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In this conversation, Andrea Capello discuss with Zula Rabikowska about ‘Ba Lan’, a photographic study of the Vietnamese Community living in Warsaw in Poland and how she was able to get this work published by the BBC.

AC       “As an emerging photographer myself, what we’re trying to do is share what it's like to shoot our own personal projects. In your photography practice, you talk a lot about immigration, national identity, displacement and belonging. Can you tell me a little more about you and your recent project ‘Ba Lan’?

ZR        Most of my life has been underpinned by-living between two countries, languages and cultures. Apart from my mum and my sister, all of my family are in Poland. My background is important as I think it gave rise to the project. 'Citizens Of Nowhere' is a project I shot about the experience of being an immigrant in the UK post-Brexit, influenced by the increase in xenophobia and racism that followed. I think it was only after that project that I was ready to return to Poland and essentially look at what it meant to be the ‘other’ in a different context. 

The Vietnamese diaspora in Poland started to form in the mid-1950s. When people think about the Vietnamese diaspora they often recall the Vietnam War; one of the most covered conflicts by Documentary Photographers - which is not at all the case with the community living in Poland. The community began to form following student exchanges between Vietnam and Poland. For those who don’t know, Poland was Communist at the time so there is a link between the two countries.

Even though Poland is no longer communist, people continue to migrate. We’re talking about second, third and in some cases fourth generation Vietnamese communities that are forming. They unfortunately are still not recognised as being Polish because of the difference in their ethnicity.

Ba Lan means ‘Poland’ in Vietnamese and this project focuses on the Vietnamese diaspora in Warsaw.ZR

AC        What did you learn while working on the project?

ZR        I started the project feeling like someone who didn’t belong either in Poland or the UK. I always started by making myself vulnerable by sharing my story. I then found that people wanted to open up more than previously to share their experiences. Despite having different stories and upbringings, there were a lot of overlaps and I think this connection helped me make not just a great project, but friends that I’m in contact with to this day.

AC         While you were shooting this project, did you meet any difficulties or moments when you felt afraid?

ZR            Yes it was a massive roller-coaster! Before the project, I didn’t know anyone from the Vietnamese community and my Polish family warned me, repeating those myths published by the media. “It's a Mafia, it's dangerous, something’s going to happen” - this frustrated me even more. My first obstacle was “how on earth am I going to begin approaching this community where I don’t know anyone?” So I started by taking these steps including contacing every Vietnamese translator in Poland. These were quite easy to find as they are all listed online. I contacted loads of people using social media then it was very much down an academic rabbit hole. I spent a lot of time in the British Library in the archive to see what academics had to say, to see newspapers published where sometimes I’d find a name. I did feel like a bit of a stalker at some points; taking someone’s name and putting it into Facebook or Instagram.

I had butterflies when I met with the first participant, I didn’t know what to expect or how they were going to be with me. After the first it got a little bit easier but there were definitely moments where people didn’t reply for days and I was stuck there - nothing was happening.  One person told me it was a silly idea and that I shouldn’t do it.

A big part of approaching diaspora communities is accepting that not everyone is going to believe in your work. But, if you’re confident that the work you want to produce is ethical and you’re prepared to properly engage with the community then it's worth it. There were definitely obstacles in this project: technical, emotional and not to mention the fact that I was shooting this project in August. Like many countries, a lot of things in Poland are closed over summer. I wanted to go to these archives but they’d tell me to come back in September.

“I was conflicted about my position. That’s why I decided to work as collaboratively as possible with captions.” ZR

AC         Nowadays immigration is an important topic, there is a lot of talk in the newspapers so how did you position yourself to create the project differently?

ZR         I think I tried to make it as collaborative as possible, I was very clear with my intentions and driven by the conversations, the participants and their stories. The biggest collaborative element was when it came to creating a dummy of the book, I wrote the captions with the participants. All of the captions featured in the book were written based on the conversations I had. I later shared the texts with each participant so they were able to make adjustments and edits. This process took around five weeks so I could make sure everyone I’d worked with felt happy with how the story was presented.

There were moments where I felt like a total outsider, I questioned “who am I to tell this story?”. While there were also other days when I’d feel amazing, when I’d have so much in common with these participants and it was so positively received.

