Interview by Katarzyna Kaczorowska
for Polska The Times (November 27th 2017)
You won the Grand Press Photo for your photo-reportage from
Thailand. But why did you go that far?
The Tokyo office of the largest American photo agency – Magnum Photos
– organized a contest financed by a photo equipment producer.
There were two workshops to be won, one run by David Alan Harvey – a
living legend of ”National Geographic” and ”The New York Times”,
whose life was the basis for the script of “The Bridges of Madison
County” with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The other workshop was
run by Jacob Aue Sobol – a Danish photographer, a star at Magnum – with
his own very characteristic and unique style. The workshops themselves
were held in Bangkok, Thailand.
I guess that you must have been over the moon twice - first to be in
this project and then for the second time when you landed there – in
You could say that. Workshops with such masters of photography are
really something. Of course I already had my own ideas. The first one
being the Buddhist nuns. Buddhist monasteries are usually linked to men
and I wanted to find out if women were also monks. It turned out that yes
but such monasteries are not popular. So I went to that monastery and
stayed there overnight. The photos turned out to be fantastic, especially
those taken at dawn, but there needs to be more to such material than that.
That’s right. During my stay in Thailand, the King died. He had been
reigning for 70 years which is one of the world’s records in the history of
monarchies. This was a great national tragedy and I decided to tell the
story through pictures. Having checked into a hotel I grabbed my camera
and went to take pictures. I learnt that people were gathering in front of the
King’s palace with candles and lanterns to mourn together and to bring the
light for the King. I decided I had to be there. I was also happy that I
would have my material ready for discussion for the first day of the
I realized later that it actually made my situation complicated: when I was
shooting in front of the palace, the remaining workshop participants
attended the opening of the exhibition by one of our teachers. I also
wanted to be there, but after hours spent in front of the palace, I learnt that
there was no transport available. The underground was closed, and
incredibly long lines of people were trying to get onto boats, which are a
very popular means of transport in Bangkok. The only option was to come
back on foot or on a motorbike. That day, people were very helpful and
offering a free lift, but you could not choose where you wished to go, but
could simply go where the driver was going. When I managed to get out
from the crowd, changing the motorbike four times, the opening ceremony
was already over. Obviously on the first day of the workshop I was asked
about my absence. I answered simply by showing my pictures.
You really made your entrance.
I was hoping so, though it was the exhibition of the photographer to whom
I showed my pictures from the palace.
You did not satisfy his ego but you satisfied his curiosity.
That’s true (laughing). Then according to plan I went to the female
Buddhist monastery. And again it turned out that I did something
interesting but visually it was not as surprising as I wanted. I began to
experiment with the concept of lady-boys, the so called third sex (Thai
boys and men who consider themselves girls and wear girls’ and later
women’s clothes). I tried to show this topic somewhat differently, more
intimately than the way we know it but again I wasn’t satisfied with the
results and I felt that I hadn’t reached my set goal.
And when did you reach your set goal?
One day in the street I saw a person with a doll. At first I thought this was
a child but then I saw it was a doll, but I was convinced it had been bought
for a child. I began to explore the topic, looking for more information in
the net. In the meantime I met a few people, also through the lady-boy,
whose photo I had taken. I contacted a woman named Tippie. The chain of
events had come to an end when it turned out that her friend, Ah Mui, is
exactly the kind of person I was searching for – I was looking for someone
for whom the doll is not a toy but a child, a friend, someone who keeps
There are no coincidences?
This chain seems irrelevant, but when you think about it carefully, there
must have been some reason why I had picked up this very lady-boy from
among hundreds of them, and he - for some reason or other - was a friend
of Tippie, who - in turn - led me to Ah Mui.
Maybe this was the influence of the Buddhist monastery. Most of us
associate Thailand with exoticism and sex-tourism. Yet you touched
upon something completely unknown in the Western world. In Haitian
woo doo a doll is an important attribute of witchcraft, but these Thai
ones were originally meant to wait for wandering souls, rambling in
the world before their next incarnation, but today they probably have
a completely different function.
I tried to find out what souls were meant to be hiding in these old
figurines, usually made of clay. I came across two interesting concepts. It
is most often accepted that this phenomenon originates from the centuries-
old tradition of keeping clay figurines at homes, in which the wandering
souls (those waiting for the next incarnation) were to live and to bring
happiness and wealth to their hosts. Some believe that the dolls are
inhabited by the souls of the children unborn due to miscarriage. One of
the Bangkok University anthropologists found that the belief in dolls
differs from province to province. Therefore in various parts of the country
this phenomenon is interpreted differently, although the very phenomenon
is considered to be part of the Thai Buddhism. Therefore, the followers of
the Japanese Buddhism, popular in Southern provinces, do not respect this
tradition. This faith stems from the Thai folk beliefs combined with
Buddhism. Therefore the ceremonies of introducing souls into the dolls are
performed by the Thai Buddhist monks. And Haiti and woo doo itself is a
topic I would like to explore one day.
