Art & Photography

Stable Vices

In a new book published by Mack, Joanna Piotrowska remedially examines themes of protection, freedom and oppression

The opening pages of Joanna Piotrowska’s Stable Vices begins with a chorus of hand gestures: fingers placed to the eye, and then to the pulse points; the heart and the wrist. The images, in some ways, signal the beginning of a story, or an event about to unfold. But do we brace ourselves in anticipation, or sit back steadily, and let the heart rate drop for a moment?

Similar to a musical introduction, the opening sequence seems to precede the themes (or lyrics) found in the rest of the publication. It’s establishing the tone and structure, not least the rhythm and pace of the main body of work. And in the case of the Polish and London-based photographer’s Stable Vices, published by Mack, we’re seeing a collection of three series combine – all of which are centred around the notion of protection, freedom and oppression. And in that order too.

Following the overture, we’re taken to the first series. A similar fashion to that which came before, the images are inspired by illustrated self-defence manuals – where postures and arm placements are used to signify a protective force of action. It also touches on the work of American feminist, ethicist and psychologist Carol Gilligan, notably with her work Psychology and Resistance. Carol is an acclaimed scholar and author who argued that girls exhibited distinct patterns based on relationships, care and responsibility for others; that they’re at risk of losing their voice from patriarchy. So when placed in the context of Joanna’s imagery, it raises many questions as to how and why women have to defend themselves. You’re not sure who the subject is confronting, but the awkward poses, cropped frames and intentionally disfigured forms are used to challenge the pressures that women have to face in society.

The next series displays a sequence of domestic sculptures, replicating the DIY dens of our childhood and makeshift abodes of those who may be without a home. Blankets, chairs and clothing amass to build these formations, during which Joanna’s subjects take refuge, hide or nosey inside. And lastly, the third series looks at the idea of entrapment, denoting the cage in all its myriad forms – be it a bird house, zoo enclosure or a line of thick rope. These themes are incredibly poignant and reveal themselves in a formulaic and repetitive manner. Almost like a novel or strategic balled, organised with an intro, climax and resolution. Except in this case, we’re not quite sure whether it’s a happy ending. 

Joanna has predominantly shot in black and white throughout the entirety of her career, and often she’ll be lensing themes of memory and society – combing her signature use of repetition and clusters of threes. Around seven years ago, she published her prolific series Frowst, which was also published in book-form by Mack and was the winner of the 2014 Mack First Book Award. The pictures are of a similar ilk to her newest ensemble, which Mack had described as an “uncomfortable album” of staged family shots, questioning the notion of the family in a modern context.

Stable Vices, in this sense, is Jonna’s latest inquest into societal expectations, only this time her pictures are themed solely on the role of the woman. The arrival of this book comes at a pivotal moment, what with increasing awareness surrounding sexual harassment and safety of women on the streets. There’s so much to be done to ease the fear and pain that women face every day, and Stable Vices almost replicates the types of daily traumas that many may go through: the preparation of defence, the need for a safe space and oppression. At once concerning and here to evoke change, we must also think of her photography as a form of remedy; both for Joanna and for all that end up viewing her work.

Stable Vices is published by Mack and includes essays from Sara De Chiara, Joanna Bednarek and Dorota Masłowska.