The Mourning of Smoleńsk through the Eyes of Photojournalists
default, The Mourning of Smoleńsk through the Eyes of Photojournalists, From the ‘Poland in Mourning’ series, photo: Maciej Jeziorek / NAPO Images, center, napo100822mj_0107.jpg
Poland mourned in countless ways after the plane crash in Smoleńsk on 10th April 2010. Here, in their own words, photographers share their memories of those tragic days. As they endeavoured to capture the emotions of others, they also struggled to come to terms with their own.
Marek M. Berezowski
It's interesting, because I remember where and how I found out about the 9/11 attacks in the United States, but I don't remember where I was when I heard about the Smoleńsk catastrophe for the first time. I started photographing in the evening on the day of the catastrophe.
My strongest memory is that of silence – even if it wasn’t exactly silence, but some sort of gloom hanging in the air, a kind of weight that overwhelmed everyone. Sadness and shock mixed amongst people. The deaths of so many people, so many officials, with the Presidential couple at the forefront, was not only a drama, but also an unprecedented event.
Another event was the ceremonial procession through the streets of Warsaw – the coffins with the bodies of the Presidential couple. On my way to the location, I came across an elderly woman who, looking at the poster with the 96 victims of the catastrophe, said to herself with tears in her eyes: ‘My god, so young, and this one, what a pity...’
That day, I didn't take any interesting photos. There were more processions to watch. The Torwar Arena turned into a huge morgue. A hearse drove through, and inside it was a casket wrapped in a Polish flag. No one from the press went inside. I remember 30 coffins and 30 deeply distraught families surrounded by the large empty hall.
During those days, I ended up taking about 4,000 photos. It was impossible to forget the tragedy. Posters in the subway. Posters at bus stops. Billboards on the streets, billboards on blocks of flats. Glowing city screens, TV sets inside homes and shopping malls.
The mourning that ensued after the Smoleńsk catastrophe is one of the saddest events I have ever experienced. The day of the disaster was uncanny. I think back to those days only reluctantly.
I was woken up on a lazy morning to a phone call from ‘Newsweek’. I couldn't believe what I had just heard. At the time, we still had a TV at home. I turned it on immediately, hoping to hear better news. Unfortunately, what I heard on the phone turned out to be true.
Then, friends, acquaintances, family and NAPO [a photographers’ agency] all started calling. We made a quick decision to meet in front of the Presidential Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. We wanted to be together.
I remember the light from that day very well – a strong morning light.
For several weeks, I had been working on a report about people who aimlessly wander the streets of Warsaw after work. I had this idea that I would capture the moment by sort of ‘cutting them out of reality’ with a flashgun. I tested different types of films and development methods to get the effect I wanted. The day before the catastrophe, I had found a visual form.
The following days were full of emotion: fear, disbelief, sadness and depression. I remember feeling insecure and powerless. And over and over again, I asked the questions: ‘What’s next?’ ‘How are we going to pull ourselves together – can we pull ourselves together?’
pełna szerokość [1160 px]
From the ‘Polska w Żałobie’ (Poland in Mourning) series, photo: Maciej Jeziorek / NAPO Images
On the morning of 10th April, I was working on assembling a pinhole camera [in which light passes through a small aperture and not through the lens] which I wanted to use for shooting in the former Warsaw Ghetto. I was sitting with a coffee, and I turned on the TV – shock.
My first thought was: which photojournalists were flying with the President? I started calling my friends – none of my friends who could have been there answered. Only after some time did I find out that they had flown on a second plane or travelled by train.
Later, I went to Warsaw, I think to the Sejm. I remember that on the way, I was reminded of Zbigniew Wassermann, because a few days earlier I had taken a picture of him in the Sejm corridor. At the time, I had been finishing a project about politics in the Sejm, and I went there with a ring flash [a special kind of flash device].
