Photographer Mila Korba’s latest work portrays the isolation she felt as a Polish immigrant in Britain
“Around our first home in the UK, children on the streets were simply curious to begin with. But when the recession hit, the atmosphere changed. People were looking for someone to blame.
We’ve now moved to a more middle-class area of Nottingham, but still I find few neighbours stop to say hello.
I was sitting outside a pub recently and overheard a woman on the street say, ‘The Polish are everywhere, you can’t hear English anywhere any more.’ A friend I was with got really angry, but I know it’s difficult to say anything if you don’t want to upset anybody.
Sometimes, it feels funny to think that woman is right too. There are places I go in the city which are full of Poles, Pakistanis, Turkish. We recognise where each other are from instantly, and there’s a nice feeling of community in that.
I think a lot of British people don’t understand what people who move to this country give up to be here, why they do it—who they are.
Another friend was a council executive back in Poland. She came here in her late 40s, and now works in a manual labour job, but she’s happier, with more peace of mind.
I came from Rybnik in southern Poland. I had my first son at 19 and fell pregnant again at 30 in 2006. I was a customer service assistant, studying art, and training as a chef. My partner studied nuclear physics, but there were no jobs in that. He worked as a builder. We were struggling to support a growing family so he decided to move to the UK, where we knew there was more work and better pay.
The plan was that he would stay for two or three years then return but, once he started work, he was too busy even to visit. We came to see him on holiday, and it was obvious he would not be able to give up what he had here.
I did not want to raise a family as a single mother, there was so much more I wanted to do. So we agreed I would move over to be with him.
None of us spoke a word of English when we came. I’ve learned French, German, Italian, Russian and Ukrainian in the past, but English was really a struggle.
When my son started at his new school, he would apologise 20 times a day at first, because he couldn’t understand. We are both proud people, and constantly apologising is hard to do. He eventually gave up saying sorry, and would quietly cross days off the calendar until he felt he could cope.
Besides the feelings of isolation that come with moving to a new country, I was a stay-at-home mother and partner for the first time. There was a new baby, and soon we had a third on the way.
I attended a language class once a week, but after four years I still couldn’t really speak to anyone. I could just about understand. I had to ask my son for help sometimes, and he said I must learn for myself, as he did, to stop apologising.
The turning point was a meeting at his school. The interpreter and the teacher were sharing jokes, talking to each other. I felt invisible and it made me angry at myself.
I started on a photography foundation course, and then carried on to Nottingham Trent University. It’s the best thing I could have done. Working on something I feel passionate about allowed me to speak freely and socialise again.
When you can’t communicate, you feel disabled, and that’s the idea in these images. It’s a symbolic approach, because I think we are overexposed to documentary photography. It has lost its impact, and I want people to take notice.”
Mila Korba, 38, is a second-year BA Photography student whose work focuses on struggle
This interview was conducted as part of a course assignment to produce a magazine in the style of a weekend newspaper supplement