Tomasz Laczny’s work is rough and striking – striking enough to have caught the tutors’ eyes at the BJP x Magnum Photos workshop on Storytelling, Collaboration and Advocacy earlier this year. The workshop was a theme close to Laczny’s heart because he’s both shot refugees and helped them depict their own lives, and because his preferred medium is the photobook.
His project 40/place which does not exist was shot in a refugee camp in Dakhla, Algeria, and looks at the Saharawi, “exiled people living in the Sahara desert and waiting 40 years to go back home”. The resulting book, which he brought to the workshop, juxtaposes shots showing the harsh reality of daily life in the camps with satellite photos showing their isolated position in the desert, “to highlight the fragile existence of the people suspended in this non-place”. It received an honourable mention at the Dummy Award Kassel 2016.
While working on 40/place which does not exist Laczny decided to run a photographic workshop for young people living in the camps, “to help them to spread to the world their forgotten story”. After taking part in the BJP/Magnum workshop he made it happen in a refugee camp in Smara, Algeria. “My plan is to continue working with them in the future, and possibly organise further workshops on photography and social media,” he says.
This trip also inspired his next project – a series mixing documentary and fictional elements by depicting an American family living permanently with their kids in a refugee camp. “I am currently looking for funds to be able to shoot this possibly long-term project.”
It sounds like a radical change in direction, but Laczny has worked this way before – his book Disappearance, which he also showed at the workshop, is “based on my own experiences while gradually losing the contact with my children after divorce” and depicts a dream world built with autobiographical and fictional elements. “This is the world where issues of identity, belonging and connection are questioned,” he says.
Laczny’s images are inspired by paintings and music rather than by other photographers – he’s particularly influenced by German expressionists and works by Emil Nolde, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, he says, as well as the Norwegian painter and printmaker Edvard Munch and the contemporary South African artist Marlene Dumas.
Musically he rates Steve Reich, but he’s also a big fan of traditional Arabic music – in fact the latter was what inspired him to go to North Africa in the first place. “My first trip to refugee camps in Algeria was born because I wanted to experience Arabic music first-hand,” he says.