Remember where You Come from

As part of the artistic residency at the Zamek Culture Centre in Poznań, I started an artistic and research project entitled “Photographic workshop”, as part of which I made, among other things, an inventory of the equipment of Wielkopolska’s photographic workshops. The identity constructed with their help – the collective imaginarium of the possessing middle class – served mainly to remove peasant habitus and acquire cultural nobility. I also try to show that photographic sessions with backgrounds and props are a manifestation of mass sarmatism – a form of communalising the past that satisfies the desire for emotional recognition in an illusory way. Using, among other things, the tools of a radical programme of visual sociology, and looking at the socio-cultural conditions of making photographs, I come to the conclusion that the visual culture of photographic workshops of this period of transformation can be included in the category of ‘peasant photography’. This is evidenced by the circumstances of the photographs taken, the form, and the language that accompanies them. One of the characteristics of peasant photography is the impossibility of denying that something did not exist – that someone did not exist. Peasant photography, whose most important task was to commemorate, also served the purpose of strongly forgetting – one’s own roots, or peasant genealogy.

In his autobiography, “Returning to Reims”, Didier Eribon, a French intellectual and son of blue collar workers, describes his journey of mental return to his roots – to the family home he left years ago. As a young boy and participant in the French counterculture, fascinated by literature and philosophy, he leaves the conservative, working-class environment in which he grew up and, with modest financial support from his mother, embarks on a long journey of education. On the way to his dream career and class advancement, however, he encounters obstacles connected with the mechanisms of social reproduction. He feels alienation and deep shame because of where he comes from. He sees his own biography as an example of embodied poverty, which constantly reminds him of his former self, abandoned years ago. On his return home, revisiting the past, he and his mother look through the family photographic archives, which are undeniable proof of his class background:

“There it was in front of my eyes again that working class environment I had grown up in, the incredible poverty that is palpable in the appearance of all the houses in the background, in the interiors, in the clothes everyone is wearing, in the very bodies themselves. It is always startling to see to what an extent bodies in photographs from the past appear before our eyes as social bodies, bodies of a certain class. It can be equally startling to remark to what extent a photograph, a “souvenir,” by returning an individual— in this case, me— to his or her familial past, ties that person to his or her social past”.1

When he takes his place in a new environment, he adopts the behaviour and practices of the class that was to mark him out a new place in the social structure, a new identity. He enters the so-called stage of the social mirror, and uses, as he says, “the mediation of the image of someone else whom you are meant to become”.2

Social identity is defined and affirmed in difference, writes the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu. He divided the social universe into upper, middle, and lower classes. He distinguished not only economic capital, but also symbolic and cultural capital, as factors that build class divisions and social hierarchies – the establishment of hegemony of one group over another. Certain conditions, e.g. education, taste, skills and professional preparation of an individual or a group, produce attitudes characteristic of these groups, making up the cultural habitus.

Eribon, in concluding his story, expresses disappointment. For he recognises a rule, an irremovable order of things – namely, that promotion is beyond his reach: “as if there were an almost completely sealed partition between the social worlds”. He goes on to write that “the boundaries that divide these worlds define within each of them radically different perceptions of who one can be and become, what one can aspire to or not aspire to”. This hard social determinism ultimately does not allow him to be where he wants to be. After years of acquiring knowledge and assimilating into the lifestyle of a new group, he becomes aware of his cleft habitus, and the unchanging distance between masters and subordinates.

Photographs, especially those that attest to the habitus of individuals and document their social past, are treated with increasing suspicion and resentment over time – mainly because they betray unwanted and subjectively invalidated social origins, preventing us from forgetting embarrassing old choices and socio-cultural identifications.3 Exploring the visual culture of photographic workshops and looking at such outdated and reworked identities, I wondered what group was served by the representations they produced? Is it the people recruited from the working class, trying to ingratiate themselves into the middle class by means of these images? Or for middle-class people to distance themselves from the class of workers and peasants?

