Crushing Communism, Realising Democracy: Public Photographic Displays and Polish Sociocultural Politics in the 1980s and 1990s




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Peer reviewed


Our paper explored attempts made by Polish intellectuals to reorganise Poland’s sociocultural politics between the 1980s and 1990s through the installation of strategic photographic displays that explicitly challenged the very foundations of communist philosophy. In doing so, we elaborated knowledge about the participation of photography in facilitating the gradual transition of Polish society to democracy. Analysing materials preserved in private collections and Polish public archives, we discussed a range of socially oriented curatorial practices typical to the period the paper considers. Primarily, however, we payed close attention to one series of public displays put together by Aleksandra Garlicka, including for example: Photography of Polish Peasants (1985); Workers (1989); Others Among Us (1992); and Polish Intelligentsia (1995). Garlicka was an academic who came to recognise photography’s political potential when she visited the exhibition The Family of Man during its 1959-60 installation in Poland – an exhibition originally curated by the New York MoMA in 1955 to disseminate western humanistic principles and democratic values. But Garlicka was able to start putting her photographic understanding to practice only when communist politics started weakening. Featuring photographs that she gathered through open public calls and in forsaken Polish archives, each of the displays she organized demonstrated that Poland’s historical social photographies (images as well as practices) simply do not support the ideas that ‘communist elites’ wanted the Polish people to accept as their reality and collective memory. Her initiatives inspired other Polish intellectuals and ethnic minority groups to embrace photography for the same and similar purposes. The sparse literature addressing photographic practices in the former Eastern Bloc tends to pay much attention to the role photography had played in the dissemination of formal politics. Through our paper, however, we broadened considerations of the role photography has also played in challenging Eastern European communist regimes, their official legacies and social as well as cultural politics.



photography, ethnic minorities, national minorities, Poland’s ethnic minorities, Polish collective memory, Poland's History, Polish Communism, Family photographs, Photography exhibitions, Photographic public displays, Democracy


Pasternak, G. and Ziętkiewicz, M. (2017) Crushing Communism, Realising Democracy: Public Photographic Displays and Polish Sociocultural Politics in the 1980s and 1990s. Photographic histories in Central and Eastern Europe (Prague, 9-11 May 17)


Research Institute

Media Discourse Centre (MDC)
Institute of Art and Design