Photographers' Blog

The parents left behind

Warsaw, Poland

By Peter Andrews

I remember my mother taking me to the airport on June 10, 1981. In theory, everyone knew I was leaving for three weeks, but both of us really knew that I would not be coming back. I was nineteen at the time and wanted to see a different world, a world outside the so called Iron Curtain.

My mother didn’t show sadness but I could see tears in her eyes when she said good bye to me. I saw her twice in ten years. Once after four years, when she visited my new home, Canada, and later in Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down. Our contact was scarce. In those days, it was very difficult to call out of Poland, especially after martial law was introduced. Later, when martial law was lifted, it was a bit easier, but still there were only land lines. No mobile phones, no Internet, no Skype – only written letters put inside envelopes, with a postage stamp and sent from the post office. It was only when the Soviet Union collapsed and the so-called evil empire ceased to exist that I was able to see her freely. It is only when you are not able to see your parents often that one notices how age works on people.

At the time when I was leaving Poland no one knew that ten years down the road the world’s geo-political situation would change and that eastern European countries would join NATO and later, in 2004, the European Union would allow many young people to travel freely, without any restrictions or prosecution.

A large number of Polish citizens took advantage of the new situation, deciding to try their luck abroad. As most of them had gone to Ireland and the UK some chose places like Spain, Switzerland, the U.S. or Australia. Freedom of movement was finally given to people and was tested by close to over two million Poles. For some of them it has been an adventure for some job opportunity. But in all of the cases it has been an experience shared, like in the case of my mother, by their parents too…


Bank worker Hanna Mieszkowska, 55, holds a picture of her son Piotr, 32, and his wife Ghizlane at her apartment in Warsaw. Piotr met his sweetheart during an Erasmus course in Spain. They got married in Morocco and now live in Paris. She said that despite the fact that she is happy for her son, every time he comes back to visit her it feels like it is Christmas and every time he leaves she mourns.

Food Bank SOS

Bronisze, Poland

By Kacper Pempel

When I started working on a story about food waste, I was shocked by the estimates provided by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that 1.3 billion tonnes of food – equivalent to the amount produced by the whole of sub-Saharan Africa – is wasted every year.

That is why I started thinking of ways to prevent such waste and it’s what led me to a food bank organization and to a volunteer who works for them in Bronisze agricultural market, not far from Warsaw.

Wanda is a 71-year-old volunteer who collects food, mostly vegetables, for Food Bank SOS, which then distributes it to charity organizations. I’d met her twice at Bronisze market, where she was walking around and pushing her cart between farmers, asking them if they had any goods for charity.

An island of religion in a sea of secularism

Warsaw, Poland

By Kacper Pempel

When Pope Benedict XVI announced last week that he was stepping down, the mood in my country, Poland, was overwhelming. This is one of the most devoutly Catholic countries in Europe, which still proudly identifies itself as the birthplace of Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II. On the day of the announcement my colleagues went to the church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. The worshipers coming out of the church were in a state of shock. “It’s so sad. It’s such a shame. But what can we do? I can’t believe it,” said one woman as she left the Holy Cross church in the Polish capital, who gave her name as Maria. “I am very sorry because I really like the Pope. He is continuing the teachings of our Pope (John Paul II).” Janusz, another worshiper, said: “I don’t think it’s true. In my opinion it would not be a good solution. It would definitely be a huge pity for Poles and Catholics.”

I spent the last few months traveling around Poland taking photographs of Polish people demonstrating their Catholic faith: going on pilgrimages, attending mass, children having religious lessons in schools. I photographed the statue of Jesus in Swiebodzin, near the Polish-German border, which stands 33 meters tall. I visited a huge church built since the fall of Communism in farmland in Lichen, in central Poland. As I drove towards the church, its gold-colored dome, 98 meters high, looked incongruous surrounded by cows grazing in a pasture.

The building was so vast that it dwarfed the worshipers and the village around it. I went to another new church in the Warsaw suburb of Wilanow. Filled with young, middle-class families, it stands in stark contrast to the image many people have of Catholicism in Poland, a religion for the old and the poor.

