Meet Darek Fortas, a Polish photographer who studied at the Royal College of Art and has since exhibited his work internationally. His projects explore social and political themes, with the aim to educate and open up people’s views on photography. I was interested to ask him about his 2011 body of work ‘Coal Story’ which delves into post-communist Poland; hear his views on the everyday photographer armed with a smartphone; and find out what makes him tick in general!
Darek Fortas / ‘Red telephone’ from Coal Story
Let’s kick off our chat with my favourite broad question … who is Darek Fortas?
I would describe myself as a lens-based artist. I think it is a conscious decision that photography and moving image (which I also do sometimes) has an incredible, subversive value and as an artist I am opening this up with my practise. We are bombarded with photography every day, and as human beings and as a society we have an interesting relationship with photography. For me, photography is an incredibly, subversive and abstract medium. In the way that I don’t really think or believe that photography can tell the truth.
I would like to open up and educate people, which you can do by staying present.
I don’t think a lot of people understand photography so as a practitioner, I would like to open up and educate people, which you can do by staying present. The beautiful potential of art is that you bring your own agenda. I have removed descriptions from my website, because I don’t want people to think in a narrowed down way.
How would you describe your work to others?
When I was thinking about what I do a few months ago, I realised that I would like my pictures to appear really sharp, colourful and big in scale so that people can develop an interesting relationship. I believe art is sometimes about surprise recognition. Say you’re looking at a picture, for example the one I took of the red telephone (featured above); I made it specifically for people to relate to. When you see sharp pictures that are big in scale you start to wonder whether the things that surround you really exist or not.
Darek Fortas / ‘Canteen’ from Coal Story
You mentioned before about staying present; do you also want to transport people to a different time and connect them to a piece of culture or history?
I think my work is changing. I have just come back from Poland (my home country) where I was making a brand-new body of work. I had a moment in my career where I realised that I needed a clear social and political gravity to my work. So, before I start, I need a lot of research to know exactly why I need to go to certain places.
In Poland I had this vision of two trees coming together into one. I am trying to address the more conceptual element of photography. Sharpness, colour, and the fact that people can ask: why is he taking photos of trees?!
Do the two trees hold a political message?
I think people bring their own message. Sooner or later, because of the times and context that Poland is experiencing, people will assign a political agenda to it. But that’s ok. If somebody were to associate the trees with biology, that’s fine – I don’t mind. In my mind, when I print them (hopefully for my next show!) they are not mine anymore, I have no control. As an artist you need to release your work and be cool with that otherwise you will suffer.
Your 2011 body of work ‘Coal Story’ looks at post-communist Poland. What drew you to explore this?
I started Coal Story when I was finishing my BA program in Dublin. I wanted to understand more about where I was born. When you’re a teenager you don’t necessarily have an engagement with political affairs.
Photography functions as a medium that allowed me to discover my own identity and move on as an artist.
By making Coal Story I got to learn a lot about transitioning and transformation from a communist regime to democracy. I explored a lot of coal mines, which were major symbols of communist resistance. As a human being, I am interested in the concept of mass, massification, politics and aesthetics.
Darek Fortas / ‘Miner’ from Coal Story
Did Coal Story change your outlook on everyday life?
Looking at the concept of mass and massification – I have quite an abstract mind and for me, we’re living in a world of politics and aesthetics. Politics is a world of actions and aesthetics is a world of forms. These worlds are meeting together.
Every single gesture that we make is political.
Photography and art opens up an entirely different dimension of being political. I believe what is imbedded in individuals is much more powerful. When I was younger, around twelve years old, I used to make sculptures out of coke cans. I used to say to people I’m going to sell these for millions one day! Which is a crazy thing for a kid to say. But I would look at how much abstract artists were selling their paintings for and think I can do that too!
How have you found photography as a means of exposing the social barriers in society that still exist today?
It’s cool to work with a medium which some would say is democratic and accessible. When I was in Dublin I made a series called the ‘Golden Cobra‘ in a boxing club. The boxing club was trying to get kids away from drugs etc. I made massive prints and put them up around Dublin – people thought it was a Nike ad! They didn’t realise it was artwork in a social context. Seeing someone puzzled is so interesting to see. This is the main purpose I believe art serves – it gets people to think, feel confused and ask questions.
Darek Fortas / ‘untitled’ from Golden Cobra
Photography is now widely accessible for anyone with a smart phone! How does that impact you as a professional photographer?
I know an artist who got offered an exhibition in Paris to show his Instagram account! They wanted to print his photos – the ones he takes on a daily basis. He can just capture interesting stuff, which is certainly a skill! When I feel like something is worth capturing, I call it having a heightened sense of awareness. My view as a practitioner: what sets apart the pictures we take on a daily basis and art projects is; intentionality, preparation and research.
For anyone venturing into the world of photography, what equipment should they start off with?
I’m at the point where I don’t really think about what I am shooting with. I need a camera, a tripod and a colour film – that’s all. I know that I will be working with a full colour spectrum before I start the project because black and white doesn’t have subversive power for me. With colour, you can have different variations of the same photograph, with different colour arrangements.
Darek Fortas / ‘Changing rooms’
What about the printing process?
I print my work in a colour dark room, which is another stage that is very slow. You learn a lot from the mistakes you make in a colour dark room, and sometimes you discover things that you did not see but the lens captured it.
There is nothing better than going to collect some negatives, and not knowing how they have come out. This adds an interesting element. When you work with a digital camera, you have instant access and gratification – you shoot more. But when it comes to negatives, you relate to the outcome in a different way.
Instagram / Darek Fortas @dfortas
You must look forward to collecting your negatives because they are a physical product of your photography. Does this evoke a feeling of completion for a project?
A project is finished when I feel satisfied about it internally. When I make edits and I can play with it – I just have a feeling. But sometimes a photographer’s project is complete when you run out of money! You can’t buy film anymore. Sometimes you make it work, sometimes you don’t.
I think it’s also important to add that when you create pictures and release them to the world, they are not yours anymore. It’s like having a song; they have their own life. We repeat lyrics and change them sometimes. It’s art.
What projects do you have coming up that we can keep an eye out for?
I intend to go and see the negatives today, for the project on the trees. I met a cheerleader recently who I’m thinking of making a project around. Being a cheerleader is about perfection; it’s about the hours of training they put in and the pressures they have when they perform. I can see this as a very typological body of work that evolves around portraiture. We’ll see what happens! I’m excited.
Darek Fortas / Interview by LE BAL director Diane Dufour
Fun and random bits & bobs …
Your favourite place to relax in London?
I like going to the Barbican Centre – it’s quiet and you can talk. Especially, in the café.
If you were to go back in time to any era for a day what would that be?
I think I could function well in the Burlesque times between the first and second world war. I could easily blend in with the Bohemian lifestyle.
Any favourite inspirational quotes?
I find myself talking to my friends and telling them, ‘the future is now, and life is short’. It’s an incredible symbol: living now.
I used to be that guy with a piece of paper that said what I wanted to do in five years’ time. I’m not like that anymore. Instead, I let life roll and don’t plan as much.
Where to find Darek ….