that time we got lost in a hospital

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Late January, 2012.

In the waning Saturday afternoon, Tony asked me if I wanted to go for a walk with him towards the river and back.  Along the way, we’d stop by his new office, where he’d be starting work next week, and take some pictures of this old city new to us. We ended up in St. Thomas’ Hospital on the opposite side of the Thames, lost and laughing.

Standing in front of the double glass doors, looking up a flight of steps at the building that stood between us and the Thames, illusions of general sensibility came tumbling down. Who tries to navigate a city they don’t know without a map or even phones that work? Us, that’s who. To our right was a truck loading dock and to our left, the street we’d wandered down in a neighborhood we weren’t dying to delve back into. Not sure how we’d gotten where we were, we weren’t really sure how to get out.

By the time we’d gotten near enough to see the water, thirty minutes earlier, my sense of direction had evaporated completely. In search of the elusive office, we walked over a bridge I never found again, past a cafe I did try to find again and couldn’t, and backtracked to find it down I street I hadn’t initially seen. Not that either of us really cared. Turns out we’re great at getting turned around and keeping humors up.

We watched people come in and out of what seemed to be the back doors of  St. Thomas’. We watched no one walk up or down the street we’d just come from. The decision was made for us.

“We can’t go over it, and we can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it,” I said.

“Act cool,” he said.

We started up the steps like we knew just what we were doing, which was just exactly nothing. When we got to the top of the stairs, we came into the central hallway, smelling faintly sterile and humming. I’d never been in a hospital quite so casually, and I know both of our skins were crawling with awkward anxiety.

I felt like I’d forgotten how to walk, not sure if our footsteps were too light or too quick or obviously nervous. When you don’t belong somewhere, it feels like everyone around you is waiting for your tell. My knees started doing that weird thing where they kind of pop too much, like Shaggy Doo or something.

We walked through a stairwell, through a cafeteria, past a fantastically huge and deteriorated statue of Queen Victoria the first, through a weird holding room, all the while looking out the windows on our left at the river and city across it. When we finally did reach a set of doors, practically running through them, into a garden. Sweet relief.

“Found you a chair, Tony.”

We found ruins in the garden too, and almost cried from laughter.

I still have no idea who that man in the statue is or why he’s there, or why there’s an abandoned apartment overhead, or why there’s no way out of that wing of the hospital, but I do know that it’s pretty there and that the vibes are spooky and that I’m glad we found it and even gladder that I never had to go back.

I think we ended up hopping three sets of fences, wandering along grassy knolls not intended for visitors towards the only pathway out we could see: a walkway that we weren’t sure was even part of the hospital running parallel to the river and crowded with businesspeople. By the time we got out, we were grinning like the escapees we were.


In the coming storm and falling sun, Tony and I did end up with a few good pictures, some which turned out almost luminescent:


and this sky:

and similarly, this, where the gold crown is sliding right off the top of that lightpost:

I don’t have a moral, except that London is full of the strangest things.


as always, laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl


american girls by ilona szwarc

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Originally published over at Don’t Panic Online.

Focusing her lens on Americanness, Ilona Szwarc isolates and examines peculiar, innocuous aspects of American pop culture. I talked with Szwarc, a Polish photographer working in the States, about identity and connectivity.

Gillian, NY.

Let’s talk a bit about the American Girls series. Those images are haunting, intimate. Could you speak about your inspiration? 

When I first came to New York City, photographing, I started noticing girls carrying their dolls that look like them and wearing matching outfits. At first, the girls just began appearing in the corners of my frames, then eventually I sought for them and I would stop them on the street and take their portraits. For the next two years, I was developing and researching the idea for the “American Girls” project.

My initial attraction was towards the visual image of girls walking around with their mini versions of themselves. I was struck by the fact that the product was actually called “American Girl”. I thought that it clearly meant that the company imposes stereotypes about who a contemporary American girl is. I have discovered that there are almost no girls born and raised in America who did not have those dolls. As an artist I was interested in this area where the product creates the culture and defines the people.

Lexi, NY

In American Girls, as with your other work, your approach to photography seems to have a fine art as opposed to documentary aesthetic. 

I think it is very difficult to say whether my project is documentary or fine art, I actually think it is both. I do think about it as being both documentary and conceptual. I find girls who are passionate about their dolls, I photograph them with their own dolls, in their own houses, as they are. This set of rules, although conceptual, brings me closer to being true in depicting their reality in a documentary manner. In that sense, I am not constructing a reality that is not there.

Could you talk a bit about how you craft your photos, and what elements you consider?

