Polska Britannica: An unseen document of a Polish community in the East Midlands

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Czesław Siegieda’s documentation of a generation of Poles who arrived in the UK as refugees has remained largely unseen since the 1970s. Now, 40 years later, his unique record is published in a photobook

Following the Second World War, a quarter of a million Polish refugees settled in the UK. Many, including photographer Czesław Siegieda’s parents, had been deported to Soviet labour camps in Siberia in the early 1940s, and were lucky enough to escape, embarking on extraordinary journeys before eventually finding a home and community in Britain. But, as Siegieda came to realise through his own photography, the trauma from the journeys they made and the experience of settling in a foreign land had marked them for life.

Siegieda was born in a resettlement camp at Burton on the Wolds, Leicestershire, in 1954. He was raised within a close-knit Polish community that clung to Catholic customs and rituals — an echoing of post-war Poland.  Siegieda began photographing at a young age; he was gifted a Kodak Instamatic, and by the time he was 13 he had built a dark room in his home. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs, “but I was fixed on photography”.

Tadeusz, Józef and Helena, Loughborough, England, 1976 © Czesław Siegieda RRB Photobooks.
Józef waiting to go to church for his First Holy Communion, Loughborough, England, 1976 © Czesław Siegieda RRB Photobooks.

Siegieda began to document the people around him, gaining easy access into the community’s Polish school, as well as private events like church services and funerals. Lasting throughout his teen years and into his time studying photography at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham, the project became a unique record of a community who lived purposefully private lives.

In 1978, Siegieda had the opportunity to exhibit his images with the Half Moon Gallery, who were organising a touring show of laminated prints across the UK. One of the locations was the public library in Loughborough, but the reception from Siegieda’s community was not as he expected. Having faced a slew of prejudice as immigrants, many of his parent’s generation felt uncomfortable seeing themselves in the images. “With hindsight and history I can see the issues and the concerns of the time,” Siegieda reflects, “but the bulk of my parent’s generation could not see all that. They felt like they were foreigners in a land where they weren’t welcome”.

Laxton Hall, Northamptonshire, 1978 © Czesław Siegieda RRB Photobooks.
Fawley Court, Oxfordshire, England, 1981 © Czesław Siegieda RRB Photobooks.

Describing this feedback as a “wake-up call”, Siegieda decided to sit on the photographs for over 40 years, and now, they are finally seen, in a new photobook titled Polska Britannica. “I was waiting for my parent’s generation to pass away,” explains Siegieda, “that’s not me being mercenary or anything, but the sensitivity for them was just too much. I could see that they felt really vulnerable about being placed in a position of publicity”.

But now, Siegieda’s present-day Polish audience are thankful for these images; without the trauma, they are able to see the sensitivity, humour, and love with which the photographer captured their parents and community.

“My parents didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, they were just there, doing their own thing,” continues Siegeida, who, looking back after 40 years, recognises that what he has made is a record of a generation that existed privately, and which was in danger of being forgotten.

Polska Britannica by Czesław Siegieda is available for pre-order through RRB Photobooks.

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.