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Breakthroughs, Mermaids, Bunny Ears and Eagles 
Ireneusz Białek talks to Chris Niedenthal

Chris Niedenthal - a renowned European photographer, he has worked for such magazines as the American weekly Newsweek and since the mid-1980’s for Time magazine, for which he covered Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Born in London in 1950 as the son of Polish émigrés arriving in the UK during the Second World War, Chris Niedenthal has been a Polish citizen since 1998. Together with the British journalist Michael Dobbs, Niedenthal was the first foreign photojournalist allowed inside the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk at the start of the strike of August 1980. During Martial Law, he covertly took several hundred photographs. One of them, showing an armoured personnel carrier on a Warsaw street, against the backdrop of a cinema called Moskwa (Moscow), whose façade carried a billboard advertising Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, won international fame and is regarded as an iconic image of Martial Law in Poland. Chris Niedenthal immortalised some breakthrough moments in Poland’s history such as Pope John II’s first pilgrimage to his homeland, or Tadeusz Mazowiecki making the victory sign seconds after his government was voted in by the Sejm.

Ireneusz Białek talks to Chrisem Niedenthal - a famous european photographer.

Ireneusz Białek: You did not notice the Mermaid on your famous photograph?

Chris Niedenthal: Indeed, I did not. I was shooting this photo from the gallery, with a long telephoto lens and I could not see that on top of the eagle there was the Warsaw Mermaid on it, too. Although it appears to be a trivial detail, it can be important after all.

I.B.: That’s right. Our “Światłoryt/Light Relief” project is an eye-opener regardless of whether one is blind or sighted, or even the author of a photo.

C.N.: . Indeed! After all, it is always nice when other people comment on the photographer’s work and he/she can learn what he/she really captured there, both in the details like the Mermaid and in terms of emotions and history. I actually remember those eagles on balustrades because in the communist-controlled Polish People’s Republic I used to walk between the government benches that featured such eagles. Incidentally, photographers enjoyed much more freedom back then when it came to taking pictures in the Sejm. I was free to wander between all those Jaruzelskis and Giereks of the time and take photographs of them. Now you can only take pictures from a distance.

I.B.: In the case of the Tadeusz Mazowiecki photograph, Gierek was already gone, but Jaruzelski was still around. What emotions accompanied you back then?

C.N.: Well, the beauty of a photojournalist’s work consists of the fact that one can be close to unfolding events, in this case such historic events in Poland’s history. Obviously, most people lived through them emotionally while watching them on television. Yet watching things on the TV screen is worlds apart from being there in person. We all harboured a lot of hope for some major change, seeing that for the first time since the Second World War, in this part of Europe the government would be headed by a non-communist premier. History was in the making before our very eyes.

I.B.: Weren’t you afraid that your hand might shake at the wrong moment?

C.N.: That was often a problem during emotional moments. I would worry about getting the right focus, as emotions were running high and they did indeed play a role. Premier Mazowiecki himself was emotional, too, as he showed the famous “bunny ears”, or “V” for victory sign, and I was lucky to be able to capture just that moment. Luckily, the photo proved to be in focus. Many other colleagues were shooting that scene, too.

I.B.: Yet it is your photo that has got its place in history.

C.N.: Maybe because it was in colour, not everybody would use colour back then.

I.B.: For the purposes of audio description it might have been simpler in black and white, but with colour we had a dispute concerning the shade of red of Prime Minister’s tie and the colour of his shirt. The latter seems to be pale-blue but some say that such shirts were not worn at the time.

C.N.: . It might have just been the light suggesting it was pale-blue and not white, but unfortunately I do not remember what colour it really was.

I.B.: How does one take a photo like that?

C.N.: Photographers always wait for something extraordinary to happen. If the PM had simply sat down, we would have shot lots of pictures, all of them the same and expressionless. Yet because he decided to make that gesture the effect is immediate. It was an emotional day too,  after all, because Tadeusz Mazowiecki almost fainted during his speech. We did not know then how serious that was as he left the rostrum on his own. He later told me that he had not slept that night, writing his speech, drinking lots of coffee and chain-smoking. No wonder that he could have felt unwell.

