Pioneering Polish documentary photographer and videographer Piotr Małecki produces stunning, naturalistic images and films. His shots are published in leading newspapers across the world, and his films shown at prestigious festivals.
Piotr began his career as a videographer, studying filmmaking at the University of Silesia in Katowice. He then went to Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design in the UK to study photography, before returning to Poland to work as a staff photographer for the weekly news magazine Wprost. He complemented his education with a documentary filmmaking course at the Wajda School in Warsaw and was the co-founder of photo agency Napo Images.
Since then Piotr has followed both pursuits, and though each medium has its nuances, his ability to dig beneath the surface of a story and find deeper meaning is one of his hallmarks as a visual storyteller. In particular, Piotr's rapport with his subjects, and the trust he earns from them, encourages people to open up in front of his camera.
Piotr's ethos is not to push, not to rush, never to make a subject feel pressured. He takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to shooting his stories, whether they are made up of still images or video. Where he can, he invests time in his subjects, slowly gaining their trust. And when one subject invites him into their world, others soon follow.
Often, for more intimate topics, he will rely on introductions from other subjects. In particular, he recalls a documentary film he made in a children's hospital, examining the lives and experiences of parents who were living full-time in the facility. At the beginning of his project, the director of the hospital gathered the parents together, introduced Piotr and explained what he wanted to do. The director stated that it was entirely up to the parents if they wanted to be involved. Many of them were used to the frequent TV crews that came to the hospital and had a vision of the media where journalists worked quickly and sometimes pushed very hard for a story. Piotr's challenge here – and in many of his stories – was to dispel this notion and convince people that he wasn't going to ask anyone to do something they didn't want to do.
An avid consumer of media himself, most of Piotr's projects stem from stories he has read about or listened to in the news. As with his hospital documentary, Piotr finds a lot of the ideas for his films from news items that offer the potential to dig deeper and examine the human element of the story. His work on the collaborative documentary video, A Thousand More, which was shot in New York in a week, won him a share of the first prize in FotoWeek DC's 2011 Documentary and Experimental category. His documentary debut, Out of the Blue, which he shot and directed, premiered at DOK Leipzig film festival in 2015 and was later screened at film festivals worldwide, receiving two awards and two nominations. His most recent documentary, George and George on the Lake, was selected to become a part of the IF/Then Short Documentary Programme at the Tribeca Film Institute and premiered at Kraków Film Festival. Piotr runs his own short documentary production studio in Warsaw, Short Docs Media.
Piotr's award-winning still images have been published by respected publications such as The New York Times, the Guardian, Financial Times, Der Spiegel, Time, Stern, Newsweek, Polityka and National Geographic Poland. Piotr has presented his photographs at exhibitions in Warsaw, New York and Beijing. Currently, he works as a freelance photographer and creator of film documentaries across a range of subjects. He is also a member of photo agency Panos Pictures.
How do you know when a project has reached its end?
"When I start doing documentary work, it can be really hard to establish the protagonist. But then the story slowly develops and I begin to understand where it's going. Eventually there is a moment where it becomes ripe and I know I have most of the material shot."
Do you have a shot list when working on projects?
"No, but there are moments when I think about what's missing from the story and consider what else I need to shoot to make it complete. I'm constantly going through my material throughout a project, making preliminary edits so I can see how a story will develop and where it will end."
Do you know which direction the story will go in, and how often does that change?
"I know, more or less, what the film or a photo essay will be about, but how the story will be told remains to be seen. Many times, when I am in the middle of a project and making edits, I find it will take a strange path. I often have to remind myself of my original idea."
What are some of the common misconceptions about documentary work?
"The time required. Not just the actual shooting, but the time and effort spent on post-production. People also underestimate how beautiful that process is. A lot of documentaries take their shape in the editing room."
How has new technology changed the way you work?
"The big change for me has been with information technology and new media. There are all these new bases you need to cover to stay known, and I don't do it well enough. Social media is basically marketing, and it's made things harder, I think. But you have to do these things. On the other hand, editing software has become much more sophisticated, which really helps speed up post-processing times."
"Great stories are all around you. Some people find it easier to shoot a project far away because they can get excited by a new place and new people. This can be captivating enough to keep them engaged. However, if you're shooting far away from home it can be easy to slip into cliché, so you need to be aware of this. For others, though, it can be easier to stay at home and shoot something in your backyard. Some of the best stories I shot were within 50km of my house. The only way to tell a story well is to go very deep into the subject. The first layer of a story usually isn't saying anything new to viewers. What makes a story interesting and new is when you dive deeper by making repeated visits to your subject. They open up, and you learn more. And it's easier to make these visits when your story is nearby."