In January, Polish photographer and filmmaker Zuza Krajewska visited a young offenders' institution, known as a borstal in Poland, located in the town of Studzieniec near Warsaw. She stayed there for the remainder of the year, photographing young convicts guilty of anything from petty theft to more serious crimes and undergoing the process of rehabilitation. The resulting series, Imago, shows the inmates caught between childhood and adulthood and between understanding what's lawfully right from wrong. But Krajewska is quick to point out that this is not a documentary project. “It's pure portraiture. I consider myself a portraitist, not a documentarist. I am not objective. I experience things together with them and let them express themselves,” she says.
In most portrait photography there is an inherent power struggle between the photographer and their subject. In the case of Imago, Krajewska gives a certain amount of freedom and trust to the boys, who might have abused power in the past. The photographer made her career shooting portraits for fashion editorials and advertising campaigns. Explaining the process behind Imago, she admits it was not a simple process: “I was afraid at the beginning. I was worried about my mental balance. I thought their sadness might be too emotional and influential on me. But I managed to connect with them and now we are almost friends. They are very smart and interesting teenagers. I felt kind of like a mother to them, and I am worried about their future.”
The boys are photographed individually and in some cases together, spontaneously or by their own request. Krajewska also shows much of their everyday surroundings and the interactions between them. “They are eager for attention,” the photographer says about the boys' reaction to being photographed. “Sometimes they need me and sometimes they hate me. But they always wanted to continue. It's a kind of emotional exchange in my opinion. The camera accepts them and make them feel important, even for a moment.”
One of the photos shows an inmate cradling a bird freed from its cage. There is a moment of empathy between him and the confined animal, but something about the photograph is equally menacing. This is because instead of presenting the photo story as a simple journey of repentance, she captures moments that reveal the boys as playful or intimate, as well as potentially harmful. The nuances afforded by portraiture is just one reason why Krajewska continues to dedicate her career to it.
“The biggest joy of my life is to observe my daughter's face, and to take portraits of people and spend time with them. It's like a little journey inside a human being. It evokes many emotions and gives an understanding how life might look. I appreciate the most while I am taking portraits.”