Karol Palka: walk the corridors of power in these faded communist-era hotels

Edifice is a visual journey through the interiors of communist-era buildings in Poland, Slovakia and East Germany, where the spectre of its downfall is always near, lurking behind the cold walls of grandiose ideas

30 November 2018
Interview: Liza Premiyak

After receiving a wide range of entries from 26 New East countries, the New East Photo Prize 2018 is back with a new set of 16 finalists, with projects exploring modern-day witchcraft, graduation albums, legendary cosmonauts, contested territories and more. We caught up with the photographers to find out what drives their work. The exhibition is on display until 2 December at Calvert 22 Foundation.

Edifice by Polish photographer Karol Palka is a visual journey through the interiors of communist-era buildings in Poland, Slovakia and East Germany. It includes shots of the Polana Hotel, an example of Socialist Realist architecture once owned by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and visited by Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, now a disused office building for the management of the Nowa Huta Steelworks. The series tells a story about power and its impermanence; an edifice which once provided shelter, security and a feeling of strength reveals itself to be illusory, its power transitory. The spectre of its downfall is always near, lurking just around the corner, behind the cold walls of grandiose ideas.

How has the place where you grew up affected your work as a photographer?

I grew up in Rabka-Zdrój, a small town located in the Polish mountains. When I was a child, photography became my passion. I used to photograph mountains and landscapes — I was creating a utopian reality. I lost myself in making these images and had fun. I think I felt the same when I photographed the communist interiors. Intuition and the place where I live definitely determines me as a photographer.

Where do you find inspiration for the themes of your projects?

In my projects I try to be guided by my intuition. I came to the first location by accident. The idea was born from taking new photos and discovering new places. I put together Edifice because I wanted to tell a story about power and its impermanence.

What do you think makes a compelling photo story?

A complete photo story should be unspoken. The story behind it — even if it is far away and unknown — should be shown as something deeply personal and familiar to us.

Pick one photograph from the project you submitted and tell us something we would have never known about it.

Hotel Polana was built in the 1970s. Under communism, it was the most guarded place in the Tatras. The hotel served only the needs of the officers of the Communist Party.

This photo shows the Red Salon in which Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar signed the treaty affirming the division of Czechoslovakia. This saw the self-determined split of the federal state of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, entities that had arisen previously in 1969, as the Czech and Slovak Socialist Republics within the framework of Czechoslovak federalisation. This act is sometimes known as the Velvet Divorce, a reference to the bloodless Velvet Revolution of 1989 that led to the end of the rule of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the formation of a democratic government.

What was the last photo story/film/book that touched you?

The photo story Looking for Alice by Sian Davey; the film Tower. A Bright Day by Jagoda Szelc; and the book East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

What do you think are the most overused tropes in photography?

The most overused tropes in photography are aesthetic themes: when people photograph things just because they are beautiful and photogenic, without a serious reason.

Was there a moment you ever regret taking a photo? How about a moment you didn’t take a photo but wish you had?

I prefer slow photography, so as a photographer I don’t really remember such a situation. However, such moments take place in my work as a documentary filmmaker. Documentary work requires the intuition to turn on the camera in time. You have to be very vigilant.

Interview: Liza Premiyak
Image: Karol Palka