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Tell me her story because war is only the half of it / Dorothee Nowak

Note: Interview took place in June 2018

I am from France and my family, originally from Poland. It has been nearly fifteen years since I have been living in France on and off. Now, I’ve been living in Japan since last February.

Coming from a Polish family, travelling has always been part of who I am. Since my twenties, I have lived abroad – starting with a year in Palermo, Sicily as an exchange student. Then I spent one year in Spain. After a couple of years far from home, I went back to finish my degree in France and graduated with a Master of Visual Arts from Valenciennes University.

I found huge enjoyment in travelling though, and I continued to visit new places: Australia, Japan, Thailand, Nepal… After a few years moving around, I decided to further my studies in Montreal and completed a BFA in Photography at Concordia University.

Now I am back in Japan, settling down and working on personal projects. I am mainly interested in the concept of immigration and being in between different cultures. Being here allows me to think about my own journey as well as looking deeper into the immigration process in Japan. 

What’s your story? How did you become interested in photography? 

For as long as I can remember, I have been passionate about photography. I spent hours looking through the photographs that my father made when he was young, around twenty-five. He himself was an amateur photographer and printed photographs in the early 1970s. I was impressed by his work, and fascinated by photography since then. This is how I came to buy my first camera from an old Russian man in a flea market in Poland. 

What kind of art are you interested in?

I am as interested in landscape photography as much as I love portrait photography. For the last two years, I have taken an interest in Polish photographers like Rafal Milach – from Sputnik collective – and Michal Iwanowski.

It might be because my family come from Poland, but I found a certain sense of nostalgia that I very much appreciate in Polish photography, triggered by old things such as historic buildings, objects and sometimes a feeling that reminds me of stories about my family back in Poland.

More recently I discovered two works that resonate with me. The first one is Confiteor by Italian photographer Tomaso Clavarino. It is a sensitive documentary project mixing photography and archival objects. Delicate and accurate. The second one is Pierre Faure with France Périphérique, a black and white documentary project about the poverty in France. 

Let’s talk about your project Tell me her story because war is only the half of it.

I was always fascinated by stories about immigration. It’s brave to leave a country for many different reasons, especially political ones. I always wanted to find out more behind each person’s story and trajectory, which is one of the reasons why I started a project about the migrants in Calais a few years ago, Transit.

I spent time over there meeting with men and women from Eritrea or Somalia and listening to their stories, the reasons why they decided to immigrate and leave everything behind and their hope to go to England. I was very touched that they confided in me.

Once in Canada, I started to think about the country my family was from and decided to meet with the Polish diaspora in Montreal. I met with around ten people and spent time listening to their stories, asking them questions about their homeland. Naturally, I started to have questions about the immigration process of my own family, especially on my father’s side as they emigrated from Poland to France before the Second World War.

From that, two projects were born. Les corons which I am currently working on, and Tell me her story because war is only the half of it. My grandparents immigrated from Poland at different times, one in 1924 and the second in 1936. They were living not so far from each other in Poland and met in the North of France. While talking to my parents, I realised how little I knew about my grandmother’s story. She passed away in 1984. When I decided to go to Europe, I planned to travel to Poland, then to Belgium and France. I am planning to continue this series and meet family members I did not see last winter. 

Are there any moments you had while making the work which stick out? 

Yes, the time I spent with my father in France and with my mother in Poland. Both of them were very involved in the making of the project and helped me a lot. Secondly, when I saw my great-grandparents’ handwriting on their wedding certificate in the Kalisz Archive; I was so happy that we were able to find it, and just seeing it was amazing. And most of all, just spending time with my family.

What are you up to next? 

At the moment, I am busy working on a few personal projects – two in Japan and another one in France. One is about the countryside where I live and for the other, I am still doing research. It will be something more intimate and close to me. So, I am researching a lot about both subjects and trying to meet as many people as possible. For the project in France, I am planning to go at the end of the year and have started to reach out to people in order to plan some photoshoots.

What are you recommending?

Watching: The Mother Project, Tierney Gearon

Reading: Le Fils du Pauvre – Mouloud Feraoun.

Listening: Bonobo’s Black Sands, Beirut’s The Flying Club Cup. 

Tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

I think I first fell in love with painting and then photography. When I was five years old, I wanted to be a painter. Later on, at university, I discovered painters like Jean-Francois Millet – for example his work The Angelus. His paintings are just magnificent: the lighting at dusk, the everyday scenes he has chosen to represent. It inspires me, especially for my series Les corons that I am developing back in France. He is one of the painters that I admire.

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