So there are no coincidences.
So it seems but maybe this is due to the fact that I am sensitive to various
signs. Surely many people must have seen these dolls but no-one seemed
to think about this. I always try to explore a certain mysticism, magic.
Maybe this is due to the fact that the world and Poland, each area at a
different time, has undergone great change and culture has become less
magical and more rational and scientific.
I wouldn’t be so sure. It seems that we now have a reverse from the
Enlightenment paradigm and a sudden return to something which is
even difficult define. But before any great change there is a decline in
order for the change and progress to take place. Thus the resistance, fear of
change, sentiment for what had been and is about to disappear.
As a matter of fact so much has changed in Poland over the last few
decades. My parents’ and grandparents’ generation had to learn to live in
three different political situations. It took people in the West three times
longer to get used to the post-modern era. The changes took place within
historical microseconds. Whenever asked about Poland abroad, I always
stress what a wise and ingenious nation we are, that we managed to
achieve this. What we see today, is the result of the fact that for some, the
fast pace of change might be unbearable, especially for a society with such
history but also due to the fact that very fast transformations leave no room
for a well-thought-out, balanced and mature development. Some people
are sick of the changes, thus the sudden come-back of conservatism and
paradigms of years past and also what I really can’t accept– an
But because the world changes so fast, the magical areas are even more
magical. In the rational reality we live in, I do not search for charlatans or
madness but for spirituality which is above religions. Not dogmatic
spirituality, but one which is a spiritual experience resulting from our
psychological needs. To be honest, I had no intention of dealing with such
topics in my photography. Simply at some point I noticed a key in what I
do, in the topics I undertake, in what interests me.
Photography speaks louder than words about spirituality?
We perceive a lot of information visually, but not all topics can be shown,
some need to be told. For example the story of the Buddhist monks needs
to be told, visually there is not much to be seen. And the picture leaves a
lot unsaid and mysterious. Of course, we can express it through poetry but
this is a difficult form of communication, not accessible and understood by
everyone. My means of expression is through picture and music. Both
What did the Thai dolls tell you about yourself?
I have lived in many English speaking countries, where I could understand
what was happening. But I also lived in Spanish speaking countries where
I had to learn the language to be able to understand anything. Beforehand I
did not understand a thing. Thus I had had experience with non-verbal
communication with the world, but in this case there was a particularly
difficult language barrier. Ah Mui does not speak English, she speaks Thai
and Chinese. I do not speak those languages so everything was based on
gestures and intuition. This allowed me to focus, to sharpen my perception
and sensitivity to what appears in between words, gestures and poses. Real
emotions, real accounts and events.
Your heroine is a very mature woman.
She is almost 60.
The doll is her child. Because of her bad experiences, she has no
relationship with a man. What exactly does this mean?
I asked her about this experience. It turned out her father had abandoned
her family when she was a little girl. She was the oldest daughter and she
was most affected by this as she had to take over many of the family
responsibilities. Anyway this is a sad story because Ah Mui was not even
10 when her father simply walked her to school one day and just
disappeared. Her mother had to raise five children. I met her – she is a
very lively, energetic person. She still has the need to feed and look after
everyone around her. She also started looking after me, like a member of
the family. Ah Mui’s sister openly hates their father. Ah Mui claims that
she feels no hatred but at the same time she told me openly that for her
men are spiritually inferior and she has no respect for them. So, these
words suggest that she actually still resents her father for leaving the
family. Even if she managed to suppress this feeling, it still manifests itself
in the way she thinks about men.
What was the reaction when you first showed the photos? Because, in
fact, by entering Ah Mui’s life you passed some boundary of intimacy.
Upon receiving the Grand Press Photo, I was asked if I was not afraid to
explore such topics. Of course exploring someone’s intimacy is very
difficult and bears responsibility.
I went back to Ah Mui, to Thailand in October of this year and our meeting
led to some new stories and discoveries. Some of them were quite
For example, I learned that there is such a thing as walking meditation. Ah
Mui practices it every night before bedtime. Because this time I stayed
with Ah Mui’s family and with her much longer than before, after some
time I began to feel that Ah Mui tended to pass the need to become a Mum
– she was fulfilling that dream with the doll – onto me. She was happy
when somebody asked if I was her daughter. She took good care of me. As
a matter of fact, the hospitality and care I received, reminded me of
Poland. I felt very much part of the family. This is a great privilege and I
feel very obliged to Ah Mui’s family. After some time I began to be part of
the family system.
Too much so?
