Dutch photographer Verena Blok has always had a deep personal connection with rural Poland: her parents owned a house in the Czarnówka village surrounded by forests and lakes, where she used to spend her summers as a child. Years later Blok returned to the village to revisit her memories and capture troubled girlhood in the Polish borderlands.
“Natalia shares with me the idealised version of the life she would have wanted”
“Czarnówka is a small village located in the northeast of Poland, in Mazury, an area known for its two thousand lakes, forests and rural landscapes. My parents built a house there in 2001 and this is where I spent my summers as a child. I have good memories of my childhood holidays. My parents barely saw me during the day. I was usually found playing with the kids in the village, swimming, running through the fields, or riding the tractor. I'd later come home soaked with the lake water, with cheeks burning from the sun,” Blok remembers.
The summers spent in the village also allowed the photographer to experience a sense of community and kinship with her peers. “As an only child, I looked for adventures in the village with the kids that lived there. I liked the notion, or the illusion, of having a bigger family. Over the years I became part of the community and still treat it as my second home,” she says.
Over the years Blok grew close to a local girl named Natalia, 10 years younger than her. The friendship inspired the photographer to explore the notion of sisterhood, femininity and coming of age in rural Poland. “When I was a teenager I started photographing during these vacations, documenting our time together, us kids, and slowly the main focus shifted to Natalia”, she remembers. “I’ve known her since she was born, and I was drawn to her beauty. It was somehow very natural to take photos of her, although we both have completely different backgrounds and sometimes struggled with the language barrier, as my Polish is not perfect.”
Through the story of Natalia, Blok got to see the paradoxical nature of the area: renowned for picturesque landscapes, Mazury is a popular tourist destination among people from Poland and Germany, while local residents of its remote communities often have to live through social hardship. “Natalia’s family was troubled; the father was often violent, and the mother abused alcohol. Natalia lives with her father and four brothers, the only female in the house,” Blok recalls. “Me and Natalia used to go out on short trips in the area and mostly talk. I gave her the attention she wanted from her brothers, but did not receive. The brothers come and go and live distant and separate lives from hers. Natalia shares with me the idealised version of the life she would have wanted; a version that does not exist, but that she believes in.”
Blok’s portrayal of Natalia in her book I Smell Like Rain is as personal as a family album, yet it goes deeper, capturing the slow pace of time, dreams, anxieties and fleeting affections of coming of age. Blok herself is very present in the photographs because of her long-term relationship with the family. “Although I am not visible in the pictures, which are mostly portraits of Natalia, her brothers and the landscapes, I always see myself in the book,” she adds.
I Smell Like Rain also examines the complex connection between the photographer and her subject, and the responsibilities of visual storytelling. “In my work it is important that image speaks for itself, and I think my photography serves the stories that are untold. The information about the hardship the family endured during the project I put at the end of the book for a reason: I did not want it to get in the way of the viewer’s interpretation, however the text simultaneously also forms the conclusion of the story,” Blok says. “I photograph intuitively and I believe the viewer has an intuitive sense as well.”