Director, cameraman, photographer, former war correspondent of Gazeta Wyborcza.
Bernaś got his first Smena camera in 1983, when he was 10 years old. He created his first darkroom at home, in his room. After high school he wanted to apply to study at a film school, but he graduated from English studies which he took up "because it was a reasonable thing to do".
Facing the question "what’s next", Bernaś chose to study photojournalism at Collegium Civitas. It was there that Maciej Drygas (a Polish documentary filmmaker who also works in radio) and Andrzej Zygmuntowicz (a Polish documentary photographer) made Bernaś realise how powerful documentary photography was:
I discovered narrating by means of photos, building up a story, creating a photo-essay. It was like a new toy.
The world of ordinary people
Initially Bernaś co-operated with Agencja Forum. At that time, he did, among other projects, a reportage about children who were metal scrappers, and created the cycle Kształty dźwięku [editor’s translation: Shapes of sound] about the expressive conversations between hearing-impaired people. He depicted ordinary people, such as nurses, the heroines of his documentary photo series called Siostrzyczki [Sisters]. The latter cycle was awarded with a Grand Prix by Newsweek in 2002.
As photographs tackling social matters didn’t sell well, Bernaś had been moonlighting at TV sets. He was thinking of moving to Spain, because, as he said, "I would rather teach English or wait on tables there, then pretend to be a photographer here, in Poland". Right before he was supposed to leave he went on a job interview to Gazeta Wyborcza. He got accepted. It was 2002.
After a year of working for Gazeta Wyborcza, Bernaś went to the Iraq War as a reporter (where he created a photo-cycle depicting local women). Shortly after he experienced an earthquake in Bam, Iran. He spent New Year’s Eve of 2003 among the wreckage, together with the Iranians, sitting by a fire. This is when he felt his job made some sense:
If I am to nearly die, which has already happened several times, it has to be for some bigger truth. I was interested in ordinary people.
"After my first journey as a war reporter I quickly got engaged. I proposed in December. I insouciantly gave her a ring and asked <<Will you marry me one day?>>". It was as if Bernaś felt the danger and tried to beseech fate. During his second leave for Iraq he and his friend were the only two journalists in Baghdad. In Poland they were considered as missing.
He was growing more and more tired chasing news. In an interview for the website of Polish Film Institute Bernaś said:
My dreams were coming true, in a way, but I’ve started to notice drawbacks which got even more severe when press and the media stopped thinking about their mission and focused on selling instead.
He was thinking of changing his profession more and more often.
I didn’t see any point in press photography. Artistic photography wasn’t up my street either. I was looking for a simple message from the man in the street.
Looking for a story
Bernaś decided to take up studies at Wajda School. As he said:
I was thinking of film very early on. Later on, journalism popped up. It was my means to an independent expression. Everything I was doing was a substitute for film. Radio was like film for the visually-impaired, photography was a film without words. In fact I was looking for a form that would encompass a thought. I’ve never been a photographer that would take a single photo. I was looking for a continuum.
At the end of his education at Wajda School, Bernaś made the documentary Paparazzi about the Polish paparazzo Przemysław Stopp. His film debut was nominated for the European Film Awards in the Best Short Film category. At Camerimage, a film festival taking place in Bydgoszcz, Bernaś and the cameraman, Łukasz Żal, were awarded with a Golden Frog.
Paparazzi is the first Polish film to show the behind-the-scenes activity of the profession. The director observed the every-day hunt for celebrities and sensation – starting with following a Polish TV actress buying a potty for her kid, ending with tracing Roman Polański down in Switzerland. The film depicts a man confused about values, making choices every day and dealing with their consequences. For the director a paparazzi is someone who "crosses the borders of intimacy. They can be crossed in many ways, for instance by documenting situations in which a human being should be left alone". Bernaś once said in an interview that "art is supposed to expose that which is wrong". In his film he shows a cynic using every opportunity to take a photo he so much desires, but on the other hand – someone who hesitates. As the director commented:
I didn’t want to neither whitewash nor accuse anybody. I wanted to depict him as a contemporary, confused man. The opportunity of seeing one’s self with somebody else’s eyes can present a chance for escaping entanglements. When I was working as a documentary photographer, I truly despised paparazzis. But going to all these wars I myself dangerously approached the borders of ethics.
In Life of a Butterly Bernaś has also looked into a story of another perplexing figure – a mixed martial artist entering the ring. Analysing his own life, the director came to realise that leaving for places posing serious threat to safety were self-destructive on his part. Where does this stem from? As Bernaś said:
Through my films, I am looking for God, but not in a Catholic sense. I would rather say I think of it as of an idea of something that gives life a deeper meaning. I am looking for troubled figures, hoping I will find the bright side in their souls, which is hidden very deep. This is what I’ve managed to discover in my paparazzo.
Marcin Różalski is the protagonist of Life of a Butterfly. His story shows the prize one has to pay for ruthlessly pursuing a goal. Working on the full-length documentary film Bernaś prepared the short called Arena, which was presented in 2013 at Młodzi i Film festival in Koszalin.
Arena, an impression almost completely bereft of dialogues, served as a means to ask questions about human drive to self-destruction. What are the sources of the motivations of a man who chooses a life of constant fighting, mutilating his body and risking his health? Arena is a film about contemporary gladiators and an impression about inescapable pain, loneliness and sacrifice.
Originally written in Polish by Monika Rencławowicz, June 2012. Update BS November 2013. Translated by NS March 2017.