How to Look Natural in Photos transports the eyes on a journey through crime scenes, re-enactments of events, grainy rooms and dusty landscapes, ID portraits and mugshots, remains of cars and objects, aerial views, mass gatherings, public and private spaces. Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica have taken the roles of editors and curators, rather than photographers. The images used in the photobook belong to the archive of the Institute of National Remembrance (INP), which houses official and governmental materials of both the Nazi and Communist regimes in Poland (spanning between 1917 to 1990) with a particular focus on the crimes committed against the Polish Nation.
The covers of the photobook are in a rich colour, reminiscent of the sun’s rays during a golden hour. A fraction of a body – a back – is pressed and stuck to the front cover. The words How to Look Natural in Photos shine in red on the spine and back. The title tricks us into thinking that this might be a handbook. As soon as we delve in, however, we discover that the pages offer us quite the contrary. We enter a disorientating realm constructed of ambiguous images lacking context. Only when we reach the end of the printed matter do we find an index with titles and lengthy descriptions of each image. The pages that follow are occupied by an essay (in both English and Polish) by Tomasz Stempowski – a historian and archivist at the INP, who Bartecka and Rusznica met during their work at the archives. The notion of the manual is fulfilled only by this text, as we, we learn about the photographic procedures, techniques and regulations of the Polish Secret Police. The title of Bartecka and Rusznica’s book, it turns out, is taken from an instruction document containing a list of actions required to ensure that the deceased “look natural” and “resemble the appearance of the living” in photos.
The assemblage of images – carefully selected, sequenced and edited by the authors – does not follow a chronological arrangement, a linear narration or a single historical account. Instead, it appears as a cluster of stories and happenings. In every frame, we are faced with the play of authority, agency and weight facilitated by the apparatus. The photographs are extremely biased, the camera acting as the sole eyes of the state. Some of the images appear to depict individuals in incriminating situations or in possession of incriminating materials. We could be easily manipulated into believing these narratives, trusting the trickery produced by the photographer, by the regime. Totalitarian systems comprise of severe repressions and extreme censorship, alongside continuous paranoia against foreign and local enemies. Deception, disinformation, misrepresentation, coercion and intimidation were key ideological elements of both the Nazi and Communist regimes, and are mimicked in these photographs.
Amid the scenes observed by the apparatus and the secret police, we too occupy the role of intruders, surveilling as we glance through the pages. A large fraction of the images were taken without the knowledge of the photographed. Sometimes, agents and spies stood on rooftops or in safehouses equipped with a camera; at other times the apparatus was concealed in a belt, bag, coat or umbrella. The purpose of the images was to document, to record, to classify, to catalogue and to incriminate.
Although we observe fractions of Poland’s past, these images are not evidence of history, but rather historical references themselves. Framed and composed by the secret police, they could not serve as objective historical documents of the past. As reproductions of their referents, they are an incomplete trace of the real body, space or event. They remain incapable when facing the void of history. When we look at them, we should be aware of the politics and regulations of the totalitarian regime, but also of the narratives of the individuals in them, whose experiences are often missing from official historical records.
Despite the precision of the image-makers, at times there are actions out of their control exposed on the film. In addition, the reading of the images shifts as the gaze, setting and historical time change. For instance, the images of Poznań June civil protests from 1956, the 1970s Polish protests at Gdańsk, the June 1976 protests in Radom, the demonstrations on the 3rd of May 1983 in Warsaw were all taken by the secret police with a singular purpose – to capture features, visual appearances and actions, and later the attendees themselves. But in the present, these photographs appear simply as documentation of the events. These archival images show the struggle of the people, the resistance of the opposition and the repression of the state – which is contradictory to the agents’ original objectives. The images allow us to re-articulate and re-examine the past, and see beyond the narrative written by the authoritarian regime.
Outside of the spiral of surveillance present in the pages of the photobook, there is also a large selection of forensic photographs and crime reconstructions. The photographic medium has made its way into criminal cases and court hearings ever since the late 1800s. The camera has been regarded as an obedient evidentiary tool due to its scientific nature and its ability to portray reality as we see it. Here the sequence of photographs varies extensively – in one image we see a stack of unofficial publications left on an armchair in a suspect’s flat, another photograph is of a dress of a murder victim, several others show close-up portraits of injured Soviet police officers, while another image depicts men pointing to a wall where anti-governmental graffiti was painted.
What persists through all the pages is the fight of the camera and the secret police to govern surveillance, knowledge and truth. Despite the state’s account and aims, at times we are illuminated by unintentional events, qualities and mistakes beyond the control of the photographer. When these photos are taken away from the archive, case files, folders and desks of the agents, and put into the context of a contemporary photobook a new space opens up – one for reconfiguration and a different translation of history. Observing the images in this setting allows us to depart on an important route – where we question the authority, representation and truthfulness of the archive itself.