Initially, Kuba Dabrowski picked 2,000 photos for his exhibition at Warsaw's National Gallery. Before long, he'd knocked that number down to 160, because putting thousands of photos in one show is completely ridiculous.
Now there's a sensible number of pictures to admire, don't expect to see any of the portraits of artists and politicians that helped Kuba make his name. Instead, his whittled down selection is comprised of scenes from the photographer's day-to-day – snapshots of his friends, family and the things he sees while walking around Warsaw.
I had a chat with him about his career, the exhibition and why pictures of the Tesco cold meats section are just as interesting as photos documenting vital historical events.
VICE: How old were you when you took your first photo?
Kuba Dabrowski: Six, I’d say. My parents are engineers; they specialise in electricity and technology. I got my first Smena from them. They didn’t give it to me so that I could be creative and learn how to look at the world, but to teach me how the lens works, how the aperture in the diaphragm and shutter speed affect one another. They wanted me to get used to technology. Photography didn’t mean much to me back then.
So when did you start photographing everything you could?
We were living in a high-rise. My grandfather Józek would come over to walk the dog, and he had this habit of going to the local market every day. He’d find all sorts of treasures there. One day, he brought me a bag of expired film roll. The Smena was long gone and I was using a cheap Chinese autofocus camera at the time. It was then, for the first time, that I stopped worrying about running out of film. I started photographing everything: my poster collection, my mates fighting in the schoolyard, the view from my room.
Whose photos did you like back then?
When I was in high school – which was 1994 to 97, give or take – there weren’t any art bookstores in Poland selling photography books. We didn’t even have Taschen here. If you didn’t have a photographer in your family and had no access to artistic circles, it was difficult to be up to date on the whole thing.
In 1997, my English teacher – who was a Brit – showed me a copy of The Face, which he'd brought over from home after Christmas. It featured an article on Francis Bacon and lots of raw fashion photos. It was very cool, but it wasn’t me. At 18 I joined a local photography group in Białystok. It was run by Grzegorz Dąbrowski, who I call my “photographic father”. He introduced me to classic documentary photography, like Magnum photos. Another thing Grzegorz showed me was how to look at the world and document it in photos.
What was your dream back then?
Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to work at a newspaper. I’d make little mock-up newspapers myself. Heniek, our neighbour, worked in an old printing house and he’d bring me prints of photos from the Polish News Agency. I glued them to pieces of paper, stuck all those together and made my own newspapers. It was fun. The world of print really excited my imagination.
And your dream came true – you ended up working for the weekly magazine Przekrój.
Indeed. In fact, a great many of my dreams came true.
You also worked as a war correspondent in Afghanistan, which doesn't necessarily seem like the kind of thing you'd be into.
Yeah, I do fashion and commercial photography, but I've also done several photographic biographies and I enjoy all sorts of stuff. So when the opportunity to go to Afghanistan came up, it was quite something. From the photographer’s point of view, working in a warzone is a mythical thing – a lad’s thing. It makes you think of Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Capa, etc. You have to have your vaccination, get your bulletproof vest, fly around in a helicopter, get your first aid and landmine training. It gets your imagination going. I was attracted to it, especially because my photos have always been very much about lads, about gender – what it’s like to be a lad, what it means.
And what did you learn while you were out there?
Rafał Kostrzyński, who I was supposed to go with, had already been to Afghanistan a couple of times before. In one snapshot he'd taken, there were people dancing at the airport in Kabul. Rafał explained to me that the customs officers had recognised a judge from the Afghan edition of Pop Idol, and he started a party at the airport. I was surprised to hear that there was an Afghan edition of Pop Idol in the first place. All my prior knowledge about Afghanistan had come from photos of people with amputated legs, wounded children and poppy seed plantations. Meanwhile, there was this other, normal reality that no one was showing or writing about. It was then that I decided I was going.
The fashion photography and commercials you do – is that just for the extra money?
No. To me, everything I do is about documenting the reality.
Even photos of lipsticks for cosmetic firms and portraits of corporate dudes?
Portraits of corporate dudes are just work, and very well paid at that. As for photos of lipsticks and fashion shoots, they are a documentation. Photographers are historians working in the present. On the one hand, they think about how people will look at their photos here and now, and on the other hand they are aware that these photos will be out there and – in a couple of dozen years – they will mean something else. The photos I take today will also be a few decades old one day.
As a photographer, I have access to the people who define our time: artists, politicians, etc. Fashion also defines our time. I imagine that, in a couple of dozen years, all these photos – of my girlfriend and my son, of my car, my parents, the crossword puzzle I did at my summer house in Białystok – will be a document of what our world is today, alongside photos of Donald Tusk, Wojtek Sokół, Paris Fashion Week and Polish soldiers in Afghanistan.
Do you think your photos enhance the things we see during our day-to-day?
I don’t think so. You probably know the feeling when you walk down the street, put your headphones on, press play and suddenly the world changes; you start to feel like you’re in a music video. You walk to the rhythm of the beat and it's a different manner of walking altogether. You get this strange feeling in your head that you're in this world and, at the same time, outside of it. I’ve always wanted my photos to reflect this state – the state of life turning into a movie.
Yeah. What do you think the difference is between the photos in your new exhibition and the photos people share in their millions on Facebook and Instagram?
There's this basic photographic instinct that you photograph the reality when it becomes special. People don’t Instagram photos of coffee they had at breakfast or in a petrol station, but of coffee they're having at some hip café.
Just to show off?
I’d say so. My photos are perhaps more sad. Don’t get me wrong, though – I have a very happy and enjoyable life. I have a great girlfriend, a wonderful son, a nice apartment in a nice neighbourhood and everything’s great at work.
Why are photos of ordinary stuff the most interesting to you?
They're neither the most interesting nor the most important ones. Historical photos documenting important events and photos advertising this month’s best deal in the cold meats section at Tesco are also interesting and important, but in a different way. My photography isn't about photos, but about being moved and experiencing something. I’m often moved in a similar way by songs, and sometimes by movies, but never by photos, even though I look at them all the time.
So why did you call your exhibition “A Drama Feature Film of Polish Production”?
Because when you’ve been photographing all your life and you look back on it through the photos, it turns out that all the people you know and who’ve been close to you suddenly become characters in a movie. This film is made up of frames that I picked from my life.
See more of Kuba's work on his website.