It was a rather unusual construction, and often, the MPs would ask me: ‘What the hell is that?’ That was also the case with Wasserman. We talked to each other for a few moments because of this ring flash. It was such a nice conversation. I am getting chills writing this.
Then, in Warsaw, a lot of work for foreign publications started coming in; they were asking for kind of ‘photojournalism basics’: faces, candles, crowds. After a few days, I realised that I was not doing these photos or the situation any justice, that I had to stop.
I remembered the camera I was assembling on the day of the catastrophe as well as the words of Roland Barthes on the pinhole camera – about the fact that you need to capture the moment and its glow, because it disappears, and the glow of people and events is so faint and fragile that you need to capture it in the simplest way possible.
I took a dozen or so medium-format negatives. Only when developing them did I realise that I did not remember exactly whether I had set the parameters in the camera at all. I still remember the feeling that accompanied me at that time – oneiric.
When the catastrophe happened, I was in my second year of film school. We all received an e-mail with the task to photograph the national mourning in our town. In Rydułtowy, where I lived then, the signs of mourning were quite modest: I found only one balcony on which a flag with a black ribbon was hung. I decided to go to Warsaw.
I followed the news on a regular basis, so I knew where to go – I immediately went to the Presidential Palace. I remember my surprise once I got there. On television I had seen mourning, saddened people holding candles. In person, I saw what looked like a village fair – stands with flags, pennants, candles at an inflated price, people taking selfies. Nonetheless, I still had a task to accomplish, i.e. to photograph the national mourning. I was looking for it: I was looking for pensive people, I was looking for sorrow. I managed to take some photographs of this kind.
A few weeks later, we presented our work at the university. Many people failed the assignment because they photographed what was really happening: a fair. According to the professor, our task was to ‘capture the national mourning’. This was an important media lesson for me. The gap between what is shown and the truth is very large. It was a bitter lesson.
I arrived in Smoleńsk at dawn on 10th April, on a special night train with the Katyń families. I was to report the commemorations taking place at the cemetery of the Katyń victims. Instead, I had to prepare myself forthwith to report on the President's death.
I arrived at the Smoleńsk military airport about an hour after the disaster. Information about the crashed aircraft was not immediately known to those gathered at the cemetery. After arriving at the airport gate, we immediately began to run towards the white-red rear stabiliser visible from afar through the tree branches.
However, we were immediately stopped by local militia troops. With a group of a few other photographers, we decided to hide all the photographic equipment in our bags and to go around the entire airport to the other side. We managed to get there without arousing suspicion. There, for the first time, we saw dozens of smaller and larger pieces of the aircraft sheathing scattered near a small block of flats. People were taking pictures with their phones, and policemen were guarding a piece of the wing leaning against a tree.
At the same time, we noticed a man trying to take a large white-and-red piece of the wing sheathing and ride away with it on a folding bike. He probably wanted to sell it as scrap metal. One of my colleagues ran up to him and tried to tear this part out of his hands. It was an outlandish sight. I didn't even think about photographing the situation, I just watched. After a while, the man drove away empty handed, and my friend placed the part of the plane back in the same place.
That was just the beginning of this very difficult and very long day.
On 10th April, I woke up at 7:00am in Wrocław. It was a Saturday. I got up unusually early, despite the fact that the day before, I had stayed up late. Already after 7:00am I had received information about what had happened in Smoleńsk. I started calling friends from the media – we were all terrified of what could have happened and what the consequences might be. We asked each other if any journalists, photographers or public figures we knew could have been onboard the plane.
When the official information was given just before 9:00, I burst into tears – I think like all of Poland that day. At 10:00, I went to the centre and returned to the pub I had left only six hours earlier. I ordered a vodka. I was shocked at how normal the streets looked, as if people didn’t know how to react yet.
In the evening, I took a train to Warsaw. ‘The New York Times’ called to have me photograph something for them; they wanted something personal. Early in the morning on Sunday, I reached Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, and I felt a shiver. There was a piercing moment of silence and internal lament, although hundreds, if not thousands, of people were standing in front of the Presidential Palace.
