“I have a typical story to tell,” says Karolina Gembara of her journey into photography. “As for many Polish kids who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, I got my first simple snapshot camera as a first-communion gift. Back then, it was a standard present along with a watch or a bike.” Although feeling pressures to become either a political scientist or a translator due to the hopes of a future EU accession, she took “bad” pictures until her older sister borrowed it for her 18th birthday and it was sadly stolen – later leading her to purchase a Canon AE1 Program during her time at university, where she met various creative people outside of academia. “I think it was only a matter of time for my nonconformist personality to surface,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Just before graduation, I attended this hippie, very liberal school for creative kids. I felt as if I was completely redirecting my career.”
In 2005, Karolina moved to Delhi. Having written her master thesis about Tibetan refugees in India, the Polish Embassy offered her an internship. “I saw the city from a pretty privileged perspective – a diplomat white person who can attend fancy parties,” she says. “But I quickly escaped that bubble.” She met a motorcycle gang, expats, travelled alone and even survived an earthquake. The 25 year-old was undergoing a transformative life experience, travelling in a new country and altering her perspective of the world. So much so that she never again wanted to be a diplomat, instead “dreaming of a job as a photographer”. This dream was fulfilled after a job opportunity arose in Delhi, whereby seven years went past as she moved around frequently in temporary housing.
Although at first feeling excited about her new-found life in Delhi, this soon turned into a sense of “hardship and loneliness of a nomad life, to a breakdown and the realisation that [she] can’t stand Delhi.” The city’s pollution, rush, “the injustice and callousness” that the photographer experienced in this part of the world mounted to great levels of sadness, due to the lack of prospect and freedom to the city’s people who cannot escape it. “I always had the option to pack my bags and leave, but I didn’t do it,” she says. “For a long time, I tried changing things around me, helping at animal shelters, crying and feeling completely lost.” Yet these feelings of angst formed the basis of a seven-year long photography project and new publication, titled When we lie down, grasses grow from us, published by Gost Books.
The series is juxtaposing in its serene, sad and sorrowful take on Delhi – a contrast to the usual depictions of business, chaos and colour. Captured either in her home or her friends’ apartments, the scenes feature elements of “loneliness, despair and something [her] friend Sayam calls timepass.” Karolina adds: “I often experienced being stuck – between worlds and cultures, between who I was at home and who I am trying to be in India.” By placing her subjects in positions that appear to be distressing, Karolina references these feelings of homesickness.
Frequently, her subjects’ faces are hidden or shielded by a prop, as they pose in the bedroom filled with pillows, sheets and idleness; When we lie down, grasses grow from us is a solemn yet beautiful representation of a travelling nomad on an impactful quest to learn more about herself and her stance as a photographer. “It’s been many years since I started working on this series, and now my way of seeing and framing things has changed,” she says. “I don’t photograph like this at the moment, I’ve always been interested in the notion of home, changing places and identities, but recently I’m more into a universal idea of migration.” The seven years spent in India affected her practice to great lengths – she now spends her time teaching photography to migrants and refugees in Warsaw, while running a course at the university about the “anthropological biases”.
“I feel like I was pregnant for seven to 10 years and recently got free from some kind of psychological burden,” says Karolina. “This book is so intertwined with my life in Delhi – I cannot separate them.”
When we lie down, grasses grow from us is available to pre-order at Gost Books.