“PHOTOGRAPHY IS A SECONDARY THING. I AM INTERESTED IN HUMANS”
Szymon Szcześniak was born in 1975 in Poland, earned a Bachelor Degree of Photography at the Institute for Creative Photography (ITF) in Opava, Czech Republic in 2004 and a Master’s Degree in 2012. He does mainly commercial photography for advertising agencies and most remarkable press titles on Polish market as Master of Celebrities Portrait. Since 2008 he is also a lecturer at the Academy of Photography in Warsaw and Cracow. In his work he uses Fujifilm GFX 50S, X100F and X-Pro2. He is represented by LAF AM.
We met in Warsaw in his photography studio, on a winter day in 2020. Meeting Szcześniak was an unforgettable experience. He is a personality like no other. Even some celebrities are afraid of him because Szymon exposes their true nature. As he said, he is interested in humans and through them he gets to know himself: “Doing my work, I am trying to look at myself because I know that this way I am changing the people that look at me”.
He photographed thousands of Polish stars, such as the Siekielscy brothers, Magdalena Cielecka, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Adam Ferency, Wojciech Malajkat, Grzegorz Damięcki, Jan Peszek, Maria Pakulnis, Jan Klata, Marcin Dorociński, Abel Korzeniowski and many many more. His portraits are unusual and totally unique. He published in Pani, Twój STYL, LOGO, Viva, Wysokie obcasy Extra, Zwierciadło and many other magazines. The project that changed his life was CABO VERDE 2018. Recently he was involved in the “Beautiful Age” campaign for the History channel.
You are a Polish Master of Portraits. Photography is not just photography for you, but a philosophy of life. How do you translate this philosophy into your portraits?
It is a very good question. Photography is a secondary thing to me. I am interested in humans. I am glad that it has never changed for me and my interest is getting even deeper. Is it a philosophy? Philosophy is life in itself. People only reflect our inner opinions and perceptions of the world. Doing my work, I am trying to look at myself because I know that in this way I am changing the people that look at me.
In your work you are looking for … yourself…
Absolutely! For a long time I have been wondering why artists need to self portrait. I realized it for the first time when I finished the American project titled: “Into the Wild”. When I saw big, enlarged photographs, my photographs prepared by LEIKA, on my own exhibition, I really saw myself in these portraits. It was on the other side, I was reflecting myself in the eyes of these people I photographed. That was the moment I defined to myself what the essence of the Portrait Photography was. Why are the portraits by Richard Avedon or Irving Penn so endearing? They reflect in the eyes of the portrayed people, in their face expression. We, photographers, are always the reflection of our model. We are close one to another.
I talked before with me a lot about the energy. Did you have in the past some problems energy when your posing subjects?
Yes, I had some in the last 15 years. It was a question of little experience, stuff, collaborating people. My models are very specific. I do not refuse photographing anybody but normally very specific personalities contact me.
Exactly, you are famous in Poland for photographing famous people, VIPs, Polish stars for the big newspapers and magazines. Could you describe the funniest or the most specific photo session?
Hmm… Well, I would not like to talk about it specifically. I had wonderful moments with Stanisław Soyka, a music mentor of my generation. I was s fan when I was young. These are the situations when you can meet in person artists such as Staszek Soyka, Michał Urbaniak or Tomasz Stańko and define a concept of these persons. With Soyka we created the following photo session: he pulls a piano behind him as he walks through the cabbage fields. He pulled his piano to find the best place to play his music. I, my assistant and producer, we were with him. Our last picture was when he sat on the ground very tired but then he said: “When I am here with you, I will play a concert for you”. It was incredible! What a personality! Soyka played for us in the cabbage field! This is that kind of energy are talking about. I had a similar situation with Michał Urbaniak, the international fame Jazz maestro. I had an idea to lock him in a bubble. I could do it in post-production but I decided to lock him in there for real. I locked him in my enviroment. He is, by me, Szymon Szczesniak, locked in the bubble with my energy and he agreed to it! I am not sure if you know how this locking in a bubble works. You stand in such a trough, and there is a circle around you. In the case of Urbaniak, the circle was too narrow, could not pass over his substantial belly, so the stage designer got an idea to go to the sports shop and to buy a hula hoop. He brought a large hula hoop and we did it. There are often common circumstances but the greatest value for me is meeting these people, to be with them in a short but deep moment, meeting them in their environments, in their houses, with the family, on horses. This is amazing. Meeting these people is important to me. I have these opprtunties and I am there for them. I know that, even if they are used to other photographers or journalist treating them at a distance, our relationship becomes special for them, as it is for me.
With you they free themselves from their limitations…
Absolutely. People who are not meant to be in front of my lens are never there. I do not photograph so called “celebrities”, in a bad meaning of this word…
I understand you have never had a bad experience!
No (laugh). None of them want to hit my lens!
They are afraid of you (laugh)
You know, maybe it is not that they are afraid of me but I admit, I expose people. Not everyone is ready for it.
You are right.
I am too not ready for some of these of momemts. I am ready for moments with the people who see reality in the same way as me. These are special moments. Names are not important here.
In your shoot “CABO VERDE 2018” shot with your colleague Zuza Zuonly you talked about the improvisation and contact with another man. But there was a linguistic problem, wasn’t there? You could not communicate with words with your models, Capo Verde inhabitants. How did you realize these amazing portraits?
I usually go to find where I can speak English. Yes, Capo Verde was a different situation. It was a difficult place. I had to overcome my limits there. Suddenly I found myself in this situation. I was a very shy guy. It was hard for me to approach unknown people in their houses, families. It was really not easy for me. I had to manage it using my emotions. Being a photographer helps in these situations. This experience changed me. Now I approach people and talk to them, without my camera. In the past it made me nervous but now I consider it as something vital.
We can say that Capo Verde was a turning point in your life…
Yes, Capo Verde, was an American and Dominican project. Being in these places you realise that you can understand these people even if you do not know their language. You can communicate by hands, gestures, smiling. There was something very honest in their faces. Sometimes we can be afraid of other people because they maybe want something from us. There are few people who are honest and selfless.
Maybe sometimes we have to go far to meet this kind of people, far away from our contemporary world?
It is good to travel but we live here, in Europe. I do not need to find my place in the world, I know that my place is here. Traveling I saw also very sad scenarios like people in Dominican Republic working like slaves. We live in a free world and we can change somethings in our lives, we can work on us. The smile in Warsaw in the traffic jam tells more about you then when you are on a holiday, in the tropics. Everyday life defines the joy of life. The change is cool but is only an addition to you. You are already built. We need deeper experiences in everyday life, otherwise – as we can see – we can fall into depression, collapse. I believe there is no definition of happiness. Nobody defines it.
Exactly, it is a very complicated question but nowadays the press tries to find a receipt of happiness.
Yes, they think they have found it! You have to have a wonderful family, amazing job, great car and live in a beautiful place. I photograph people with all of these and believe me, they are not happy.
Yes, it is not a rule.
The happiness is an inner sensation and it is available for everyone.
Happiness is what is in us, itis the awareness of what is in us. The awarness of ourselves that gives us satisfaction.
Oh yes, the observing ourselves in everyday life gives satisfaction, because we EXIST.. My 11 years old daughter is repeating this question all the time: “We EXIST. How is it that we EXIST?”
Interview by Joanna Longawa
PHOTO GALLERY BY SZYMON SZCZEŚNIAK: