Photograph by Matthew Leifheit for CCNY

Ilona Szwarc

Born 1984 Warsaw, Poland


In the summer of 2010 I was introduced to Ilona Szwarc. Then an intern at Mary-Ellen Mark’s studio, her work seemed to further the cannon of social documentary photography, bringing a fresh eye and a proclivity for vibrant color to the disappearing field. Armed with a background in the film industry, Szwarc was in the midst of photographing her first series entitled “Anna” which focused on her mother-in-law. We collaborated on a MATTE Magazine featuring these pictures.


Szwarc’s next series entitled “American Girls” again pictured women. Due in part to its levity and in full to Szwarc’s unique eye, this series has garnered much exposure including a solo show in Paris at Galerie Claude Samuel and a feature on the New York Times Lensblog. To make these pictures Swarc adopted a 4×5 camera, initially approaching young women with American Girl dolls on the street asking to photograph them in their homes, eventually posting ads on American Girl Doll fan pages looking for subjects. This series is a humorous and sometimes unnerving look at how young girls in America construct their femininity against the backdrop of the places they come from.

Chloe, NJ

 Gillian, NY
 Jenna, MA
Kayla, MA

“One of the interactions that I remember particularly was with Jade, whom I photographed in Long Island. She described herself as a tomboy and 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,” said Swarc to MATTE. “She shared with me that in order to get matching clothes for her dolls she would go to different toy stores, like Build-a-Bear Workshop, where toy outfits were more gender neutral.”

Jade, NY

A native of Poland, Szwarc’s formative experiences in the United States occurred when she was an exchange student in high School studying in a small town called Canadian in the Texas panhandle. In 2012 she returned to TX, and noticed something new about the rodeo culture she knew from high school.  “I knew about the rodeo culture from back when I lived there, but I wasn’t aware that young girls were doing it,” says Szwarc.

“After working on my series American Girls and getting to know so many girls of that age, it was fascinating for me to discover a group of girls who had a totally different idea about their femininity. They also had a different idea about gender roles. They were engaged in activities that traditionally were reserved for men. They worked hard, they are physically strong and dominant.”

Szwarc is interested in photographing girls because she sees herself in them. “As a woman of course I relate to other women. Through photographing them I isolate and explore different aspects of my experience of being a woman. It is a way of self-portraiture, but enriched by the experience of others,” says Szwarc. As her series progresses I notice an increased taste for the surreal. The moments and situations Szwarc captures are gradually more enigmatic. Her pictures have also become more formalistically experimental, opting for the odd frame over the classically composed documentary image. She engineers these new photos to draw out strangeness in the situations depicted, leading to unsettling yet otherworldly beauty. This new work includes depictions of both men and women.

These pictures are presented naked, unaltered from the world we live in. Still they confront the viewer with supernatural realities of American existence that could only be realized by an artist with an outside perspective. “As a foreigner, I cannot separate myself from this powerful experience of living in America. I am constantly looking at this world and analyzing it,” Says Szwarc. Her pictures belie straightforward admiration of American culture and they thrive on our most sublime moments. —MATTE Magazine for CCNY