Artistic photographs and amateur shots from the photo archive of the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) in Gdańsk          
August 2014

Katarzyna Wielga-Skolimowska, Director of the Polish Institute, Berlin:

"The strikes centred around the NSZZ Solidarity trade union, led by Lech Wałęsa, triggered one of the largest liberation movements of the twentieth century, ultimately leading to political change in Poland. Countless professional and amateur photographers at the scene delivered iconic images of the protests. Photographs from well-known documentary photographers, such as Erazm Ciołek or Stanisław Markowski, have become part of a collective visual memory. In contrast, images by less well-known and amateur photographers remain largely undiscovered. In the archive of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk  slumber treasures which give unselfconscious and intimate insights into the strikes on the Gdańsk Shipyard and tell us of events which have, until now, been largely ignored in public discourse. Among the most impressive works are, for example, the pictures taken at the Polish university protests. Sabine Weier, the curator of the exhibition, compiled photographs from the Gdańsk archive, which make it possible to view the history of Solidarity in a different way. Some of the images are being displayed for the first time in this exhibition. These are artistic works and amateur shots which put a spotlight on the people and convey an atmosphere of hope, which finally allowed the project of freedom to be realised.”

Basil Kerski, Director of the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) in Gdańsk:

„2014 is a significant year in European remembrance. This year, we not only look back at the out-breaks of the First and Second World Wars, 100 and 75 years ago respectively, but also the victory of the anti-communist revolution in central Europe 25 years ago. A large, permanent exhibition about the revolutions in Poland and central and eastern Europe, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, will open in the European Solidarity Centre (ECS) in Gdańsk on the August 30th/31st 2014 to commemorate the Solidarity trade union's victory 25 years ago. The European Solidarity Centre is a highly ambitious project, a new format for a cultural institution: it is not only a museum to promote awareness of the Solidarity movement and the anti-communist opposition in Poland and Europe, but also a centre for dialogue about the contemporary world.”

In 1980 Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyard became an island of political resistance in Poland. From what began as a workers’ strike, the independent Solidarity trade union was formed. In December 1981 Wojciech Jaruzelski declares martial law in Poland – around 10, 000 opposing members are interned, many of whom lose their lives. The trade union continues to operate underground, and the solidarity between workers, intellectuals, teachers, doctors, students and supporters from all over the world, remains unbroken. Finally, in 1989 they experience a breakthrough. First a strike-leader and later the chair of Solidarity, in 1990 Lech Wałęsa becomes the first freely elected President of Poland. 

Piotr Babiński and his family set about creating a private archive of thousands of photographs documenting the protests in Poland. Babiński takes the photos, his mother, Genowefa Babiński, carries rolls of film in her handbag to be changed. The amateur shots displayed here show how brutally the militia acts against demonstrators.  ­­­­­­

Stanisław Składanowski, born in 1950 in Książnik. He comes to Gdańsk in 1964, where, at age 18, he begins working at the Lenin Shipyard. In 1975 he begins taking photographs of the city and its people. He is there from the outset; when the strike breaks out in August 1980, he takes pictures fearlessly and is even injured during a police operation. After the proclamation of martial law, he is interned for several months.

Leonard Szmaglik, born 1937 in Brusy. He works at the North Gdańsk Shipyard. In 1955 he begins taking photographs. He portrays the city and its inhabitants, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs over the years. With his camera, he follows the Shipyard protests of 1980 and 1981, and manages to capture a penetrating portrait of Anna Walentynowicz. The crane-operator supported the Polish strike movement from 1970 on and acted for the rights of female workers. Her dismissal becomes a direct trigger for the Shipyard strikes of August 1980. Alongside Lech Wałęsa, Walentynowicz is the most important symbolic figure of the Solidarity movement.

Sławomir Fiebig, born in 1953 in Pleszew. As a child he begins taking photographs. In 1971 it is still not possible to study photography and Fiebig enrolls as a Chemistry student in Gdańsk. He gets himself a GDR-produced Pentacon six TL and shoots on roll film in classic 6x6 middle-format. The square format allows a particular kind of composition seen, for example, in the pictures showing members of the NSZZ Solidarity trade union hanging a banner in front of the Gdańsk headquarters. In 1980, as a worker at the Pollena chemical works, Fiebig participates in strikes, and from 1981 on he remains close to the action as a Solidarity employee.