From the start, I was wondering whether this tragedy would unite or divide us. Unfortunately, already from Sunday, I was hearing discussions, grievances and conspiracy theories. People began selling Polish flags at sky-high prices; others stole photographs taken by their acquaintances from the Internet just to print and sell them to passers-by.
I tried to focus on mourning, uncertainty, sadness – on my emotions – in order to remember and photograph them. I was photographing throughout all the days of mourning, often attempting to unwind with friends in the nearby ‘Przekąski Zakąski’ [literally: ‘Appetisers & Snacks’] pub. We were all depressed and exhausted. We worked from early morning until 1:00 to 3:00am the next day.
I used an analogue camera, so each night, I developed and scanned the photos at Relax [a photo laboratory in the centre of Warsaw]. They treated us as a priority and shifted all their other tasks for us.
Before 10th April, I was in England for almost two weeks, where I was working on a report on pubs. Unexpectedly, the news broke out about the tragedy near Smoleńsk. Few details were given, only who was on board and where the flight was heading. One detail was the most significant – nobody had survived.
I remember standing somewhere on a street in North London, looking around the busy intersection at the people hurrying somewhere, and I remember thinking that I was afraid to go back to Poland – because all hell would break loose there.
All flights to Poland were cancelled due to a volcanic explosion in Iceland. I thought – what a bizarre coincidence. Before I could go home, I was listening in on the British. Many of them were very emotional about the tragedy that happened to my nation. They felt sorry for me and supported me. Deep inside, both they and I knew that this was an extremely important moment, an ending and a beginning of something new.
That day, a phone call from my parents woke me up with information that a plane with the President aboard had crashed in Smoleńsk and that everyone was killed. I remember how I was trying to gather my thoughts while in total shock, and how, with hands trembling, I turned on the TV – afraid of what I would see.
The shock was mixed with disbelief and an emotional déjà vu from 11th September 2001. For an hour, I was unable to get up from the couch – absorbing the news. Then the phone started ringing, and together with colleagues from NAPO, we decided to meet at the Presidential Palace. A crowd of Warsaw residents had already gathered there. It was very difficult for me to photograph that day because the role of the eyes was important and poignant; people's gazes, people's tears. I lacked the courage to take close-ups, to take my camera and intrude upon people’s intimacy, pain and sadness. I focused on broader plans.
After two days, Krakowskie Przedmieście Street and the surrounding area became a fair. I photographed it, feeling the absurdity of the situation, but ultimately, these photos did not end up in the joint mourning project that we published as an agency. I regretted not being able to go with my friends to the funeral of the President and his wife in Kraków. Throughout the week, we were very supportive of each other, helpful, meeting each other at the ever memorable and much missed ‘Przekąski Zakąski’ outside the Presidential Palace.
On the day of the President’s funeral, the sun shone strongly in Warsaw, and thanks to that, the colours outside were vibrant, which after a week of sadness and national mourning surprised me with their intensity and energy. In some spots, some greenery was coyly trying to come through.
It was difficult to talk about anything else at that time. Ninety-six people. I had the impression that this tragedy concerned us all – that everyone knew someone, or that at the least, they knew someone who knew someone who had lost loved ones as a result of this disaster.
I had been photographing politics for years, so there were a lot of these types of connections on my list, but the most deeply felt was the conversation I had with a would-be heroine of one of my photos. For several weeks, I had been arranging to take a portrait of an art critic for a design portal. We had postponed the meeting for a long time, so I knew quite a lot about the plans and life of my interlocutor.
On 10th April, I landed in Warsaw after returning from Chernobyl. I immediately went to Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. After a few hours, as previously agreed, I called the art critic again. In a calm voice, she told me that for the time being, she would not be able to meet – that her husband, who had worked with the President, had died in the disaster.
