After the economic transformation of the 1990s, Poland has been trying to attract foreign investors for years. From their perspective, competitive, often very low, tax rates and low labour costs are the main incentives. This “new industry” often takes the form of suburban “special economic zones”. At first glance, they are similar to the “industrial parks” photographed 40 years ago by Lewis Baltz in California. Poland, however, is not California. Here, most of the halls are taken not by mythical, self-proclaimed technology companies, but by assembly plants, warehouses and the logistics sector. Technology here is used, not created. Sometimes, as exemplified by Amazon, it is used to control the entire work process, including the workers.
For a few months I have been working on a project that concerns different ways of looking at how Amazon is functioning in Poland. I’m also interested in showing in a broader context how digital capitalism, despite being volatile and seemingly non-material, is shaping our lives, social relations and the Earth surface. Most probably the majority of us see the gigantic internet corporations as their user interfaces. Still, deep inside we are all aware of the fact that behind corporations such as Amazon, Facebook or Google there is a complex network of logistics, countless servers and other machines, as well as a huge amount of electricity and human work. All of that is hidden behind metal façades of warehouses and more attention is given to the open space offices designed according to the latest corporate trends.
In 2014, when Amazon entered the Polish market, the company’s interiors were photographed by Konrad Pustoła. By breaking the Brechtian barrier of impenetrable façade, Pustoła’s technically perfect photographical cycle entitled Transformation shows the interior practically devoid of human presence. The halls’ space is filled with conveyor belts, work stands, pigeonholes, and plastic buckets called “totes” in the Amazon slang. This is not how I remembered the place. In December last year, when I was employed by the company during the shopping peak before Christmas, it was full of hard-working people. It was difficult not to do your best when you were subject to a continuous efficiency control, updated every hour during a 10-hour shift.
I spent a few weekends working night shifts in the Amazon’s Fulfillment Center in Sady near Poznań. It was my own decision, not dictated by the economic situation, but by my own free will and the need to experience something I wanted to write about. I do not intend to go back there with a camera. I’m no longer interested either in uninhabited interiors or in taking photos under the supervision. Anyway, YouTube is awash with PR videos of journalists or other special guests visiting and being given guided tours of the halls. Besides, it is impossible to see how hard that work is just by looking at photographs or videos. What no one is going to see is how painful it is to stand ten hours, or how mind-numbing it is to repeat a sequence of practically identical movements. The full list of Amazon’s misconduct has been discussed extensively by the press. Moreover, trade unionists of Worker’s Initiative and Solidarity are acting tirelessly within the company to ensure the improvement of working conditions. Those people can do much more than any artist.
The photographs presented here mark the very beginning of a process, but they also show the direction. They demonstrate that I prefer to stay outside now, to show anonymous, dehumanized architecture of big halls and juxtapose it with the memories of both the people working inside, as well as my own. I still remember the sequence of movements and activities, the division of labour reminiscent of the last century factories, and the standards I didn’t manage to meet. I remember constant noise of the conveyor belts and squeaky scanners. The motivational slogans, Amazon “Leadership Principles”, written on the walls of the changing room and cafeteria. You are only a cog in the machine, but you must remember, that “leaders are owners”*. Work hard, have fun and make history.
* Indicated phrases are quotations from Amazon’s “Leadership Principles”. Full set of those corporate “values” can be found on the website https://www.amazon.jobs/en/principles