In this weeks Interview, we are joined by Photographer Natalia Poniatowska.

Natalia, you studied Fine Art Photography at Glasgow School of Art in Scotland. How was your time there? How did you find the education system with regards to photography and did you feel it was the right pathway for you? 

Hello Sam! Without a doubt, I can say yes – I enjoyed my time there and I gained a lot from the course. I benefited so much from it. I wanted to succeed and I worked hard. You can go through a 4 year course, get out and feel like you didn’t learn anything from it, or, you can actually use all of the facilities, tutors, library, community, collaborations and making friends in order to use the time available to its maximum. That’s what I did and I think I was quite an active student in terms of exhibitions, attending talks, and well, parties as well. I used every crit and every tutorial to shape myself as an artist and to try to understand myself. I think before GSA I was quite lost in terms of creating art and found myself searching for the meaning behind what I do.

I attended a photography course when I was 13 at a youth culture centre in my hometown Bytom (Poland), it gave me a nice feeling of belonging to a community. I learnt so much technical and optical stuff about photography but it didn’t teach me the conceptual part of image creation. We talked about perfect darkroom prints instead of feelings. With GSA, they won’t tell you how to think directly, but will shape some processes in your head. It’s a very different education system compared to that of Polish art schools. It took me some time in the first year of university to get used to it. I was surprised that the tutors were interested in my thoughts and feelings about photography. I could probably write a book about my experience in GSA, so I feel like I should get to the point.

What is important – on a fine art photography course is that you have the freedom to do whatever you want to create and express yourself, I had some class mates that didn’t make a single image during the course. It’s much more than a photography course really.

Natalia Poniatowska portrait of man looking at camera black and white

Your website is split into two zones as such, that being Art, with the other being commercial. Taking this with a pinch of salt, I presume you spend a fair bit of time working commercially over independent projects. Could you talk a bit about your commercial work with regards to how you find clients, how much you charge clients and how to figure out your price? 

The commercial photography field is very different to the art world. It’s a different kind of business. It’s tons of invoices, agreements, meetings and other things you don’t get paid for. It’s work 24/7 as there is always something to edit, if not, it’s time to advertise or search for jobs and that’s also very time consuming. Time, you don’t get paid for. When I was 18 I moved from Poland to Birmingham. I worked there for a year as a full-time waitress to earn money for a good DSLR. In that time, I also started putting together my portfolio – I worked as a photographer since I was 15, mainly taking photos at school events, portraits of friends, fashion shoots and so on. So some content was there and I just needed to upgrade my equipment. Then I focused on photography.

I never received a student loan so I also worked a lot as a student to make a living. It’s not easy to talk about pricing, as it really depends on the brief of a job. There are no rules to pricing in commercial photography, same about finding clients – but with this genre, the best way to find clients are recommendations from others in order to spread the word. That’s why I approach every job with the same level of seriousness and passion, as you never know what commission can come next.

What I really appreciate in some clients who find me via my art works is that they trust me and give me a freedom for my creativity to flow. However, sometimes I do shoots where I need to follow a brief step by step. I can’t really talk about commercial photography generally as every job is so different, every client is different and I think that’s why I like it. Of course, there are days when I complain about being a freelancer, but I don’t get bored of it. And hey, I do love photography so if I can make a living out of it – even better.

Following on from the last question, what are the pros and cons of commercial work? 

The pros are having good clients, meeting people, discovering places and not getting bored – every job is different but I love being my own boss and the feeling I get when people like my work.

The cons are bad clients, paperwork, taxes, editing, being hurried to work 24/7, no financial stability, no calendar stability – I don’t know what I’m going to do in 2 months time.

Natalia Poniatowska portrait of man on his side the south west collective of photography ltd

Moving onto your personal work, I see you have a variety of projects on your website. What really interests me, is you define your work as “Fine Art”, when from my photographic perspective, some projects such as Waiting Dogcould both narratively and photographically be approached or seen as documentary photography, especially your video Tomato Soup. I suppose the question I’m trying to ask here is why fine art over other genres of photography? 

