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Book of the Week: Cry of an Echo by Malgorzata Stankiewicz

Book Of The Week Cry of an Echo Photographs by Malgorzata Stankiewicz Reviewed by Collier Brown Magorzata Stankiewicz offers a moving glimpse into the depths of this ancient and beautiful place, currently under threat of being completely transformed, or even disappearing forever.
Cry of an Echo. By Malgorzata Stankiewicz.
Lecturis, 2018.
Cry of an Echo
Selected as Book of the Week by Collier Brown.

Cry of an Echo.
Photographs by Malgorzata Stankiewicz.
Lecturis, Eindhoven, Netherlands, 2018. 96 pp., black-and-white illustrations, 9¼x12½x½".

Nowhere Is Near Enough—that was the title of Małgorzata Stankiewicz’s first solo exhibition back in 2014. Stankiewicz’s photographs grapple with the ubiquitous Nowhere that is always a little too close for comfort. You may have photos of your own that tell a similar story: an old Polaroid of your grandmother carrying baskets of okra from a once beautiful garden, now a poorly tarred parking lot; a photo of the neighborhood convenience store, where you bought candy cigarettes as a kid, now an apartment complex with dead philodendrons dangling from the windowsills. Nowhere creeps in during the time between this photograph and the next. Stankiewicz does her best work in this strange, forbidding space.

Cry of an Echo speaks directly to the Nowhere that threatens Poland’s Białowieża Forest—one of Europe’s few remaining primeval treasures. Designated as both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an EU Natura 2000 Special Area of Conservation, the Białowieża Forest is home to a variety of rare birds, European bison, and wild boar. The Guardian reports that at least 60,000 hectares of the forest remain unprotected and subject to extensive logging, which to some means easy money.
Money is likely to have been a factor in 2016 when Jan Szyszko, Poland’s current Environmental Minister, announced his plans to triple logging activities in the forest. In the year that followed close to 180,000 trees were felled. Stankiewicz, who began volunteering at the Białowieża National Park that same year, photographed these endangered woodlands. Cry of an Echo is in some ways a record of that experience, but not a documentary. The photographs are expressive and abstract—likenesses of what the disappearance of something so special, so absolutely unique, feels like.

Stankiewicz distorts the forest. It is as if Nowhere suddenly became visible, rippling, and amoebic—its direction and motives impossible to fully anticipate. Nowhere is the pitch of darkness in a brushstroke of India ink. It is the dimming of light until each tree trunk is pinched out of existence. Nowhere also appears in the daylight: bleaching out the leaves, burning off the branches.

Hope, however, is not entirely lost. The Court of Justice of the European Union recently declared that Szyszko’s initiative has “failed to fulfill its obligations under the Habitats and Birds Directives” and threatens the integrity of the forest as a UNESCO Site and Natura 2000 Special Area. The ruling may not completely stop the loggers, but it’s a start.

Cry of an Echo’s backstory adds darkness to the ink, but is not a prerequisite for admiration. Beautifully designed and deceptively simple in appearance, the online previews do not do the book justice. The pages have a velvety surface that translates the blacks and whites—the abysses and the novae—into a language for the fingers as much as the eyes. Most of the images spread to the papers’ edges and span across facing pages. The effect is all-encompassing. You feel as if you’re in those same woods, standing next to Nowhere with no way to escape. You feel the forest’s anxiety through echoes our own.

Cry of an Echo isn’t what you’d call haunting (a word grossly overused for any photograph whose subject is the forest, dark and deep). Out of context, Stankiewicz’s photographs have an otherworldly quality, inviting fascination and awe. The images speak in fables, and there are beasts to beware of. They are not the bison or bristling pigs grazing unseen in the undergrowth. These beasts walk upright; Nowhere is their envoy.

Collier Brown is a photography critic and poet. Founder and editor of Od Review, Brown also works as an editor for 21st Editions (Massachusetts) and Edition Galerie Vevais (Germany).