Interview > MATEUSZ KOWALIK, winner of the 2nd Star Award

The photobook project Devil’s Rib, by Polish author Mateusz Kowalik has won the second edition of the Star Photobook Dummy Award, an initiative from Photographic Social Vision Foundation, in collaboration with the publishers Phree, Ediciones Posibles and RM, who give  advice in the final phase of the process, take charge of producing and printing the book and will also distribute the photobook internationally from April 2023. 

We spoke with the author about his interest in life in the wilderness, which is the main subject of his awarded project, and also about the experience of winning the Star Award

By Carlos G. Vela

Photographer Mateusz Kowalik.

Why did you choose Devil’s Rib as a title?

That’s an old folk name for cabbage thistle. It was a popular belief that this plant had magical protective powers, that it refreshed the body, drove away diseases and also evil powers, and brought purification. I first heard about “devil’s rib” from an herbalist and it turned out that science had confirmed its healing properties. Then I realised that the plant’s attributes are strangely similar to the desires of many people who choose to move closer to nature, and start life anew.

 

This project documents the life of people who decide to live in the wilderness. What attracted you to that subject?

The beginning of my fascination with this topic came with my previous project, entitled Still Far Away From Paradise. It began eight years ago with a chance to visit a small village in Poland, near the border with Czech Republic. There, I met a group of people from urban places who tried their hand at life away from the big city rush. I spent a lot of time with them and heard many inspiring stories. The aim of that project was to draw attention to the phenomenon of Human’s return to nature. 

For Devil’s Rib, I go a step further and focus on people who already have a lot of experience with this kind of lifestyle, including individuals that left life in the city to definitely settle in the wilderness and also some people who have always lived in remote areas. They are all different from the ones I met for my previous project. They have gone through different experiences and, most importantly, they  chose that lifestyle for different reasons.

An image of “Devil’s Rib”, de Kowalik.

How did you find those people and gain their trust? 

I did some initial research on the Internet, got in contact with a few people and visited them. I tried to build a relationship, so they got to know me a little and understood that my intentions were sincere. Then, they introduced me to more people like themselves. I mostly found great openness, kindness and commitment. It pleased me and intimidated me at the same time.

 

What were you intimidated by?

When I reached distant places where my heroes lived, I was met with great hospitality. It happened that they gave me their only place to sleep, and used less comforts themselves. I was even invited to spend the night in an Indian tipi, where the inhabitants barely fit. I was treated to their last meal, sometimes I even received gifts when saying goodbye. All this surprised me very positively. All these people had – by choice- very little  and wanted to share it anyway.

 

You travelled many times between the city and remote rural areas. How did it affect you personally?

I quickly felt the need to get closer to the soothing aspects of nature, as living in the city I experience some problems with smog and too much stimuli. Each journey and each new person I knew taught me something different, gave me a whole new point of view about the city and alternatives to such a life. When you’re confronted with that, it’s harder to live with the fact that we are destroying the planet, our home, by our own choice.

And, of course, I’ve asked myself many times if I’m ready to live somewhere in the wilderness. Thanks to these few years working on the project, I’ve come to the conclusion that, to be honest, I’m not ready for such a bold move yet. I chose a small steps strategy. I just moved to the outskirts of the city and I live now on the border of a large nature reserve called Lungs of South Warsaw.

 

It’s generally accepted nowadays that climate change is propelled by our way of life in the most developed countries. Does your project advocate for some back-to-basics lifestyle?

Most of the people I met while working on this project try to avoid overexploitation of the planet. They also try not to succumb to constant consumerism and to an excess of stimuli, in order to live with a more attentive presence both to the environment and to their loved ones. Such a life is possible, but it is full of serious sacrifices. My goal is not to encourage living like that, in a hut without electricity, heating or running water. I just want to encourage reflection about this lifestyle and its causes. And if that leads to people implementing some of that into their everyday life, I would feel successful.

A double page of the photobook mockup presented by Kowalik at the award.

In the midst of the exuberance of nature, why did you choose black & white photography?

That is certainly a paradox and a consequence of my previous project on a similar subject. Those pictures were in colour and yet I struggled to show that despite the wild nature surroundings, people were “still far away from paradise”, just like they were far away from the doctor or the store. It’s hard to get a job there, even part-time. However, there is a lot to do such as mowing, clearing snow or repairing a road damaged by downpours. A stunning view does not automatically stand for a carefree life. This life is rough. So, when I focused on Devil’s Rib I decided to get rid of colour and thus the impression of a beautiful landscape, so the audience could easily feel this roughness.

 

What was the hardest part of your project’s research? 

The hardest thing was to put an end to it. While working on the project, I learned a lot, met inspiring people and experienced unforgettable adventures. After many trips, as I sat down to choose photos with my photo editor, he started asking, more and more often, whether I felt already saturated or satisfied. That helped me to calmly assess my work and finally decide to travel into the wild for the last time.

Original model presented by the author at the Star Award.

More than 150 photobook dummies, from more than 30 countries, were presented to the 2nd Star Award. The jury chose only 10 finalists. What was your reaction when you found out that you had won the prize?

Being selected among those ten really great projects was already a great distinction. When I found out mine had won, it was a big surprise and a moment of unbridled joy. When the most moving emotions subsided a bit, I realised that the values that I was trying to convey had been noticed and that I would be able to share them in a new form, one that I had been dreaming about. I am a lucky guy!

 

The Star Photobook Dummy Award pays homage to the late designer Inés Casals, and gives relevance to projects that highlight some of her human values. Which of those are more relevant to your project?

My project covers a lot of areas, and the stories contained in it can be considered on many levels. Intimate stories about individual characters hide a whole range of their emotions and feelings, from positive to negative. On the other hand, when looking at the project in general, one can notice such attitudes as non-conformism, self-determination or fighting for one’s own values and ideals.

 

Why Devil’s Rib had to be expressed in the photobook form?

Compared to, for instance, an exhibition, a book stays with us for longer, one could say forever. It becomes a personal item. So each time you open it, you can feel something new again, pay attention to other aspects of the subject, see more details in the pictures. I often have the impression that when I return to some photobooks after some time, I discover it almost anew.

 

Your photobook will soon be available to the public. Has it changed much from the dummy you presented to the Award? Have you learned anything in the process?  

Devil’s Rib is my first book. Over the last few months, I have learned a lot about the process of preparing a photobook for mass printing, which is different from preparing a few copies of a dummy. There are many decisions to consider, which is a process as fascinating as it is demanding. Also, I decided to revisit the book’s story, so there were a few changes and improvements. I am glad that I am expanding my horizons by publishing my own book and I can’t wait to pick up the first copy straight from the printing house!