I offered my condolences. We never spoke again, and I never made her portrait. That conversation has remained with me till this today.
I remember there were days when I was photographing four to five funerals a day. I came to take a photo and almost immediately had to drive to another place. I photographed the funerals of 36 people in various places throughout Poland. I remember that it was quite easy to photograph – no one bothered or forbid me.
I mainly remember the atmosphere of this special time – a kind of subcutaneous tension. I live in Warsaw's Ochota district, and at that time, I saw black cars with the bodies of the victims of the disaster coming from the airport on Raszyńska Street. I also remember the moment when the car with the coffin of Maria Kaczyńska drove through Zawisza Square and people were throwing daffodils and tulips along its route. It was moving and unifying.
These were such exceptional days that no one looked twice at a photographer. I photographed the mourning ceremony at Piłsudski Square as well as the candles at the Presidential Palace on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street.
I had the impression that this was another turn of history, some […] dance from which we could not free ourselves. The aesthetics of the Holga [giving the impression of low quality, burdened with optical errors], which I was using at that time, somehow fit the dreamlike atmosphere.
I remember my wife's scream. After that, things took a dynamic turn. I got in the car and rushed to the Embassy of the Russian Federation. I knew the way by heart, because the week before, I had received a visa to fly to Smoleńsk on 7th April.
At that time, we landed at the same airport. I received my passport with the visa in less than a minute, without fees. At the same time, the lady in the window sent fax confirmations of visas of the persons onboard the aircraft. I already had the Russian one, and now a transit visa through Belarus.
It's Saturday, the consulate is closed. I call and knock. Silence. But, without hesitation, the decision was made – let's go!
At the border in Brest, as usual, a long queue. I pass the standing cars, forcing my way towards the entrance. We shout: ‘We are journalists!’ The Polish Border Guard lets us pass after a quick check. OK, now the Belarusians. We take out our press cards and put them up to the car window. A wave of the hand – they didn’t even check our passports.
We arrived in Smoleńsk at 4:00am. The view ahead of us was hard to witness. You could see the plane's tail from the street. Small birches and tiny pieces of aluminium everywhere. Surreal. Life was going on as if nothing had happened – old Ladas with ridiculous spoilers driving by, a pair of newlyweds posing for photos, ordinary people going to work. I thought – they don't see it, do they?
The wreck pulled us in like a magnet. Now, I regret not photographing those moments.
On the other side of the road stood a hotel on a small hill. After a long day spent at the crash site – including being in constant anticipation of the development of the events, after chasing the FSB [Federal Security Service, the principal security agency of the Russian Federation] just to get a better shot – we sat on the bench in front of the entrance.
In the evening, when the sun was setting, the tail still lay there, muddy, bent – in an unnatural position. I will never forget that silence.
The catastrophe took the life of my friend, Aram (Arkadiusz) Rybicki. I also knew Anna Walentynowicz well and went with my camera to her funeral, although it turned out later that it was not her funeral. However, I had no ambition to work on this topic on a regular basis; I only took Mju [a pocket film camera] notes.
On Monday, after the catastrophe, workers left the shipyard and headed to Solidarity Square to pay tribute to the victims at the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers. I took a series of photographs there for the project Stocznia [Shipyard], and I used two of them in a book of the same title in 2013. They are not signed, so people learnt about their context only during guided tours of the exhibitions. The photograph on the bridge is absolutely unique; I think about a third of the plant's crew is there, maybe more. Such a photograph could have only been taken in the 1980s, when 15,000 employees were working there.
Currently, on this bridge, which is a road to the part of the Shipyard still operating on the island of Ostrów, you can see at most a few, maximum a dozen people at the same time. The bridge is often empty. I knew this view and at the same time knew that it could be a unique opportunity. I had just enough time to set up in the right spot, and I took the photographs.
smolensk air crash
Interviews conducted in Polish by Michał Dąbrowski, translated by Agnes Dudek, Apr 2020