I decided to work with a 4×5 camera which changed the look of the photographs and meant I had to slow down my process. The photographs became a collaboration in a sense that girls would react to me and my personality, and being involved in a slower process of taking pictures they would open up to me. I would always have an idea what kinds of photographs I would want to take, but I would always try to stay open to what may come up. Now looking back at how I was working it seems to me that by just placing the camera in a certain spot creates a situation in which my subjects would react to it. By asking my subjects to  stay in one spot for some time I would observe how they would react and what would they do and then try to notice and capture something interesting, peculiar and personal from their behavior.

Kayla, MA.

What do you mean about the placement of the camera and its effect on the photograph?

Working with the large format camera on a tripod is something unusual. Especially when working with kids, who often have not been photographed before, except for posing for family snapshots, it creates an unique situation in which my models react to the camera as well as they react to me. I found that often with kids, who are very intuitive and free, we communicate without words – we connect on different levels and they often open up their imagination and that informs the photographs, too.

Why is it important that these are American Girl dolls, as opposed to other kinds of dolls?

To me it felt really exclusive – only about Americans and for Americans  – and I began to wonder where I fit in this scenario and if I could ever fit in. Through those dolls I wanted to investigate identity and gender, what it means to grow up in the US and what it means to be an American girl, a future American women.

The doll is a way that helps girls carve out their identity. Girls project their identities onto the dolls and then they experiment with them through the mini-me doll play and then when they’re ready they leave the doll behind. The doll comes also with a baggage of culturally and socially conditioned gender performance that is passed onto girl’s behavior – dressing up, grooming hair, tea parties – all very traditional feminine and domestic activities. So in my project I am questioning how much freedom do we have in choosing our identity and gender in contemporary American society.

Jade, NY.

What did you find about that freedom to determine gender and identity through American Girl dolls?

This lack of freedom became visible to me after I met one of my subjects, Jade. She described herself to me as tom-boy over the phone and I thought that was wonderful. She explained that she didn’t really have anything to choose from at the American Girl Place that would reflect her own style and personality. She had a very strong feminine side, but didn’t want to fit in the American Girl scenario, where dressing up, getting the doll’s hair done and attending tea parties with your dolls are the most popular activities. In that sense the definition of gender in consumerist culture is limited- the most popular and the best-selling items influence how broad is the definition of womanhood.

So the American Girl culture is more definitive than reflective?

To me, the most powerful statement lies in the choice of the name of the company – American Girl. Every time I talk about either the dolls or girls in America I use the same defining phrase – ‘American Girls’- and that overlap creates this tension and interest for me. Obviously the company wants to appeal to American girls and it is doing so. There is a culture created around those dolls – going to the store with moms and grandmas, having birthday parties at the American Girl Place. This is not so much reflective. I think it is creating certain consumer behaviors.

I also think that American Girl dolls are based upon Victorian ideas and that those ideas are taught to the girls through the emphasis on the historical girls and the recreation of their domestic spaces from different time periods. So in that sense it is also creating and defining rather than reflective.

Canadian, TX.

Your Canadian, TX series also deals with American-ness. How did this project evolve? 

It’s a further investigation of an aspect of American culture. In Anna – the project I did on my mother-in-law, I was looking at aspects of Polish immigration in the US, in American Girls I was examining American childhood and definition of femininity in contemporary America. In Canadian I am want to open up to what it means to be American. I work in the same way where I photograph people in their environments and I am introducing some landscapes to the series as well.

Canadian, TX is a small town in Texas Panhandle where I used to live. I was a foreign exchange student, lived there with an American family for a year and graduated from High School there. I made a lot of friends and it became a very special place for me. I think it is very unique that I ended up living in Canadian, TX especially coming from Poland – such a small town in the heart of Western culture. It is a very exotic and foreign place to me but at the same time it feels very familiar. I wanted to create work from that place of tension between the familiar and the foreign. It was always intriguing to me that this town is called “Canadian”. It implies the foreign-ness of Canada, therefore I think it functions as a great title for my new series. It implies foreign-ness yet it is familiar.


What was the most interesting or intriguing aspect of working on this series? 

I think I am still in the most interesting and intriguing part of working on this project, as it is just at the very begininning stage. I have made two trips over there to photograph and to find the core of the project. I have produced a lot of work and discovered few different threads that can lead me to few separate projects – so this is a very exciting moment for me. Although, working with people and places where they live always is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore to relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge.

Could you talk about the relationship between photographer and model in your work? 

Working with people and places where they live always is a very special time for me. To get to know them, connect with them, see who they are, where they live, what their dreams are and capture all that in a photograph that will communicate a nature of that exchange and therefore to relate to a universal human experience is always my greatest challenge. It is about spending time together and sharing moments, about connecting. That connection becomes the spine of the portrait.

