“Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“. The incipit of Leo Tolstoy’s 1877 seminal novel Anna Karenina keeps coming into mind while looking at Joanna Piotrowska‘s Frowst photographs. Yet the family depicted in the Polish photographer’s images doesn’t look unhappy, but simply a bit dysfunctional.
An adult man gazes intensely at the (younger?) woman sitting on his lap—it could be his wife, or it could be his daughter. Either way, there’s a sexual vibe there. Two men, probably two brothers, lie side by side on a carpet with nothing on but white briefs that would better suit an 8 year old child. A boy sits on a chair with what one would guess is his sister, wearing a dress similar to the girl’s.
All the images in Joanna Piotrowska’s photobook Frowst are staged. The actors are friends or family members of the photographer’s. The book is a collection of somewhat disturbing photographs that invite us to reflect on the quality of our family relationships, and how they affect the formation of our identity. The most problematic aspect of these images is the physicality of the subjects: the touching, the poses, the (partial) nudity. There’s something strange with how these people come close to each other, with what they are wearing or not wearing, especially in relation to their age and gender. Each photograph seems to suggest a backstory that challenges our notion of family, making us wonder what is going on there, and what the hell is wrong with those people.
There is in fact some explanation. Joanna Piotrowska’s Frowst project was inspired by a therapeutic method which goes by the name of Family Constellations. In brief, the method assumes that negative behavior patterns can be assimilated throughout generations by members of the same family, possibly without the last of them being even aware of what events originated those patterns in the first place; and that this can be healed by putting oneself in the shoes of their relatives during therapy sessions. Of course, none of this can be guessed from the pictures, which leave the viewer baffled by the unfamiliar family scenes in the book.
Joanna Piotrowska’s photobook Frowst was published last year by Mack – buy it here.