At home with Hercules

By Peter Andrews

When asked which Polish athlete has a chance at the London Olympics I immediately thought of the shot put champion Tomasz Majewski.

For those who have never seen Tomasz in real life, it can be a bit intimidating. I have always considered myself tall at 192cm (6 feet, 3 inches), but when I first met Tomasz I suddenly felt very small. With a height of 2.4 meters (7 feet 10 inches) and weighing 140 kg (308 pounds), Tomasz is overpowering. He reminded me of Hercules with his long dark hair up in a pony tail. He also has a nice warm smile he puts on easily, so being around him is relaxed and easy right from the first handshake.

I wanted to photograph Tomasz training for the Olympics and he was kind enough to let me just be around him during his daily training and routines. So for the next few weeks I was watching him shot putting, running, jumping, lifting weights and preparing for the biggest sporting event, held every four years. With just one arm he lifted more than I could bench press with all my strength.

Soccer SWAT team

By Peter Andrews

Through my Polish police contacts, I learned that members of various SWAT teams and the border guards would hold a special training exercise in the town of Zamosc. The exercise was conducted as part of preparations by the Polish special forces leading up to the EURO 2012 soccer tournament, to be held in Poland and Ukraine this summer. This training event was to be observed by various representatives from different countries.

As I arrived at the military training ground, I realized that some of the instructors were my old friends whom I have known for as many as eighteen years. It helped me immensely to be accepted by people who were being trained. The forces were divided into three teams of SWAT and border guards being trained on different public transport vehicles, in various techniques of approaching a hijacked bus followed by mastering the techniques of entering and rescuing hostages from inside the vehicle.

Witnessing dozens of similar exercises I’m always amazed by the speed and agility with which these men can move. It also helps me understand how much time, effort and dedication they have to invest to be able to work with such precision.

The view from Auschwitz

By Kacper Pempel

Each year we cover at least two main stories from Auschwitz. The first story is at the end of January when there are ceremonies to commemorate the liberation of the death camp by Soviet troops in 1945, and the second story, which happens around May, is called the “March of Living”.

This year the 27th of January marked the 67th anniversary of the death camp liberation by Soviet troops. The ceremonies were subdued, with fewer officials coming than I was used to. So I decided to cover this time in a different way. Not only as a document from the anniversary but from a more emotional point of view.

My first visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum was 7 years ago. I was overwhelmed with emotion. I tried to hide behind my camera and only focus on pictures but it was impossible. I never expected what I saw there, because it is impossible to be prepared for these kinds of views and imaginations which this place develops. I was walking around the museum in Auschwitz and then in Birkenau the whole day and I remember that I was losing power in batteries because it was minus 20 degrees C (-4 degrees F). My fingers where completely frozen. When I came inside the barracks in Birkenau and saw the bunks for prisoners I couldn’t imagine how anyone survived during winter time.

How I became a pilgrim

I grew up in a country with deep Catholic traditions. I was just a year old in 1978 when Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. It was a huge surprise in the then‐communist country, a satellite of the Soviet Union, that a son of Polish soil could become the head of the Catholic Church – which was painfully divided by the Iron Curtain.

Over the years, it became a natural feeling that the pope was Polish. The words ‘pope’ and ‘Pole’ becoming synonyms in my mind. John Paul II visited Poland eight times as the pontiff but I only had one chance to see him live when his papa‐mobile passed my home in 1991. I was 14 years old and took a picture of the event.

Unfortunately, during my professional career I never took a picture of Pope John Paul II. My first such assignment came only after the late pope passed away and I was sent to Rome for his funeral. It was a really hard time with no sleep, no time for eating or bathing. I just wandered about taking pictures of thousands of pilgrims sleeping along the Vatican streets and waiting for several days to attend the funeral ceremony. The air was full of grief. I also queued for hours to get to the St.Peter’s Basilica following an endless stream of people who wanted to honor John Paul II and to take a picture of his body exhibited to the public.

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