Tiffani-Amber, Kylie, Sophia, Elizabeth, Angelica.

laissez les bon temps rouler,
the girl

#23 is #1


“Even when I’m old and grey, I won’t be able to play it, but I’ll still love the game.” Michael Jordan.

I grew up sitting at the foot of my parents’ bed, next to my little sister, watching Michael Jordan play with the Chicago Bulls. MJ, great and as graceful as he was on the court, became an icon of sportsmanship and my childhood. For Halloween, all the boys in my elementary school were either Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky. Jordan’s legacy is forever, and for now, it’s being immortalized via the internet as a slew of pictures and rhapsodies. The following are some of the best I’ve seen yet, but if I’ve missed any, holler:

that’s right.

At the sidelines.

“I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat.” Michael Jordan.

Enjoying it.

Reverse Dunk, a showstopper.

Palming it, pushing off.

Showing the love to Dean Smith at Carolina! Hail to the brightest star above, Tar-HEELS!


laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl

remembering london in the afterglow

Picadilly Circus, 1960s
Picadilly Circus, 1960s

For four months, I lived in London. I even had a glass of wine with the queen – or a friend wearing a mask of the HRH. But as time passes ever so fast, I slowly lose the detailed memories of that time; the benefit of hindsight is that those big days and big nights feel even bigger and even brighter. Guided by mental and physical snapshots, I’m feeling my way back, one month later.


I flew across the Atlantic for the first time on Friday, January 13th and I’m superstitious. On my first full day in London, I took a bus tour of the city which was utilitarian, enlightening, and exhausting. Riding over Tower Bridge, I caught this shot with the London Eye, Parliament, and Big Ben.

I’m a wide-eyed kind of traveller; it always feels surreal, like I’m living in a dream-world and that any minute it’s going to fall away. When I took this picture, it was all so invigorating and a little bit nauseating; excitement and adrenaline burnished with fear. Imagine feeling for three days like you’re living at the peak point of a roller coaster.


First walk through Hyde Park, and we come upon this, beautiful and bizarre. Like the usual bird-feeding park-lurker, she had magpie tendencies. Just look at the collection she’s wearing; Chanel bag, red lipstick to match her red coat, costume jewelry earrings and scarf. But her attitude and entourage suggested someone much less lonely, someone much more content. I wasn’t sure what her story was then, but I’d still like to know.


Snow in London, covering Russell Square. The first of this year’s late-winter snows dusted the city in the early morning. A little girl and her grandparents were building a snowman in the wake of this statue. I can’t remember what that morning sounded like, but I do remember that it was exhilarating.

I was out early that morning, although work had been called off, to get pancake batter and hot chocolate with my wonderful roommate N. We’d decided to surprise our other roommates, but when we got to Tesco, quickly realized we weren’t the only ones with plans for a sweet morning. The store was out of everything, but the day still ended up being a hazy monochrome, perfectly lazy.


An afternoon alone ought to be spent in Hampstead Heath. It’s quiet there and easy to imagine yourself as anyone. The town is quaint and comfortable, and it’s still on the Heath. To my right were swans and other waterbirds that make Lake #5 popular, and behind me the knotted hills so typical of England.

Sitting on that hilltop bench, I could hear the birds’ wing feathers rustle as they flew by me, and hear cuts of conversation as people walked the path behind. I felt for a while like Joni Mitchell sounds and it felt alright.


This is the London Eye in March, in the very late afternoon. An hour earlier on the same Saturday, I’d reunited with a dear friend at Holborn Station. Though we went to school together in the States, he’s British and lives in England. We met in middle school as carpool partners, and spent our morning car rides arguing about Al Gore and American Idol. We still talk about essentially the same things- pop culture and politics. A decade-long friendship is something to be proud of, something unbelievable, and something to celebrate.

As that afternoon drifted away, we walked the width of London, across the bridge to Southbank. For a brief time, we wound up under the Eye. The line was almost entirely 16-18 year olds, dressed up and little drunk, riding the Eye as part of their Prom celebrations. G. and I looked at each other, struck that we were in the London, together, and struck by the remarkable convergence of ideas and memories. Here were kids younger than us – though it didn’t and doesn’t seem possible that we’ve gotten quite this old – pregaming their Prom on the London Eye. They were oblivious to us and to the US-style prom that G. and I had experienced together. They were oblivious to the import of the Eye, treating is as casually as only the owner of something valuable can. They were oblivious to how old they made us feel, and how alien they seemed. The process of observing them seemed simultaneously big and small. This moment was strong/fragile and this image embodies some of that duality for me.


It’s true that I’ve forgotten now more than I can ever hope to remember, but the memories that I’ve got are more than enough.


laissez les bon temps rouler,

the girl