I.B.: This has also been captured in the description for the “Światłoryt/Light Relief” project, I mean the circles under Prime Minister’s eyes.

C.N.: Yes, those were special times and an extraordinary mood filled the Sejm as well. We were all waiting to see how things would develop. It was particularly important to me as for someone coming from abroad who had devoted many years to documenting Polish reality; suddenly, I was able to watch up close the change that we had dreamed about come true. However, photographers have to contain their emotions somehow, watch closely and know when to press the shutter.

I.B.: You knew this on several other occasions as well. You travelled the Polish road to freedom: from the “Apocalypse Now” of Martial Law, through Mazowiecki and then to the Soviet troops leaving the country.

C.N.: Indeed, from Borne Sulinowo, where I got soaking wet as the first Russian contingent left the Soviet army base there in torrential rain. All that work of mine was one big emotion back then, since after all, I had wanted so much to see better times for Poland.

I.B.: And so we are sitting in a cafe enjoying good coffee and cake as one would in Italy. Things are better, just normal, yet on the other hand such key systemic changes are not going to happen anymore. Do you not miss breakthroughs?

C.N.: . Well, I do hope that I am not going to have to shoot breakthroughs any more, although, regrettably, this is again very likely today. Some people try to make us believe that Poland is in such a bad shape. In my view, Poland has never had it so good in recent years and I hope that the country develops further in this direction and that nothing can stand in the way of that happening.  All those great people that I have photographed did a huge amount of work and deserve to be thanked for that. I, for one, do not want to chase politicians any more, I leave that to today’s young photographers who are much better at doing that right now. Such work was also very exhausting and I am not twenty or thirty years old anymore to still want to do it at the same pace.

I.B.: Speaking of twenty-year-olds, do you meet them? Do you talk about your photographs? They were already born into a world of capitalism. Are they interested in the communist-controlled Polish People’s Republic?

C.N.: Yes, I do many meet-the-author sessions with young people. On the one hand, my photographs of many years ago are perfectly abstract to them, but then many young people are very interested in those times. My recent meeting at the Kinoteka had a large audience and many questions were asked. Those young people sat there for a couple of hours while I talked about my photographs and showed them on a large cinema screen.

I.B.: Maybe the point is that you talk about the world using a visual technique, which the generation of today likes?

C.N.: That’s true, but it could also be that my photographs were shot on film, and hardly anyone does that any more. They ask about all this, discuss it, and learn about our history in just that way. As press photographers we use a medium that has to tell a story visually, and therefore quickly, and I bet they like that, too. I have always liked young Poles, I was drawn to them also because under the old regime they used to read a lot and could discuss world literature, which was hard to get hold of then. About London, however, I jokingly say that in the sixties and seventies the only problem facing British youth was which pub to go to in the evening. Since I did not like beer, I was bored.

I.B.: Intellectual ferment as resistance to authority, well, that is gone. Social bonds have become looser.

C.N.: And I sense that too, so in that regard we have reached the West European standard, which in this case is not always to my liking. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting country with interesting people. Back then, that resistance to authority simply had a positive impact on culture and the arts, there were great serious as well as satirical plays performed, good books written and good photos and films shot. Yet today that intellectual ferment as resistance to authority may still resurface. It turns out that this chapter has not been closed forever.

I.B.: I am glad that we are able to present some key photos from your fascinating journey as a photojournalist also to people with sight disabilities, and I think that cooperation between the MOFFIN and the European Solidarity Centre in that area will result in further discoveries for all those interested in history. The www.swiatloryt.pl website is a meeting place for blind and sighted persons alike, where everyone will find something of interest, for instance the Mermaid mentioned at the start of our conversation, to learn who is her author. After all everyone likes to listen to a good reader providing an interesting description of a photograph. And from now on, blind visitors to the ESC will also be able to touch the convex version of your famous photo featuring Tadeusz Mazowiecki showing the victory sign.

C.N.: To be able to touch “Światłoryt/Light Relief” adaptations - I like the idea very much and I am glad that such a project exists.

I.B.: Thank you very much and I hope we shall meet in Gdańsk when there are more “Światłoryt/Light Relief” adaptations.

C.N.: Thank you and I hope to see you again.

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