‘Outside lies magic’ could (and probably is) the maxim for 43-year old photographer Monika Kawka.
Originally from Poland, Monika Kawka moved to Canada three years ago with the distinct mission to push her photographic career forward. Life is of course not straight forward and she attests that her career has not gone the way she expected. But that is life-sometimes a true path lies in the unexpected.
Walking through the natural beauty of Canada with the voice of the late American polymath Susan Sontag echoing in her mind Monika Kawka has managed to take that initial disappointment (if you will) and turn it into creative energy.
Microscopic images of fauna take us into beautiful hidden terrains. The irony of these discoveries glaring. Despite being surrounded by this natural beauty; life, society, family (or whatever it might be) obscures our gaze.
We are blissfully unaware that ‘outside lies magic’.
We always ask just describe your formative years (so to speak) in photography.
When I was 15 I realized I wanted to go to art school. At that time, it was not possible but I was always interested in art. Finally, at the age of 30 I went to Warsaw Photography School, founded by an inspiring artist and educator, Dr. Marian Schmidt. I was fascinated by his humanistic, contemplative approach to photography. In the darkroom I witnessed his mathematical precision and the meticulousness with which he treated every print. Marian would often repeat: ‘photography has to make one feel something and to convey that, the photographer must feel something in the first place’. He would also say that photography is about relationships – it’s elements, the relationship between the photographer and the photographed. I think I was profoundly impacted but not ready to create.
We understand you are living in Canada, what impact has your environment had on you and how you perceive the world you live in?
Since moving to Canada in November 2014, my professional career hasn’t taken off as planned. This created space and questions. Walking helps me process all the emotions of the huge transition. Living here on the west coast of British Columbia made me stop and appreciate the natural world around me. I feel connected and at peace when I walk, camera in hand, observing. Time disappears when I follow the path and my camera. As Susan Sontag said: ‘The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel’.
Talk a bit if you can about Canadian photographers who have influenced you and indeed why they have influenced you?
I’d say I’m under world photography influences and they merge in how I create now. I always admired the work of Edward Weston, Cartier Bresson, Andre Kermes but also paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, and creative, conceptual, humorous and provocative photography by Joan Fontcuberta. Marian Schmidt’s approach to portrait photography also left an imprint on how I try to reflect the emotion and relationships in my portraits.
And what inspired you about the aforementioned and their work?
What I find inspiring in their work is the depth of observation. It seems to me they all wanted to understand their reality, maybe themselves and the world. I admire the art of seeing. I’m influenced by art and photography as well as psychology and philosophy. When I look at the photograph I also contemplate the process. What led to that moment, and what had to happen before? I also recently started to ponder legacy. What do we leave behind? What is the value of leaving something tangible behind?
Talk a bit about your life outside of photography and how that seeps into the images you capture?
My career in business was built making meaningful and lasting relationships with others – and now I also naturally transfer the same quality to my photographs.
I follow my camera as it helps me with my quest for connection, appreciation, and ultimately finding truth.
‘outside lies magic’ a powerful statement but please explain that more and indeed isn’t their magic ‘inside’ as well?
Yes – absolutely! Outside Lies Magic (1998) refers to John R. Stilgoe’s book about the acute observation of ordinary things. Being aware in everyday places, seeing in utterly new ways, enriching your life in unexpected ways. At the same time, the magic is not happening if you don’t see it. Pointing your camera to a leaf makes the object important. You make that decision. I believe there is no Outside without Inside – as there is no light without shadow. Living in Canada also made me contemplate First Nations and the spirit they respect and honour. I travelled extensively in India and found the same manifestation in Hinduism. Unlike other ‘younger’ world worshipers – Hinduists and First Nations respect and celebrate manifestations of Spirit or Gods in animals and elements. I always felt a natural agreement with that.
Talking more directly about your images. Looking at your earlier images, there is an element of street photography. Would that be fair or are you trying to capture something more than the generic ‘street’ image?
Yes. I enjoy street photography and because it’s me behind the camera, I will probably always search for what I generally search for in life and in my work with people – interpersonal understanding and quality relationships. Right now I feel the street is almost too intense for me. I admired and studied the work of ‘first’ flaneurs like Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Arno Fisher in Berlin. I think at the right time I might work on the street again.
In terms of photography what does it mean to you to capture the ‘everyday’.
I believe it really comes down to trust. In order to capture ‘everyday’ I need to trust my choices. What one photographs becomes important. I feel a responsibility to trust the decision to point the camera. There is so much about ourselves in the way we capture ‘everyday’. Capturing ‘Everyday’ is perhaps to catch and secure this ephemeral feeling of awe, a fleeting moment of appreciation.
Following on from the previous question. What does capturing ‘normality’ mean to you in terms of photography?
I honestly do not know anymore what could possibly be meant by ‘normality’. I think we witness new norms being created everyday, in art, in society, in politics. I’ve spent a lot of time studying workplaces, and they change enormously. To me the closest to ‘normal’ is perhaps your unique, courageous expression of yourself – your truth. That’s where I like to detour to; philosophy, anthropology, music or literature.
We love your microscopic images what drives you to these images?
I’m drawn to a leaf or flower. I look at it then maybe decide to try a portrait and sometimes it’s not enough, I want to get closer, deeper. So I reverse my favourite 50 mm lens (with a ring) and I use it as macro lens. The result is serendipitous and that’s what I like about this process. I often reject what I find. It’s not a planned, controlled process – just the opposite.
Can you talk a bit more about the techniques you employ in capturing those more recent images?
I usually just work with my canon EOS 60D, 50 mm lens and a macro ring. Working with the natural light, which I love to observe, even when I don’t have a camera with me. I look for high contrast situations and the right angle of light. Then adjust camera settings to brightest points, which makes the background almost black.
I try to explore playfulness too. I might move or shake camera on longer exposure. In photography school I was infected by experiments with ‘sandwiches’ in the dark room or double exposures. I’m still drawn to these techniques, only nowadays digitally, with the help of apps.
Where do you see your gaze eventually turning-or perhaps we should say how do you see your photographic career evolving?
I’m thinking about a project which would require spending time with a group of individuals, gaining intimate familiarity with them – and telling their story with a series of photographs, mostly portraits. I’d like to study the idea of a community. I’m currently researching a few potential subjects. In the meantime I’m sure I will just keep walking and following my camera locally – so you might expect more nature and more portraits of people I already know. I’m also musing with the idea of inviting others to photo walk with me.
Do you want to add anything that has not been mentioned?
I think the camera lens is a great means of studying impermanence. I’d like to add that I’m also inspired by writers. Ryszard Kapuściński, Nicolas Bouvier, Octavio Paz, Herman Hesse, Buddist and Tao teachers. They all had a big impact on how I currently experience life, the world, and how I ‘paint with light’.