When I first saw Joanna Piotrowska's latest work, I thought, This is exactly how it felt to be a teenage girl. The Polish photographer's images are miles away from the visions of skinny, pretty girls in candy-coloured rooms depicted in huge quantities from conventional media. Piotrowska's work channels what adolescence actually felt like: the awkwardness, shyness, vulnerability, and fear; the strange sensation of being in a rapidly changing body, and the unyielding desire to resist authority and stand up for yourself.
It's not the first time Piotrowska has explored uncomfortable social situations. Her critically acclaimed book FROWST explores the nature of family, its impact on an individual, and how it determines the ways we speak, breathe, and move.
After winning the Jerwood/Photoworks prize, Piotrowska decided to develop these topics further, but this time in relation to the challenges faced by teenage girls. In Piotrwska's photos, instead of being engaged in usual girly activities, girls aged between 11 and 17 are re-enact poses from self-defence manuals.
"I started working with self-defence manuals before I got the Jerwood prize", Piotrowska recalls. "The idea of self-defence is interesting: you use your own body as a weapon to protect yourself from another human. I looked into the body language and the way self-defence manuals are structured, the stills describing your position in relation to one another. The positions, show the bodies in conflict, step by step. We see them in the first position body takes before being attacked, we can see the details of actual entanglement in the fight and the final grasps.
"Here, the element of violence which is inherent to self defence idea is the key element. I find violence the most terrifying human behaviour. Any indication of physical, emotional, collective, interpersonal or sexual violence makes me really anxious."
Piotrowska is based in London but mostly shoots her projects in Poland. Her photographic subjects were cast from friends' families and young aspiring actresses who signed up with casting agencies. The girls are mostly captured in interior domestic settings so homely and cosy that they feel airless. "I wanted to work in domestic spaces again. I did one shoot outside, in the back garden," she says. "There is one interior which I found randomly online and I wanted to use it because of crazy amount of patterns: on the carpet, the sofa, the wallpaper, the curtains, even some furniture's. All these layers evoke claustrophobia and remind me about horror vacui—[the] fear of empty space, quite common for people who are mentally unstable or [in] Outsider art."
Piotrowska's images easily resonate with women from any background, but they also bear traces of her personal coming-of-age in Poland. "I was thinking of what it's like to be a girl brought up in the society, of all these situations dangerous for your identity in the process of forming," she explains. "I don't really know how does it feel to grow up as a girl in England. But I remember so many restrictions I had as a girl growing up in Poland.
"My family isn't conservative, not religious and I saw my mum as a person who's very liberal," she added. "I didn't feel that I'm in any sense oppressed, but just the very base of the upbringing is oppressive and I was aware of the need to behave in a certain ways in certain situations even if that was not coming directly from my family. I often heard what a girl should do and what [she] shouldn't."
She found the education system in Poland "quite airless and sometimes even traumatizing," adding, "Some of my teachers were so strict and dehumanized and I was literally scared of them. I still remember a freezing gaze of my math's teacher. I mean, now it's of course funny and I smile when I think about it but I do remember that gaze after 15 years!"
On one occasion, she was scolded by a chemistry teacher for holding hands with her boyfriend in the corridors of high school. "She was shocked by my improper behaviour and she was looking and talking to me, only not acknowledging the presence of my boyfriend at all!" On another occasion, "When I was preparing for exams to Academy of Fine Arts I was told not too press the pencil so hard – as girls don't draw this way! There were plenty of other situations like that, which collected all together give an image of a pretty abusive environment for forming [your] identity.
"I mean, it is of course not about the way of drawing—it is that someone is imposing on me some general ideas of whom I should be, ignoring my individual sensitivity and needs, or ascribing to me the responsibility for the behaviour of two people and so on. There is a lot about the lack of respect of one's rights in it and suppression, and I find this quite violent."
These photos are a rare example of a visual narrative entirely free from the objectifying male gaze; the girls in Piotrowska's photos are not conscious of being watched. They are immersed in their fight, defending themselves against an invisible enemy most women can trace lurking in the darkness every time they walk home alone at night, or when they are silently embarrassed by a catcall on the street. In her images, Piotrowska finds fear, insecurity, and vulnerability—but also the power to defend yourself.