The sun sets at around 4 pm in Warsaw, so it’s dark by the time protestors can leave their offices, schools and factories. As soon as they’re out of work, they wrap up warm, often in black and red, and head to the streets to protest against the patriarchal ruling class.
Pink flares illuminate the crowds dominated by young women, and glowing smoke sets a profound revolutionary scene. Hand-painted banners and placards spell out direct messages: “Fuck PiS”, “My body, my choice” and “I’m PiSsed off”.
These messages are directed at Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), a national conservative and right-wing populist political party in Poland whose recent decision to ban terminations, even in instances where a foetus is diagnosed with a serious and irreversible birth defect, has caused nation-wide uproar.
Rafał Milach, a Polish visual artist and member of the Polish Archive of Public Protests @app_app, has been documenting the pro-choice protests since they began two weeks ago. His photographs caught my eye for their bold and colourful aesthetics, bursts of energy and reminiscence of Eastern Bloc rave culture. I decided to contact him and, last week, we met on Zoom.
“It’s not about ‘likes’,” explains Rafał, “it’s about disseminating the message, which is a core value to me. It’s also about the aesthetics – a lot of images are being produced during these protests, so if I sense a niche, then I’ll try to widen the scale of visual representation of the protests. My images can’t be used in the mainstream press space – they’re rather eccentric.”
Rafał goes on to explain: “Even if 150,000 people attend the protest, many more people will see the images. It’s a kind of performance in front of a camera and the protesters are aware of that, so they intentionally generate certain visual content that looks good in the pictures.”
Protest movements are a union between frontline activists, campaign artists and the photographers, journalists and publications who spread the message. Mainstream media outlets send their assignment photographers who tend not to have a connection with the movement or know any protesters. Their aim is to cover a political event in an unbiased manner, but what about photographers who are also protestors?
Agata Kubis is a Polish photographer and LGBT+ and women’s rights activist. She has been documenting protests from the inside for two decades. Interpreted into English via Rafał, she explains: “Photography is my tool to contribute to the discourse, which, despite changing, is still very discriminative. We are living in a deeply conservative Catholic-based country which is really patriarchal. The position of women has been fixed for a long time, but the protests are emancipating us.”
Agata explains that she’s annoyed with the assignment mindset because it doesn’t tell individuals’ stories. Her friend and colleague Joanna Helena adds, “It’s important for me to show that protestors are individuals as well as a group, fighting for their own things as well as a wider cause”, which is something that’s difficult to capture unless you’re directly involved in the cause. But if you are, you can capture photos like this, where the subject is looking directly into the lens:
Joanna is an artist; photography is her primary medium. Her images of the protests are surprisingly minimalist in an environment iconic of chaos and disorder, and she’s able to achieve this style because she gets up-close with her subjects.
“In the beginning, I was afraid because there were a lot of people, I didn’t feel comfortable. But photos are the most powerful form of information in the world. It’s important to be involved to make people see what’s happening here in Poland too.”
It was the 2016 Women’s Strike protests that acted as a gateway to Joanna becoming a protest photographer, but the current women’s rights protests have an energy she’s never seen before. “Everyone is united. Previous, long-established boundaries are disappearing because everyone sees that they have a woman in their family who is loved. I want to scream, which I never did before – I was just photographing others screaming. It’s really here, you can feel it, touch it. Everyone is standing up for women.” Even Joanna’s mother, a devout Catholic, wants to join the women at the protest – something that both surprised Joanna and made her proud.
Rafał is a friend of both Agata and Joanna and supports their work as much as he can, even though he clearly feels he is an imposter in this movement. “I’m the white heterosexual man. I could be the face of the oppression here, because the protests are against me. I’m totally aware of that and I question how much I’m really welcome in representing this group of society. But it’s also about diversity of voices advocating for the same issue, which is very important because we can reach a much wider audience with these various perspectives.” In this moment, both Agata and Joanna fiercely defend Rafał and clearly appreciate him greatly as an ally in fighting against the patriarchy.
Rafał comments that he wonders if the new abortion ban is a deliberate distraction from how badly the government have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic up until now, but also recognises that the momentum behind the protesting is in huge part due to the population’s frustration with pandemic restrictions – a phenomenon that is playing out all over the world, including here in Spain.
From the moment confinement was paused, protestors have taken to the streets in numbers many of us have never witnessed in our lives, all galvanised and radicalised by an unprecedented health and economic crisis. Citizens are leading the narrative: they’re creating the artworks, reporting from the inside and spreading the message beyond borders via their own online platforms.
Not only are their footsteps rumbling our cities; their voices and images are being broadcasted throughout the world and they’re doing it bigger and better than mainstream media would ever allow.
Follow these featured photographers to stay informed from on the situation in Poland: