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    Tomasz Ferenc. Tomek’s last station
    Tomek’s last station

    Tomek Byra fell into a trap. Such traps are not set on purpose, nobody wants them to start working, yet they stay there in patient anticipation, ready to bring about death at any moment. They are the effect of human stupidity, neglect, lack of imagination, and finally, what must be clearly said, they are also one of the products of political and economic transformation. Those who fall into such traps are people excluded from society, the homeless, children with a natural curiosity for the world, people with a passion for adventure and for exploring desolate places, and finally those who were unlucky enough to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time. In this case we even know the exact price of disabling this trap – 987 euro. This is the cost the utility provider would have had to spend to cut off electricity in the dilapidated transformer station in the long abandoned factory. No doubt, it would have even taken much less to properly lock the place to prevent accidents.

    Tomek’s curiosity and passion led him to the trap. The mechanism went off with lightning speed, not giving any chance of survival, escape, defence. The best characteristics of a man who wanted to be a journalist – curiosity, desire for documenting changes, and what is the most important, willingness to see, know, understand – led him directly into the trap, that a transformer station in a decaying factory turned to be.

    I understand very well the activities Tomek pursued. I myself, as well as a number of my friends, have many a time penetrated abandoned factories in 艁贸d藕. We have been documenting the changes in the city landscape. A very deep transformation is taking place under our eyes. Sometimes it goes so fast that it is impossible to document changes. Historical buildings had been destroyed before the city authorities became aware of their architectural potential. For some time, I have been documenting abandoned factories before demolitions including the Pozna艅ski plant, today known as Manufaktura. I promised myself that when the revitalisation of the factory complex was over, I would go back to take photographs of the same locations, from the same camera positions. The problem is that in most cases I am unable to identify the places. The interiors of old factory halls have been completely gutted, leaving only the outer brick shell (painted red to heighten the effect).

    In my opinion, Tomek approached photography intuitively, which helped him avoid the trap of aesthetic valorisation. He photographed voraciously in full consciousness that the things he would not immediately capture with his camera may not exist next time. His photographic account derives strength not from the technical quality of these photographs, but from Tomek’s openness, from unsubdued interest in everything that surrounded him. He also cannot be denied the willingness to experiment with form. In the collection of his works there are photographs that show his sensitivity to the play of chiaroscuro, the works in which Tomek the documentarian – becomes a young artist.

    I was especially drawn to the photographs showing abandoned objects. The things nobody needs. Someone may say rubbish. They were the very things that Tomek approached with a remarkably nostalgic gesture: a dartboard, a damaged typewriter, plant pots like clay urns piled up by postindustrial archeologists, empty tins hanging on the line, and perhaps the most expressive photograph showing a Barbie doll hanging on the line. This photograph was taken in such a way as to show the address of the place of this ‘execution’ – Saska K臋pa 756.

    Hundreds of such objects fill postindustrial spaces. Nobody needs them, they are no longer useful, their only destination is the rubbish dump. Judging from the number of photographs Tomek devoted to them, I gather he must have seen something more in those objects than discarded waste. Perhaps he imagined stories of people who once took great pains to obtain them, used them with care, and cherished them? The attitude towards things is one of the many forms of expressing the attitude to the world. Today we live in the age of disposables. In the past things lasted longer, they were handed down from generation to generation, they had their own histories. Sometimes our rubbish tells more about ourselves than the things we consider as valuable. Tomek took interest in these rejects of civilisation that keep growing so quickly and include newer and newer categories of objects, and, what is worse, also people.

    * * *

    In the history of photography there is a long tradition of documenting the buildings designated for demolition, of urban decay, of the places “abandoned” by people or inhabited by marginalised groups (those who are excluded by their own desire, or by the “healthier” part of the population). Almost from the very beginning of photography, for numerous reason public authorities have commissioned and archived such images. The politics and ideologies of photographic documentation are discussed by the British photography theorist, John Tagg, who found inspiration in the works of Michel Foucault. The camera is never neutral – this is one of Tagg’s basic assumptions. The truth of photography is always the truth of the institutions that use it, and its meaning can be discerned only in specific, historical contexts in which the medium is deployed.