Wojciech Milewski, born in 1936 in Warsaw. He studies Chemistry in Łódź and Stettin.  From the 70s on, he works as a photographer in Gdańsk. In 1980 he becomes a member of Solidarity and documents events with a simple, Soviet-made Lomo 35mm camera – the ‘Smena’ model. Among other things, he photographs the first Independent Trade Union Congress in 1981 in Gdańsk. After 1981, during martial law, high prison sentences threaten independent photographers. At the break-up of demonstrations, the militia often surrounded and threatened the photographers first, recalls Milewski. But he is certain: the whole world must know what is happening in Poland. He and his colleagues send photographs abroad and hide them in various apartments and churches. Some pictures are sold by collaborators to communist security agencies.

Zdzisław Andrzej Fic, born in 1951 in Gdańsk. During the strikes of summer 1980 he acts as a translator for members of the foreign press who had travelled to Poland from across Europe. Every day straight after work, he hurries to the Lenin Shipyard.  For his own safety, he can only take a camera to the Shipyard a few times. He shoots details of the space, and portrays friends active in the strikes. Some wear T-shirts bearing the Solidarity logo, designed by Jerzy Janiszewski, others displaying the logo of the independent underground publisher, ‘Nowa’, which printed literature and political magazines banned by the censor.    

Leszek Biernacki, born in 1959 in Sopot. He studies Polish Philology at the University of Gdańsk. In 1980 he participates in the strikes at the Lenin Shipyard and documents the events. At this time he is still a student and becomes part of the Polish student solidarity movement, and in 1980 he becomes a co-founder of the NZS Independent Students’ Association. The Association called for sit-ins at all colleges and universities. Biernacki is on the scene with his camera for the Gdańsk Humanities Faculty sit-in in 1981. They rig-up sleeping quarters and hang banners displaying messages of protest, demanding democratic structures at universities and freedom of speech.

Jerzy Kośnik, born in Warsaw in 1950. He first discovers photography at age 17. He studies Sociology in Warsaw and there documents the student protests of 1968. He continues to follow events surrounding Solidarity even after the proclamation of martial law, when many photographers retreat, fearing state power. In autumn 1980, the Independent Students’ Association (NZS) is founded to work for the democratization of universities and to support Solidarity activists. In 1981 Kośnik is present in Łódź, among other cities, as students occupy the universities. In February the Association is officially registered, only to be banned less than a year later during the course of martial law. The atmosphere in the occupied buildings was that of a Happening, remembers Kośnik. With a sociologist’s perspective, he observes everything through the lens of his camera. He captures the intimate details of daily life during the strike: the camp-beds, the food, the boards painted with slogans.

“Hunger marches in Polish towns, placards reading ‘We are Hungry’, further cuts despite already meagre meat rations, empty shelves in shops, and long queues in the places where there is occasionally something left to buy – the Polish economic crisis is becoming ever more acute”, reports the German weekly paper, Die Zeit, in July 1981. In Polish cities, women and children protest to draw attention to the desolate supply depots. In his photographs, Jerzy Kośnik captures not only the frustration of the people, but, above all, the sense of community emerging out of the protests. A completely new self-confidence was generated, the photographer recalls.

In 1981, Jerzy Kośnik travels to Cannes as a journalist for a Polish film-magazine. Director Andrzej Wajda is presenting Man of Iron, a politically critical film about a dockworker from Gdańsk, even featuring appearances by strike-heros, Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz. The film wins Cannes’ Palme d’Or. At a press conference Kośnik meets the actor Jack Nicholson, currently promoting the film The Postman Always Rings Twice with co-star Jessica Lange. Kośnik asks Nicholson whether he supports Solidarity. The actor spontaneously answers “yes”, and Kośnik hands him a badge bearing the union of the logo, which Nicholson immediately puts on. He invites the Polish photographer to take a walk with him, resulting in photos including those depicting Nicholson messing about with the paparazzi.    

After martial law is proclaimed on December 13th 1981, the military seizes power, the union is prohibited, and members of the opposition are interned. The offices of Solidarity are ransacked. Jerzy Kośnik manages to take pictures in the Solidarity offices in Warsaw before they are seized by police, and before the surrounding area is cordoned off.    

