In Clear of People the Cardiff-based photographer Michal Iwanowski retraces the gruelling 2000 kilometre journey his grandfather Tolek and great uncle Wiktor undertook to escape Soviet captivity in 1945. Wiktor and Tolek were partisan fighters in the Polish Army when they were captured and imprisoned by Soviet forces. The main part of the book consists of Iwanowski’s atmospheric, dark and visually striking photographs of the barren landscapes between Kaluga, Russia and Wroclaw, Poland. The title of the book is a reference to Tolek and Wiktor having to disguise their identity and remain at a safe distance whilst on the run. Iwanowski’s photographs signify this sense of anxiety with rare depictions of people, photographed only from far away.
Other images add to this sense of alienation: there is a photograph of an abandoned military bunker, a frozen lake or of a dead cat, lying there for so long that its grey fur appears to melt into the ground. The snow and the dark atmosphere in these images bears some resemblance to Luc Delahaye’s book Winterreise – if music could accompany Iwanowski’s photographs, it would be written in a despairing D minor.
The centre of the book includes a powerful first hand account of the escape by Wiktor Iwanowski, Michal Iwanowski’s great uncle. In this account, originally published in Poland in 1994 and translated here into English, the brothers’ astonishing journey from Kaluga to Wroclaw is told with a remarkable sense of detail. They survived extreme temperatures, starvation and injury – not to mention the psychological toll several near death experiences took on the brothers. One senses that one of the main reasons they survived is precisely because of that: because they were brothers.
The story of Wiktor and Tolek finally returning back home – where much of this “home” is actually destroyed and abandoned by the time they make it back in 1945 – adds a whole new dimension to Michal’s photographs of these scarred landscapes. The insertion of old family photographs and letters adds a third dimension to this overall narrative, that beneath the insanity of war lie the stories of ordinary people with hopes and dreams for the future. The brothers’ story makes it quite clear that very few of their compatriots survived, and those who did will have been so scarred by their experience that luck is not a word that could be assigned to them.
Clear of People is an extraordinarily well-conceptualized photobook. There are so many layers of memory, history and trauma that can be deduced by the combination of contemporary photographs, historical documents and first-hand accounts which are underpinned by Michal’s own experience of the physical journey. One aspect that bears highlighting is that this book can be seen to emphasize the blurring of boundaries that occurred in the dying days of the war: the boundaries between nation-states were increasingly fluid, the laws of the land gave way to chaos, even the very boundary between life and death is increasingly unclear.
Towards the end of his 1994 account of the escape, Wiktor Iwanowski appears to have hit a dead end when he writes the following: ‘Right now, I don’t think I can piece it together anymore. It’s getting hard to recall events through memories. Yet I’ve left a mark. But what to do with it? Give it away to a museum or somewhere? But who will have it? No one needs it …’. The final boundary, that between remembering and forgetting, is vividly signified by Michal Iwanowski’s beautiful homage to his family’s story of survival.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Marco Bohr
Below: images from Clear of People © Michal Iwanowski
Retail availability of Clear of People from the edition of 700 is sold out, however, a limited edition of 10 copies with a print will be released for sale in September via the artist’s website.
For details of this limited edition and to see more images in the series: www.michaliwanowski.com