AC        Did you choose to include analogue or archival images in your photos?

AC        It was really hot in Poland, like 33 degrees meaning it wasn’t always possible to carry film around with me so it was a practical decision to shoot digitally. I also tried to record some of the conversations but around 80% of the time people didn’t feel comfortable. I thought that with the older generations, it echoed the time during Communism where people would grass each-other up.

I often ask myself why I didn’t shoot video, it would have been a wonderful addition to the project but I always knew I wanted to use archival material. I used ID cards, graduation certificates, maps; all of those combined were to give testament to the element of communism that I really wanted to highlight. I didn’t think this was possible with the photos I’d taken myself so it was to give another dimension to the work. I wanted to introduce an initial sense of confusion and raise more questions than answers.

The Vietnamese community in Poland is still not recognised as being Polish because of the difference in ethnicity.ZR

AC        My next project will be about a diaspora community so what would you suggest to other photographers who want to focus on the topic of immigration? How would you start this?

ZR        I don’t think you can start preparing too early, many of these projects start years in advance so now is a good opportunity to prepare as we’re confined but still have access to the internet.

I wanted to share this project with people in Poland but I also had the intention to share it with an audience in Vietnam. Once you decide, it could be 2 or 3 messages you want to get across, but once you make this decision it’ll become much easier. I think when you get deeper into your research and further towards the practical side of the project, you can prepare a shooting script for when you’re on location; perhaps a set of images you’ll need to get the message across.

AC        So how did you end up getting ‘Ba Lan’ published with the BBC?

AC        When researching I contacted Vietnamese appreciation societies at universities in the UK, someone told me that there was a Vietnamese editor at the BBC who had studied in Warsaw! “What are the chances?” I asked myself and shot him an email but didn't receive any response, I was used to this. When I’d finished the project I got a Facebook message from this editor.

Initially, it sounded as if they were stealing my story, they were asking for a list of my contacts and project participants - they were carrying out the same story in Warsaw so I was angry. I’m not sure whether it was coincidence or whether that email had prompted them to cover. There hadn’t been anything on the subject then soon after contacting them they just happened to run one. In the end I developed a really good rapport with the editor who also ended up publishing my photos in their project. I was interviewed at the BBC Vietnam studios meaning my work was broadcast in Vietnam so I'd reached one of my aims.

I think there was a moment when it came out where it received a lot of attention, for instance, smaller newspapers in Poland picked up on the story and shared it. I was asked to do interviews and felt like a star - this soon plateaued but I was successful in winning a Bartur Photo student Award which really helped with further publicity and engagement. I use Instagram to find a lot of mentorships and grants, and often look for specific awards that correspond to what my work is about.

AC        How important would you say social media is for an emerging photographer?

ZR        I never really thought about it as a professional tool until recently. Right now about 70% of opportunities I find out about come through Instagram. It's important to engage with different sized platforms,  you don’t necessarily need to have your work seen by thirty-thousand people, it's actually sometimes better for it to be seen by three people who might make it interesting.

I think it's taken me a while to accept that not everyone is going to like my work, some people really dislike it and that ’s OK, but some people really, really love it. As cheesy as it sounds it's important that as long as you want to see the images you’re producing then that’s a first key measure.

AC        You mentioned mentorships, would you say having a mentor is useful to you as an emerging photographer?

ZR        I’d say that whilst I was doing the MA that tutors were our mentors, the course was a nice mix of people from different backgrounds, ages, and different stages of their careers. We had people who had just finished BAs who were quite young, then people who’d been working in photography for years and were on the MA for the theoretical side of the course. We also had much older students, those who were retired who were there for more of a hobby. Sometimes these people with differing levels of experience acted as a mentor. It was really helpful and being in that safe space is something I miss, when you’re out there as a professional it's different”.

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Andrea Capello (Italy, 1980) is a photojournalist  who explores stories that represent diversity, tradition and the unique aspect of people’s lives. Andrea has been published on the BBC and his work can be seen at (www.andreacapello.me)
Zula Rabikowska is a Polish MA Documentary Photography graduate from the London College of Communication.  Here practice is influenced by her experience of immigration. In her work she explores the themes of national identity, displacement and belonging. (www.zulara.com)