Photography

Greyzone

CHRISTOPHER GRABOWSKI

Text by MANDELBROT.

Last year Christopher Grabowski returned to Poland, which is his native country, after an absence of ten years. He found Warsaw to be exciting and vibrant and a scene of great cultural activity. At a gallery opening he heard a well-known film director speak of the poverty he had seen twenty years earlier, amongst the coal dumps in the industrial and coal-mining district of Silesia, which is about half a day’s drive south of Warsaw. The film director assured Grabowski that conditions in Silesia were not like that today. Grabowski, who has been documenting dispossessed communities in Canada, decided to see for himself, and he drove down to Silesia, which is a dense agglomeration of industrial cities criss-crossed by a vast network of roads and highways, and began to ask around in bars and cafés. He was told that scavenging communities still existed, and over a day and a half of fruitless searching, many helpful people gave him directions for finding the communities. Then he found what he was looking for at a dump half a kilometre from where he had begun the search, on a vast piece of ground over which people were labouring in the shadow of an endless procession of huge trucks bringing in waste material from the coal mines.

Grabowski took his camera to the dump early the next morning, in the falling snow, and introduced himself to some of the people scavenging for coal, and he was not surprised to discover that no one wanted to talk to him. A few people asked him for a smoke and he went back to town for a supply of cigarettes; by noon some of the people were speaking to him in a guarded fashion and by mid-afternoon some of the children had told them their names and had begun to talk freely of their life and their work at the dump, which consists of scrabbling with bare hands in the icy rubble for the equivalent of about seven dollars a day. From time to time they warmed themselves at a fire made from discarded plastic furniture and old mattresses.

As dusk approached, someone said to Grabowski, who had kept his camera hanging around his neck all day, aren’t you going to take any pictures—you’re a photographer, aren’t you? And for the last hour of daylight Grabowski took pictures of the children and some of the adults at work that day at the dump. Some of these photographs appeared in the Globe and Mail, along with an account of conditions among the scavenging unemployed in Silesia.

It’s hard to believe that these photographs were taken on an afternoon in 1999, and not in Stalingrad during World War II, or northern France during World War I. They are like the memory of a bad dream. We think of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” and our context is the beginning of the industrial age, not the end of it. The people in these photographs are invisible not only in Poland but everywhere in the so-called “global” economy. They are the newly disappeared, and to see them requires intense effort, for they are not ghosts emerging briefly from the past: they are with us now; they are here.

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CHRISTOPHER GRABOWSKI

Christopher Grabowski’s award-winning photographs have been exhibited in Canada, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany. His photos and articles have been published in many periodicals and anthologies in North America and Europe. Visit him at mediumlight.com.


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