I am a person that can set clear boundaries and the whole situation was an
interesting experience for me. On the one hand I am very welcome and
cordially treated and on the other I see this inclusion into somebody’s life
and then I feel the need to set the boundaries somewhere. This was the
very moment when I realized how great Ah Mui’s need to have a daughter
Is this an extrovert society or does it try to give the impression of an
open society, but deep inside it is really closed?
First of all this is not a democracy but a kingdom. So people are used to
controlling themselves, censor themselves, they do not criticize their king,
they portray an idealized picture of Thailand. Especially towards tourists,
they live off tourism. This is not just typical of Thailand, Poland also likes
to idealize its image, this is something many countries share. Having
passed a certain intimacy barrier, when you are no longer just a stranger,
who is going to leave soon, one who is completely unfamiliar, these people
tend to open up and then you can see a completely different face of
Thailand. Yet, it is difficult to say that this face surprises you. The longer I
stayed there and got to know these people, the more I discovered in them
what I knew from Poland, that is a universal human face. I did not have the
impression that having penetrated through the exotics of culture, I finally
reached something odd or unknown. What I did note was that under the
layer of social and cultural conditions there is the universe inherent to all
I was staying with a family which comes from China but has been living in
Thailand for the past two generations. Ah Mui’s mother and her family
came to Thailand when she was two. The family emigrated in search of a better job. The mother is Chinese, thus the family culture is very Chinese,
suffused with Chinese beliefs. At the same time, her father was Thai, her
family has lived in Thailand for years so this gives an interesting
combination. The more I explored those two cultures, the more clearly I
saw a picture of a universal human being. Ah Mui’s mother always offered
me some food. This reminded me of my grandmother who always tried to
feed us whenever we were under her care, she was always concerned none
of grandchildren was hungry. My siblings and cousins, still remember her
saying „Eat, eat!”. She would say ”Essen, essen!” to my cousin from
Austria. Ah Mui’s mother, that is a Thai mother would say “Kin, kin!” and
that is how I learned one Thai expression, which embodies not only food
but also care, love and responsibility for another human being.
Ah Mui owns a doll which is a substitute for her daughter. Is this
something only the rich can enjoy in Thailand?
Three years ago one of the very popular Thai TV presenters began to
appear on air with his doll and thus popularized this phenomenon.
Everyone can own a doll. Both women and men, rich people and very poor
people. Depending on wealth, these dolls differ, they are more or less
similar to a real child. Ah Mui is a tourist guide for Chinese tourists so she
has a well-paid job. She invests a lot into her doll.
Does she have a cot and clothes for her doll?
Of course, she also buys her gold jewellery and generally invests a lot in
her. I met a married couple who are friends with Ah Mui. We had dinner
together. Those two people were very close to each other. This was clearly
visible from the way they behaved, their need to be close to each other.
Yet, they both brought their dolls. The wife bought one first, her husband
bought one later. They referred to each other as “mum” and ”dad”. The
more I learned about them, I discovered they couldn’t have children for
medical reasons and they filled this need by the presence of those dolls.
They truly believed that this was their child, or children, which they could
So these dolls are male or female?
Yes, women usually chose girls, men chose boys, however, this married
couple had two girls. Each parent choses the sex as the doll comes in
pieces which you assemble and eventually the priest-medium inserts inside
a special vial and performs the required ritual of inviting the soul of this
child. So in the end you chose the sex, hair and eye colour. You assemble
the doll and usually the doll resembles the owner, that is the parent or
parents. It becomes absolutely clear that what people have is a mini me.
You reminded me of Victor Hugo’s ”Les Misrebles”, the book in which
an orphaned, hungry and beaten Cosette was dreaming about a doll.
And when the mysterious man came to her rescue, he had a gorgeous,
beautifully dressed doll – a symbol of a new, better life.
From anthropological point of view, the doll plays an important role, after
all it is an imitation of a human being. Different dolls have different
patterns and meaning, different myths concerning womanhood,
characteristic of a given culture.
People buy little girls dolls resembling babies in order to teach them
parenting skills, to play the part of a future mum.
Barbie dolls follow a completely different cultural pattern and dreams of
femininity, thus shaping the general image of what the woman’s role in
modern society should be.
In a number of ancient cultures we can find figurines made of various
materials, representing humans and treated as sacred objects, meant for
performing religious rituals. Even today in different world cultures we
have two types of sacral dolls: the ones which - according to popular
beliefs - are inhabited by human souls and which are itself goodly objects;
and the ones, which help us to liaise with deity - various sacred figures or
idols, to which people are praying and asking for help.
Dolls are also used worldwide in psychotherapy for women, who lost their
children or those unable to have children.
Thus dolls are a product ancient cultures, yet they are invariably made and
used today. They are a very important part of human culture representing
both the human body and human soul.