    It was a policy of the municipal authorities to commission the photographic documentation of the slums - the districts inhabited by the poor, emigrants, hired workers - before they were completely or partly knocked down. Such photography served to legitimize demolitions. It was a record and an evidence of how city agglomeration changed, how it fought for control of the hotbeds of social degradation, sources of illnesses, decline in morality, and a threat to public health. Zygmunt Bauman points to the modern penchant for cleanliness and tidiness. The omnipresent need for tyding up and putting people and places in order results from broader, global turn towards universal aesthetisation. The victims of this “drive for cleanliness” are “strangers”, those who present problems, who are annoying and unwelcome. The constitutive feature of “strangers” is common to all those people dangerous capacity to disturb social order and to blur the boundary lines. Photography is an excellent medium to capture the disorder and to restore the illusion of control.

    With each single photograph, according to Tagg, we can find an intricate network of transactions, private and public interests, tensions between the channels of image distribution. The photographs of the poor, homeless, excluded, dysfunctional people were often commissioned by government offices, institutions of social control, the police, and others in authority.

    Nowadays things appear to be different than what Tagg wrote about the photographic documentation of the social abandonment as performed in Victorian England, in France during the Second Empire, or in the United States at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Those who document the transformation of the city are the representatives of local communities and not the local governments, local businesses, or corporations. Activists, amateurs, independent artists, and researchers reach for cameras. In this particular field, photography has lost its propaganda value. There is no need to argue for demolitions, it is simply being done, as was the case with the Norbelan factory in 艁贸d藕 which was razed to the ground in a dozen or so days. During the last 15 years, more historic buildings have been knocked down in my home town than during the whole post-war period. They have not been replaced with anything that would be interesting and attractive. This is what happened in Tampere, Finland. Alike 艁贸d藕, this town came into existence in the 19th century as a textile industry hub. The whole industrial structure of the textile industry region was built, with its characteristic neo-Gothic factories. In the seventies, when the town rulers became entranced with modern steel, glass, and concrete structures, most of the factories were dismantled. Today, in the view of the citizens of Tampere those who pursue the demolitions are landscape destroyers. The town has lost its unique character, and what it got in return was an unremarkable and ugly architecture. Now, in Poland, we are undergoing a similar experience, and in many instances we follow in the footsteps of the Finns who were enchanted with modern architecture over 30 years ago.

    Photography becomes something more than documention, it becomes a gesture of symbolic struggle for territory, for history, but also for the future of the urban environment we live in. These gestures are usually powerless, they will not prevent changes, and will not affect them. Yet, they are not meaningless. Photography becomes the last chance to hold on to memory, before the brave new world triumphs finally. The value of these photographs will grow proportionally as old architectural forms disappear. Finally, only the photographs will remain.

    * * * *

    Tomek decided to take an active part in this struggle the only possible and sensible. He was documenting abandoned factories and housing estates where new residential buildings and new malls would soon spring up. He was working in the area that had already been annihilated by urban planners, architects, the authorities, and he still managed to capture what could only be saved in the photographic gesture. This is an inevitable process. The city needs land for development and the value of building plots rises astronomically. What is the most important, there is a demand for flats that will be built there. New residential districts are being established on the rubble of old buildings. This has been happening for thousands of years. Fresh, modern urban tissue of the city is growing on something that has lost its usefulness and functionality. There had been many such transformations, and they will still take place. However, two fundamental problems arise here. The first one concerns the cost of this change, but not in its financial dimension. There are human and social costs. Each of these changes has its victims and its winners. We all know how painful the consequences of these changes may be. On the other hand, there remains the question of the quality of this new city fabric, the question of how those responsible for city planning reorganize space. I have the impression that a sense of responsibility, human solidarity, and common sense often fail them.

    The suburbs of Warsaw are rather depressing. New apartment block architecture reigns supreme, the buildings are seemingly aesthetic, but very much alike and densely built. Many new housing estates are fenced in, and security guards control access. Gated communities spring up like mushrooms. Small, closed off condominia with their fences slice the city like some new sovereign duchies – independent territories, postmodern forts. Consequently, a supermarket, a bus stop, and maybe also a pavement are the only common area accessible to all city residents. A gated community becomes one of the markers of transition. But it also denotes something much more deeper, something that is happening inside the society. The isolation of one group from the other, the isolation which is physical, total, and methodically planned, demonstrates a fracture which more and more divides the citizens of our country.

    * * *

    On the 16th of March 2002, Tomek reached his last station, the end of his journey. Had the electricity been disconnected in the transformer station or had the place been properly protected, Tomek would have had been alive today, would go on with his studies and his photographic passions. On that terrible day he did not show any bravado, or unnecessary exposure to risk, but only curiosity that sometimes makes us peek through the slightly opened door. What Tomek did by coming into the station was most natural and comprehensible. However, it is difficult, and maybe even impossible, to resign oneself to the price he had to pay for it.

    Tomasz Ferenc
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