Czesław Siegieda, Polska Britannica

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by RRB Photobooks (here). Hardcover, 152 pages, with 80 black and white photographs. Includes essays by Martin Parr, Jane Rogoyska, and the artist. In an edition of 600 copies. Design by Jessamine Thoemmes-Tondowski. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Europe emerged from the Second World War utterly broken, with millions of refugees scattered across many countries, and by the end of 1945, ten million Allied nationals displaced by the war had returned to their homelands. For many, however, repatriation was not an option – their families had been murdered; their communities destroyed; and their national governments did not invite their return. Leaving Europe to build a new life was their only path forward. The parents of the photographer Czesław Siegieda were two of the many displaced by the war who found refuge in the United Kingdom.

Siegieda was born in a displaced persons camp at Burton on the Wolds in Leicestershire. He was raised in a close Polish community, speaking Polish as his first language, before going to a Catholic school at the age of five. His childhood was shaped by the Polish culture and traditions of his parents. Sadly, his father was killed in the motorbike accident just before Siegieda turned ten, and photography, which he had picked up at an early age, helped him to deal with the tragedy. “My father’s death triggered an understanding that these people wouldn’t be around forever and as I grew older I realized I had a gift for photography that could be used to document what I saw: the customs, the traditions and the very way of life.”

In late 1970, Siegieda had a small exhibition at the Half Moon Gallery, and while he was excited to share his photographs, the feedback he got from the community wasn’t very positive, mostly because the people captured in his photographs didn’t want to be exposed and documented. “They felt like they were foreigners in a land where they weren’t welcome.” Out of respect to his parents’ generation, Siegieda kept his archive private for the next four decades, and only after the death of his mother did he decide to revisit the photographs and share them with a wider audience.

Siegieda’s photographs have recently been published in a photobook titled Polska Britannica, the first publication by the artist. The book has a straightforward and elegant design. A photograph of a priest taking a photograph, with trees and a Robin Reliant (a small three-wheeled car) in the background is tipped in on the black cloth cover. The book has 80 black and white images, and most of the spreads contain an image on one page and a caption indicating the location and the year on the other. Occasionally, this structure is interrupted with two images per spread. 

The images in the book document the period between 1974 and 1981, and were shot with two second-hand cameras, a Nikon F and a Leica M2. The opening image introduces us to the artist’s family: his mother Helena is sitting on a bed holding an icon, her younger son stands next to her, while Tadeusz, her husband and the artist’s stepfather, remains in the background. “Tadeusz, Józef and Helena, Loughborough, 1976”, reads the caption, and the three of them look straight into the camera. It is the only staged or set-up photograph in the archive. 

Many of the photographs capture the intimate moments of Siegieda’s family members within their house: Helena sits next to her daughter Danuta as she eats breakfast; another picture captures Helena with her hands crossed as she thanks God; and a third finds smiling Danuta in the doorway caught with her two younger brothers. As Siegieda photographs his family, his mother gathers most of the attention. She is physically exhausted and worn down, yet she is also the one taking care of her family. 

In other images, Siegieda documents the social life in the Polish community, mostly around the church, religious holidays, community halls, and Saturday schools. One of the photographs shows a young boy, Józef, all dressed up, leaning against the wall looking down, as sunlight falls on his shoes like light from heaven – he is about to go to the church for his First Holy Communion. The following images show him at the church during the ceremony with other children, and then celebrating at the Polish Social Club. These rituals and traditions are a reminder of their lives in Poland, before they had to move, and an indication that they never entirely assimilated into British society.

Close to the end of the book, a sequence of images depicts scenes from the Polish War Graves Cemetery – a group of women with umbrellas behind a rope; men with funeral wreaths; and priests with bibles. The photographs were taken at the same location in different years. A photograph captures a priest on the back seat of the car on his way to a funeral, with a boy sitting next to him looking right in the camera. The last three shots were taken at the Loughborough Cemetery, during All Souls’ Day, one of the most important family holidays in Poland, as people visited the graves of their loved ones. It feels like a fitting ending to the book, as the photobook is Siegieda’s way to remember and honor people who were part of his parents’ generation. 

The photographs capture small moments and scenes in the everyday life of the Polish community, and while some of the traditions and relationships might seem less than entirely familiar, they refer to universal observations about people and the communities they live in. Siegieda tells us a little known story of the subculture of the first generation Poles in the UK,  and he does so with understated empathy, care, and respect. Like all immigrants, they built a life with one foot in the past and one in a new future, trying to make their way in a changing world without losing sight of themselves. 

Collector’s POV: Czesław Siegieda does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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