Sejud’s work oscillates around ideas of freedom, and attempts at its limitation, on a personal and political level
Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a group of emerging image-makers, chosen from hundreds of nominations by international experts. Throughout September, BJP-online is sharing their profiles, originally published in issue #7898 of the magazine. Agnieszka Sejud is one of five Ones to Watch selected by British Journal of Photography to exhibit as part of Futures festival, which takes place throughout October.
“I always wanted to go to art school but I never had the courage,” says 29-year-old Agnieszka Sejud, who studied law at university instead. “By the third year of my course, however, it was clear to me that I disliked the way law is enforced and upheld in Poland too much to be a lawyer. I just couldn’t function in that world.” Out of curiosity, she took a basic photography course, and she’s developed her singular, kaleidoscopic visual language from there. Without that early formal training, Sejud embraced unbridled creativity, and her work since has taken the form of everything from site-specific installations to videos and even ‘gif poems’ (images taken and then animated with layers of text collaged over them). Yet photography will always be the basis of her practice. “She is not afraid to push the boundaries of the medium,” says photographer Rafal Milach, who nominated Sejud for Ones to Watch, “not so much for the sake of formal joy, but rather to manifest her critical involvement with reality”.
The frustrations Sejud felt towards law have fed into her artwork, and everything she does now oscillates around ideas of freedom and attempts at its limitation, especially the ways in which we quell ourselves in line with the communities we move through. “I’m interested in systems of oppression, like the operations of the state machine, as well as personal and social oppressions, like religious principles and ethical standards,” she says, and this is exactly where she began with her recently completed project, Hoax, a series of psychedelic images depicting parade floats, smashed animal figurines and rolled up bank notes, alongside digital collages, with parts of pictures sliced or swirled into near-abstraction.
When out taking pictures, she often uses extra flash to illuminate ordinary moments into scenes of uneasy strangeness, visually reflecting the political and social context of contemporary Poland. The current Polish president, Andrzej Duda, was voted in, in 2015, with ideas of a radical state reconstruction programme, and rigorously conservative rhetoric. “It is clear to me that I had started shooting for Hoax long before I was aware, but officially it began in 2016. Politics here changed and intensified around that time and I wanted to make work about it, mostly to try to understand what was happening.”
She called it Hoax precisely because of the meaning of the word. “Politicians curse our reality, advertising and marketing to manipulate us; religion imposes its vision of the world. Everything here feels fake now like we have lost our connection with nature and truth does not exist.”
Another project she is developing, Mimesis, collects together portraits she has taken of girls in Poland across the years. Some of them she knows and others are complete strangers. “Sometimes I’ll connect with someone on the internet, and sometimes I just meet a person and ask if they want to pose for me.” While Mimesis is more about individual experiences, the aesthetic approach is similar to Hoax, and Sejud’s penchant for clashing colours and common objects like plants and wigs, gloves and brooms, is still present. Explaining her choice of props, she says “I try to only use second hand, discarded things. I’m a real collector of items, and I also run an online vintage fashion shop, which means I visit flea markets and bazaars often.” For each photoshoot, she prepares a few ideas and then allows space for spontaneity and collaboration with her model when the time comes.
In addition to her own practice, Sejud forms half of KWAS Collective, alongside artist Karolina Wojtas, who was included in last’s year’s talent issue. “It’s just the two of us, so maybe we should call ourselves a duo, but we work more with a collective mindset and invite friends to collaborate with us.” Previous projects have included zines and a fake protest in which they demanded a similar financial allowance for artists as every child now gets in Poland. They like to shake things up, be playful and prod at systems. “It’s very convenient to hide behind the group,” she says wryly.
Sejud is now studying photography at Silesian University in Opava. In lieu of being unable to travel to photo festivals and show the book she self-published earlier this year, she has been focusing on new KWAS projects instead. “We are currently in the midst of one called KWASxLGBT, which is an upcycled collection of fashion we made to sell and raise money for LGBT organisations in Poland. We wanted to find our own way to celebrate and show support for Pride month given how homophobic our current government is. Duda is seeking re-election right now and has chosen the LGBT community as an enemy of the nation to divide society. In his last term, it was refugees. I hope it won’t work this time.” The 2020 Polish presidential elections were due to be held in May but were postponed due to the pandemic. At the time of writing, Duda’s liberal challenger, Rafał Trzaskowski, was gaining on him in the polls. Nevertheless, artists like Sejud continue to come up against vicious animosity, making their investigation and perseverance ever more poignant and admirable.