Excess and power collide in photographer Agnieszka Sejud’s kaleidoscopic collages

Our biennial New East Photo Prize is back, this year with 11 new finalists. Below, get to know Polish photographer Agnieszka Sejud and her dizzying project HOAX on one of the most devoutly religious countries in Europe.

7 January 2021

In 1964, British sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard wrote an allegorical short story about two aristocrats tending to an extraordinary garden in their remote villa as a revolt brews in the distance. The only way they can protect their lavish lifestyle and forestall the mob storming their iron gates is by plucking a rare flower. Only, these flowers are made of crystal and, remarkably, able to freeze time.

The setting conjured by Agnieszka Sejud in her project HOAX is reminiscent of Ballard’s fable, only in place of aristocracy, it’s the Catholic clergy and the state that are unwelcoming of change. Meanwhile, artificial flowers are everywhere, although unlike Ballard’s invention, these are plastic, disposable, and imperishable.

Sejud made her collages from photos taken across Poland over the last five years. Besides the fake flowers, which in Poland are traditionally placed on graves on All Saints Day in Poland, the photos feature battery operated LED crosses, painful plastic shoes, and traditional “Polish” handicrafts made from polyester and shipped from China. HOAX builds an image of a place that is blindsided by fake goods and disinformation. Sejud calls HOAX “a story of self-delusion, one we are all a witness to”.

Then, there’s that which we don’t see in the collages: politicians’ increasingly traditionalist rhetoric, ongoing concern that the freedoms of Polish courts and media outlets are being curtailed, and the anti-government demonstrations that have swept the country against Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party (PiS).

“I couldn’t understand what was actually happening [back in 2015], when the world and my country were flooded with fake news,” says Sejud. Since 2016, she has amassed tens of thousands of images of protests, marches, celebrations, and various public holidays. “I always wanted to create a project about my country, Poland, because even though it is my homeland, the notion of Poland always startled me. I wanted to explore these sensations.”

For Sejud, documentary photography no longer helped make sense of a reality that was falsified daily by the media. In 2018, she started manipulating her photos and making collages. “The appropriation of public media by PiS was the turning point in my work,” she explains. “In the last few years, we’ve seen the launch of a number of pro-government magazines and news websites that are the beneficiaries of state subsidies and have advertising contracts with state-owned companies.”

The gaudy colours of Sejud’s collages are joyous and nauseating in equal parts. On a superficial level, they represent the triumph of Poland’s capitalist-era and “the wonderful Western things that appeared after 1989”. From another view, they show a country with no formal Church-state separation. Time might not have stopped in Poland, but the conservative government is retreating from the foundations of democracy that have been built since 1989. “It feels like we live in a national Catholic simulation,” says Sejud. As a result, images of religious festivities and trash heaps spill out and fight for our attention. Brightly-coloured cranes fill the horizon of a cemetery that makes you ask, who the country is being build for?

“We are a young democracy and after a promising start and joining the EU in 2004, now, we are facing a political crisis with an authoritarian government,” says Sejud. “Public life is heavily dominated by men. In 2020, all 10 candidates that ran for the presidential election were men. Male experts are invited to speak on television and radio, even if the topic they are discussing is women’s rights.” Sejud self-published the project, righting this balance in her own small way. “For me HOAX is a protest-book,” she says. Certainly, it is disruptive even in its design: with her kaleidoscopic images of fake flowers presented in a plastic jacket, without any binding.

This year, she wants to produce a more positive project. Speaking about the effect of Poland’s abortion law demonstrations of 2020, the largest ever protest in the country in decades, she says: “There is a push against the government , which makes me really happy. I hope for change, although the road ahead is long and bumpy.”

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