I think my artist statement answers this question:

I am an observer. Through digital and analogue photography, still and moving images, I explore the potential ground that exists between fine art and documentary photography. Drawing inspiration from various conditions of the reality around me, from the great interest in the modern, dynamic art scene but also from my personal experiences, I believe in the power of images to convey the emotions, truths and challenges of the modern reality. Having spent the majority of my life away from my motherland, I often return to the theme of homesickness and belonging in my artwork.

My approach to picture making is to present ordinary, non-idealised, never staged reality. Such practice is the formulation of interest in things as they are. By using only one lens which is the most similar to a human field of view, I am capturing the moments and non-moments that drag my attention. I am a sentimental and nostalgic artist and the camera is the best tool to anchor oneself to memories and emotions that are constantly fleeting.

My work starts with a strong interest in the moment, light or a situation. The process of looking begins before taking a photograph and continues afterward. Selecting pictures, printing, making connections, framing or setting up an exhibition space, all of it seems connected to the way of seeing. I immerse myself in the medium fully and utterly.

I also notice that on your website, your projects are short, sometimes no more than 5 or 6 images. Are these bigger projects that are not displayed in full on your website, or, are they actually small, well executed, well taken stories as such?

Moments I Never Showed You‘ was my degree show project. It includes 170 photographs. But they are all presented in the book. I believe in print for the final presentation of the work, and I approach my website as a small preview, but to really see my work you would need to come to the exhibition or see the book itself. ☺

Natalia Poniatowska women in white under red blind the south west collective of photography
Hereafter, Humanature, 2018 people on a black beach

You have self-published three photo books called Moments I showed you, Twelve Dying Palm Trees and Longing For Belonging. Could you talk us through the steps you took to self-publishing such as the cost, distribution and sales of the books? How successful was self-publishing and why did you choose to self-publish?

I gave a talk on self-publishing at Edinburgh Central Library and I talked for two hours. Let’s try to put it in a few words here. I never approached publishers as none of these three books were big editions (Moments I showed you– 2 copies, Twelve Dying Palm Trees – 12 copies, Longing For Belonging – 50 copies). Twelve Dying Palm Trees was sold for £12 (and I printed it myself). My book ‘Longing For’ was sold for £10. Moments is a display book, not for sale. Self-publishing is really good if you have some ways of selling your work – you can approach galleries, book shops or sell it via Instagram. But you’re in charge of promoting it. It works if the work is good, many people are into photo books and zines. I have my own small collection and it’s getting bigger (if you’re reading this and have made a photo book, message me!). Oh, and there’s a really good Zine Festival in Glasgow. I am working on a new book about dogs waiting for their owners in front of shops etc and for this project I would like to get a publisher, make it bigger and put it out there, but the world of publishing through a publisher is still left to be discovered for me.

What is the most difficult project or shoot you have undertaken? How did you overcome it and what were the issues that you faced?

I think the most difficult was ‘Longing For Belonging‘ and ‘Behind’. These two projects are connected in a way. BEHIND is a project from 2017 and it captures the end of my homesickness. For the exhibition description, I wrote: “I left Poland 6 years ago, and during my visits there I have been constantly portraying it since then. I wanted to capture everything that sits in my memory and the camera seemed like the best tool for it. The project includes work that recorded many different emotions, like longing for belonging, realising at the same time, that there is no return, that even if the home is still the same, it’s me who changed. The project includes 6 photographs and one video piece. All photographs are almost like still images from one’s memory – someone’s back, sofa pattern, moments… When finishing the series my homesickness transformed into nostalgia. Realising that I’m not longing for the place or people but for the time that passed, after 4 years of working on this subject I could leave it behind”. These were very personal projects. I understood my feelings thanks to photography as a way of capturing those emotions. It was a time when I only shot black and white film. I only shot in Poland, then returned to Glasgow and worked on it. I didn’t realise I was homesick until a group crit we had in GSA and my friend said: “your photos make me want to go home”.

Natalia Poniatowska, Iceman, Humanature, 2018 man in purple the south west collective

Whats your opinion on the photographic industry?