Magdalena Sorby (née Wójcik), born in 1951 in Poland, after the proclamation of martial law she moved to Norway, where she met her husband, and remained until her death in 1993. From 1980 on, she works as a translator for NSZZ Solidarność where she works together closely with Lech Wałęsa, and later helps to establish the offices of the trade union in Brussels. In May 1981, she is herself part of a Solidarność delegation visiting the cities of Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nagasaki, on the invitation of a Japanese trade union. Private photographs are taken, which she pastes into a photo-album as a memento. This is included in the ECS, along with further photographs from her private archive. Magdalena Sorby is pictured in all the photographs on display here. The photographer is unknown.

Zygmunt Malinowski, born 1947 in Poland. As a young man he emigrates to New York and studies at Parsons School of Design & New School for Social Research. He works for a publishing company and as a freelance photographer. After the proclamation of martial law and the arrests of thousands of union members, supporters of Solidarity in cities such as Paris, London, Tokyo, Chicago and New York demonstrate against the martial law imposed in Poland and the influence of the Soviet Union. Malinowski documents the New York demonstrations in support of Solidarity in 1981 and 1982. Leading politicians demonstrate alongside the expat community, including Ed Koch, mayor of New York City and the son of Polish immigrants. They are all united in wanting to do something for the people of Poland. Malinowski remembers: "The hope that something could really change in Poland gave us strength. A very active community developed in New York. Musicians gave concerts, artists created placards for demonstrations. When I took the photo of the woman holding the 'Poland Today' placard, a protester behind her held up the word 'Help'. It produced a unique motif. It reminds me of Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People, a depiction of the French Revolution in which a woman waves the French flag."    

Hans-Olav Forsang wird 1955 in Ankenes (Norwegen) geboren. Er studiert Fotografie in England und Schweden, wird Bildreporter und Bildredakteur. 1984 gewinnt er einen World Press Photo-Award. Im Oktober 1983 ist er im Auftrag eines Magazins in Danzig. An dem Tag, an dem er die Familie Lech Wałęsas besucht, wird bekannt, dass Wałęsa Gewinner des Friedensnobelpreises ist. Seine Ehefrau Danuta Wałęsa, die auf den Bildern zu sehen ist, wird ihn stellvertretend für ihren Ehemann in Oslo entgegennehmen, denn dieser befürchtet, nach einer Ausreise nicht mehr zurückkommen zu dürfen. Forsang erinnert sich: „Ich war dabei, als Danuta Wałęsa per Telefon die gute Nachricht aus Oslo erfuhr. Lech Wałęsa war mit einigen Freunden angeln. Schon vor seiner Rückkehr füllte sich die Wohnung mit immer mehr Menschen. Schließlich wurde er von einer Menschenmenge nachhause getragen. Das war ein ganz besonderer Tag.“

Bogusław Nieznalski, born in 1948 in Sopot. He studies Mechanical Engineering from 1968-70 at Gdańsk Technical University. During the first wave of strikes in 1970, he doesn’t have a camera. He feels powerless because he is unable to document the events. Finally, he gets hold of a camera, teaches himself photography, and develops the photos at home in his apartment. As a photojournalist, he captures the 1980 strikes as well as the events of the following years, for example, the protests on the Gdańsk Shipyard in 1988. Young dockworkers pass the time during the strikes by building a tank of the ‘ZOMO’ – a heavily armed reserve of the militia – out of Styrofoam.

Credits: Story

Under the Patronage of the President of the Republic of Poland — Bronisław Komorowski
Curator — Sabine Weier
Project Management  —


Anna Stelmaszczyk    

Special Thanks to  — Photographic Section at the European Solidarity Centre (ECS): Grażyna Goszczyńska, Kuratorin der Fotografiesammlung,  Iwona Kwiatkowska, Ewa Konkel, Leszek Sieńczak


Photographers —

Piotr Babiński, Leszek Biernacki, Hans-Olav Forsang, Zdzisław Andrzej Fic, Sławomir Fiebig, Alfons Klejna, Jerzy Kośnik, Zygmunt Malinowski, Wojciech Milewski, Bogusław Nieznalski, Stanisław Składanowski, Leonard Szmaglik, and photographs from the private archive of Magdalena Wójcik-Sorby
Translations — Alice Schmid, Sabine Stekel, Lingua-World
Idea — Polish Institute Berlin
in cooperation with — the European Solidarity Centre (ECS)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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