Małgorzata Stankiewicz, Cry of an echo

JTF (just the facts): Published in May 2018 by Lecturis (here). Softcover with flaps with 96 pages, includes 46 black and white photographs. There are no texts or essays included. Design by Małgorzata Stankiewicz. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Located on the border between Poland and Belarus, Białowieża Forest is one of Europe’s last parcels of primeval woodland. The area has an exceptionally high natural conservation value, including extensive old-growth forests, and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mostly untouched by humans, this ancient woodland is unlike anywhere else in the world.

However, in 2016 Poland’s environmental minister Jan Szyszko approved extensive logging in Białowieża Forest, tripling the annual quota. The measure was presented as an effort to combat a bark beetle outbreak. But executed under the pretence of protection, the decision was mostly motivated by the profit potential that came from selling the logged wood. The ruling was met with widespread objections by scientists, ecologists, and the European Union, as well as some protests.

The Polish artist and photographer Małgorzata Stankiewicz was among people outraged by the government’s decision. She was already photographing Białowieża Forest when the measure was enacted (she was working there as a volunteer), and her photographs became the emotional and artistic expression of her reaction. To visually represent the desecration of the forest, Stankiewicz used various interventions to add an additional layer of distress to her images, processing them with uneven washes of developer, severe bleaching, masking, overpainting, and a few other less obvious techniques, turning many of them into abstractions. The project became her “personal voice of opposition”, her “silent shout”.

Cry of an echo was published as a photobook after winning the Unseen Dummy Award in 2017. Stankiewicz designed the book herself and the result is an elegant and thoughtful publication. An image of the forest stained by a large bleached area envelops the book’s cover, appearing on both the front and the back. The title (in an intimate lowercase font) is almost in the middle of the white area, and the name of the artist is placed on the back cover. The book opens with a white spread and a short, mood-setting text, broken into three lines: “moss thick silence, a threat”.

The black and white full bleed photographs, uninterrupted by other design elements, create a continuous visual flow, immersing the viewer into the rich environment of the ancient woodland. Stankiewicz’s images are haunting and silent, yet poetic, capturing the forest as dense and wild, not visibly touched by human presence. The first photograph seems shot deep in the forest, with limited light coming in, seeing the bottoms of the forest trees from above, with fallen ones spread on the ground nearby. It is mysterious and dark, and the darkness is intensified by a black uneven spot – an intervention by the artist – which appears in the central part of the image. It sets the eerie atmosphere for the narrative, like a creeping black hole engulfing the landscape. 

As we flip through the pages, we connect more deeply with the forest. The photographs capture dense rows of trees, fallen branches, close ups of textured bark, grassy areas, a quiet pond, the darkness over the forest – we get the sense of its life, its hidden diversity, and its uniqueness. Some images have a light green cast over them (like a spreading disease or contagion), others are almost white as if they were bleached into nothingness. In another picture, Stankiewicz has painted the tree trunks in black, as if erasing the standing trees. A few spreads later, the image is almost completely painted over with intense horizontal movements of the blackened brush, with just few untouched spots showing the remaining forest.

These black lines, washout spots, drops, and scratches symbolise the very real threat of destruction looming over the forest. As Stankiewicz erases the trees from the pages, altering forest’s landscape with her interventions, she imagines the magnitude of the impending environmental devastation, showing us the irreversible consequences if the approved logging moves forward. A piece of good news came earlier this year, as the European Court of Justice found that Poland had broken international law with its plan, and ordered the immediate repeal of illegal logging permits. While the battle to preserve the forest is not over yet, this is clearly a positive step.

It the end, Cry of an echo is a piercingly emotional and very personal book, where the photographs serve as a metaphor for the artist’s torment. It reflects Stankiewicz’s demand to express her concern and to take a stand. In once again reminding us of the fragility of nature and the very real consequences of selfish human activities, it encourages us to reconsider our own place in the ongoing struggle to actively protect our most precious natural resources.

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

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