life is hard and you have to be tough: inside a countryside reformatory for polish young offenders

Polish photographer Zuza Krajewska spent four months visiting and documenting the boys of Studzieniec, a remote detention center for young offenders in Poland's countryside.

by Basia Czyżewska
11 April 2016, 3:55pm

"My boyfriend showed me this place. I remember that I was heavily pregnant at the time," Zuza Krajewska explains. "We were driving through the woods. There is a big sign that says Ministry of Justice Reformatory. It's gives the impression of some kind of lurking evil." 

Since January, and after giving birth, she and her assistant Borys have been visiting the reformatory and the 42 boys who live there. Most of the occupants are in the institution for robberies and muggings. She spends her time with them, talking and taking photographs. "At the beginning I thought it would be a one-week project, but after I started taking photos I realized it's not that kind of story, I can't just go away like that. I was enthralled by them, so I gave myself a year," Zuza says. Now four months into the project, she feels enthused with a sense of purpose; she's determined to tell the stories of the boys and the lives they live.

Do you remember the first time you met the boys? How did they respond to you?
At the beginning they used to say things like, 'Look, you've got a camera—I stole one. Lady, you better be careful.' They were feeling me out. But I looked at them and immediately saw children. Their spontaneity was childish, their wrong-doing was childish, their thinking that if you go and steal 2,000 PLN ($540 USD) for your mom, you're resourceful, that this makes you a man. I think that only one of them had a stable family background. The rest of them were brought up by alcoholics, or they have fathers in jail, they've grown up in orphanages… for them, growing up is fighting for survival. I started this project because it touches on many topics: ruthlessness, punishment, boundary-crossing, but also childlike sensitivity and the need for love.

Do you think that taking part in your project is important for these boys?
I think they value it very much. Finally they feel important, that somebody is interested in them. It's part of the process of rehabilitation and it works. To take pictures of them I had to have their parents' permission. I was telling them about the idea, talking them into it. When I heard that one of the boy's fathers had been incarcerated for murder, I thought that it was beyond me. I ruled that boy out, gave up. But he wanted to take part. And he wanted it so much that he called his father who eventually gave him permission. He cared about it. There aren't many things like this for these boys.

Do you feel that they're honest with you? Do they open up?
Each of them is different. Some are extroverts and leaders, others stay in the background. But there's one rule with all of them: if I spend time alone with each boy, he opens up. We have a real conversation. Sometimes later they're ashamed of it, but in reality they all need an honest conversation.

They quickly started talking about very private and painful experiences They talk about that stuff as lightly as we talk about having a cup of coffee. I was shocked by the fact that they talk so easily about such extreme things, they somehow accept them. Maybe that's why they do bad things so easily themselves. 

Maybe they were testing how much you can stand?
Maybe, but I don't judge them. I'm just trying to make friends with them. I'm curious and they talk. I ask about everything, including whether what they did paid off. These boys are frequently used by gangs. Two of them broke into 30 flats when they were 13. And all of that for remote-controlled toy cars and some pennies for their moms. I listen to those stories and see in them children that have been manipulated. I really like them despite all the bad things they've done. I miss them when I'm not there.

You take your photos on film, so you don't have a preview. Do you show them the images later?

How do they react?
They laugh. They trust me very much. I don't want to lose that—that's why I withdraw from some things, like scenes of nudity in the shower room. But they are happy about it generally. I brought them a few big printed portraits. They put them on the walls. For example a picture of Patryk picking up broken glass in the lunchroom, they put it in the very same spot that it happened. They look at it every day.

What do you think would change if you photographed girls in a reformatory?
Maybe when I finish this project I'll take on girls. Girls are apparently more hardcore, tougher. There is more cynicism in them and that's why it's more difficult to get to them. But that's just what I've heard, I need to see it for myself.

Studzieniec is a pretty extraordinary place, it's one of four institutions in Europe that educate children by, for example, contact with horses. It turns out that these kids are really good at taking care of animals. Many of the boys earn some money by creating furniture and growing plants. It's amazing that the place is giving them a real opportunity to turn back from that path of darkness.

The principal showed me some pictures of wards from the very beginning, the early 20th century. It was amazing because they looked exactly the same as those boys today. I'd really love to show those pictures during Cracow's month of photography.

Is there a specific endpoint that you're heading for?
I started it because I was curious. Now, I'm doing it with a sense of purpose. What interests me most is working with these boys. I realised that they don't have any self-esteem, and now I'm visiting them, and taking pictures of them, I'm working with them on equal footing. So when I see something I don't censor myself, I just say 'stop, it's beautiful', or 'you're awesome' and take those pictures. It's really encouraging for them. That's what I can give them.


Text Basia Czyżewska
Photography Zuza Krajewska

zuza krajewska