Every city has their own photographic industry that relies on different networks and connections with its own dynamic. The photography industry has developed so much over the years. Can you imagine it’s been only 45 years since first digital camera was invented? And from that we are now in the era when people take billions of photos with their mobiles daily. It’s strange to think about the photographic industry’s future, but I do believe in the power of photographs to convey emotions and express feelings. While everyone is and can be a photographer now, not everyones photos can make you feel something.

Do you think female photographers are fairly represented in the photographic industry and if not, what do you think needs to be done?

I worked on a wedding with a male assistant and a guest asked me how I liked being an assistant. The guy just assumed because I’m female, I’m not the main photographer. I had a Skype interview for an exhibition (which I didn’t get) for a very big art institution. The camera goes on and all I see is 7 middle aged white males. I go to a talk about old street photographers in Warsaw and the ratio would be 3 females versus 40 males. But then, I go to another talk, about fresh, contemporary photography and it’s more females actually. Same in the UK art universities – It is now estimated that approximately 80% of all photography graduates from UK universities are female. (source I see more and more online platforms for female photographers. I do believe that gallerists, curators, directors look at the work, not the gender. Most of my photographer’s friends are female. We just meet different generations, the old men who like to talk about what aperture you’re using. I think that it is connected to the historical setting that previous generations faced rather than the current issue. I believe that with time it will be even less noticeable to base your judgement on the photographer’s gender actually.

Conservation status Vulnerable, Humanature, 2018 the south west collective

If you don’t mind me asking, do you make a living as a photographer and if so, how?

Yes, let’s talk about money in art photography and let’s talk about it loud! Because somehow this subject is being avoided. I make my living from commercial photography – fashion, portraits, products, events, weddings. I do sell my art work, but the money always goes back into making new work, test printing, printing, framing, buying films, developing, scanning, photoshop, equipment, insurance, shipping, not including the funding of projects like traveling to places where I would like to make work, and lastly, of course, the cost of studio hire. These are really big expenses.

Natalia Poniatowska the south west collective of photography Sam & James’ Wedding Renewal (British Journal of Photography Award

What are your plans for the future both in photography and outside of it?

I would like to have more time to develop my art projects, to do proper research every time I approach a certain subject, hang around the studio, work on test prints, drink coffee in the darkroom. The time that would be a zone for art only. I think at some point of my life teaching art or photography could give me these sensations. I know being a freelance photographer doesn’t give me any time off, there’s always something to do. If not teaching, I could be a gallery director. Or maybe not really, I could freak out seeing the proper business side of things. Maybe a creative director. I know for sure I can’t work under pressure or under a boss in a typical 8am-5pm environment, that’s why I came up with these director’s roles. I also think it could be difficult after 8 years of working for myself.

Anything to do with art, please. Ideally being involved in some creative commercial work. Oh, I realised just now that my plans sound confusing, I guess I haven’t figured out what I really want apart from making a new body of work all of the time. I just wish I could live from being an artist – from selling my work.

Natalia Poniatowska

Natalia Poniatowska graduated from Fine Art Photography at The Glasgow School of Art. Natalia displayed her works in various locations: Royal Scottish Academy – New Contemporaries 2019 in Edinburgh, The National Museum in Cracow, 12 Star Gallery in London, ARCHIP in Prague, House For An Art Lovers in Glasgow, Orms in Cape Town, 5&33 Gallery in Amsterdam, Pingyao International Photography Festival in China, The Waterhouse Gallery in Maastricht, Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, citizenM in Glasgow, and more.

She received the Adam Bruce Thomson Award 2019, the British Journal of Photography Breakthrough Award 2017, Debuts 2018, Grand Press Photo 2018, Wena 2012, and she was selected as one of 15 best graduates in creative fields by It’s Nice That in 2018.

Natalia grew up in the industrial realm of the Silesian region in the Southern part of Poland (Bytom) and after 7 years in Scotland, she recently moved to Warsaw, Poland.



Interview by Collective Owner Samuel Fradley.

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