its kind in the country, set up in affiliation with three others across Europe. In Poland, it operates on a smaller scale because of the country’s general lack of confidence in the potential of rehabilitating a “broken” individual. Now, it seems, people are even more sceptic. There never is enough time or money.
The success rate at Studzieniec? About 50%. They say it is quite high. How is that possible? When their stay is over, these kids go right back to their old environment, the same community, addictions and ways of life they came from. The struggle for a better life, even for those with the best intentions, is, in most cases, a losing battle. Imagine it is “you against the world”. There is no one to protect you, to stand up for you, no one guiding you in the right direction so you don’t keep making the same mistakes, so you don’t keep falling into the same old shit.
For many of the kids who come to Studzieniec, it is the first time in their lives when no one shoves or hits them, when they experience a rare moment of peace and quiet. For many it is the first time in their lives that they feel needed and wanted, safe from harm. The first time they understand that their lives are worth something.
Studzieniec is a secluded, autonomous space within the wilderness of the deep countryside, about 50 km from Warsaw. When a boy first arrives here, he is astonished, he feels cut off from the world, exiled into the wild. No discos, no sex, no cheap drugs. No drunken parents to beat them. I think they do not even begin to understand any of it until the time comes for them to leave.
No, I do not believe in these theories about the total, humiliating, dehumanizing character of these types of institutions. Studzieniec may shut children off from the outside world, which can be infuriating for them, but in return, it gives them stability, a sense of perspective, it introduces new programmes of possibility into their heads, and pushes them to ask fundamental questions about their place in the world.
It could do more, help rebuild a child’s self-esteem, at the very least provide them with opportunities to earn a living honestly, move on to the next step – a hotel, a home, a world beyond that hellish place they come from. If they could go somewhere far from that place, to a hostel, a halfway house, something that they could call home for a little while, it would be better for them, it would give them a moment to collect themselves before they must move on. It would allow them to start their lives all over again.
One must remember that everything they did before arriving here was just to get their hands on fast money, to rise up as quickly as possible, because where they come from, there is no money, there is nothing but wretchedness and poverty.
A limited edition of the IMAGO book is available on sale.
Zuza Krajewska is a photographer and filmmaker, a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdansk, Poland. She lives and works in Warsaw. Her work has been published in numerous international magazines and she cooperates with worldwide advertising agencies. Zuza showed her works on individual and group exhibitions, e.g. Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw – CSW Zamek Ujazdowski , the National Museum in Warsaw, BWA Gallery in Sopot, BWA Gallery in Warsaw, BWA Gallery in Wroclaw, Raster Gallery in Warsaw.
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