The embodiment of the new social group in Poland – the middle class – took place in accordance with the norms of visibility characterising the period of political transformation. This happened mainly by way of imitation and mimicry, the so-called dressing-up conventions,4 which included scene sessions inspired by aristocratic and landowner culture. They took part in reversing the roles of serfdom and servitude, putting on masks, and recreating old relations connected with the social dynamics around the noble manor and farm in the post-peasant society, marked by the stigma of serfdom. Clients of the scene sessions, following the choreography arranged by the photographer, restrain unwanted reflexes of their bodies and freeze in caricatured poses. They are like the ill-fitting bodies of peasants in August Sander’s photographs, marked by physical labour.5

Eribon described his social journey as a class betrayal, writing of himself that he “tried more or less permanently and more or less consciously to distance himself from his class background and to break out of the social environment in which he was born and grew up”. In the new neo-feudal reality, all of us – at the price of social advancement and departure from the ranks of the peasant class – had to remove biography from our bodies. In a famous publication “Boorishness [Chamstwo]”, Kacper Pobłocki writes that a boor is one with a cleft habitus who betrays the people, who wants to be a nobleman like Eribon. The boor not only tries to hide the straw sticking out of his shoes, but also learns to walk in different footwear.

During my artistic research – an inventory of photographic workshops6 – in Środa Wielkopolska, I came across an interesting background, painted on polypropylene imitating jute fabric, which is used to make grain sacks. Empty patches of chipped paint, through which an undesired image creeps, resemble today’s cracks in the phantasm – the myth of modern Poland – that is falling apart before our eyes. Although we would like very much to maintain the myth of the landed gentry and intelligentsia, the material imitating jute betrays our peasant origin. The place, trodden down in the “library”, has hardly ensured anyone’s advancement in the class universe proposed by Bourdieu. This promotion, as Andrzej Leder has proved, took place thanks to a revolution carried out by others, and the place of the former manor was filled, as the author writes: “by wallowing in nostalgic fantasies about one’s pseudo-noble past”.7

Among the props, the object found at the Ostrzeszów workshop captures attention. It is two field stones made of lightweight polyurethane, oval, grey – deceptively similar to real stones found in the fields. The prop is reminiscent of Wiesław Myśliwski’s novel ‘Stone upon Stone [Kamień na kamieniu]’,8 in which the main character, Szymon Pietruszka – a peasant – builds a family tomb. The internal duty of the protagonist to build the tomb becomes the plot of the story. Thanks to this, we learn about the history of the village and the peasant family. A large field stone is often used to mark the boundary between one’s own and one’s neighbour’s fields. In this case, the stone could be a metaphor for enfranchisement and the freedom it brought – a reminder of peasant genealogy, peasant roots of Polish society, it could break the distorting mirror, within which the phantom middle class would very much like to see themselves as descendants of the gentry.

Małgorzata Myślińska is a visual artist and philosopher. Graduate of the University of Arts and Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. In her artistic and research projects, she deals with the visual culture of the transformation period, individual and collective identity, including peasant heritage and noble imaginaries.


1 Didier Eribon, “Returning to Reims”, Los Angeles 2013, (p.23-24)

2 Ibid., p. 97.

3 R. Drozdowski, M. Krajewski, “Za fotografię! W stronę radykalnego programu socjologii wizualnej”, Warsaw 2011, p. 132.

4 M. Szcześniak, “Obrazy klasy. Wyobrażenia o strukturze klasowej w czasach transformacji ustrojowej”, [in:] “Klasy w Polsce. Teorie, dyskusje, badania, konteksty”, ed. M. Gdula, M. Sutowski, Warsaw 2017, p. 64 (accessed 13.01.2022).

5 This refers to August Sander’s project of attempting to create a sociological portrait of the German people. The British art critic, writer and painter John Berger looks at a photograph from 1914 showing three young peasants. From the description of the photography, we learn that they are musicians in suits, betrayed by the embodied peasant habitus – indicating their peasant origin, See J. Berger, “About Looking”, New York 1992.

6 M. Myślińska, “Dworki i pałace”, Poznań 2018. book mock-up: (accessed 13.01.2022).

7 The revolution, which took place between 1939 and 1956, was imposed from outside and involved, among other things, the removal of the landed aristocracy. A symbolic void was created in the place it occupied. The mass advancement of the rural population lacking symbolic resources disseminated the peasant model of culture, which is strongly reflected in the backgrounds and stage props. See A. Leder, “Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenie z logiki historycznej”, Warsaw 2014.

8 W. Myśliwski, “Kamień na kamieniu”, Warsaw 1994.


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