The prize-winning photographer and pedagogue has been a correspondent for National Geographic magazine since 1986, serving as head consultant to the Polish edition since 1999. He has traveled the world collecting stories and secrets through pictures,with a sincere look at the less glamorous corners of life.
The prize-winning photographer and pedagogue has traveled the world collecting stories and secrets through pictures,with a sincere look at the less glamorous corners of life
Born in 1953 in Warsaw, today he is a lecturer at the city's Academy of Fine Arts, as well as a visiting lecturer at other arts academies in Poland, Germany, U.S.A. and Italy. He is represented by the Visum agnecy in Hamburg, Image Collection in Washington and the American Society of Magazine Photographers. His photographs have been shown in the U.S.A., Canada, Japan, Germany, Israel and Holland, published in photography albums and in The New York Times, Time, Paris Match, Vogue, Die zeit and Elle. He has received a number of international prizes, including Poland's Gloria Artis award and is a member of the jury of the World Press Photo competition.
He established himself as a photographer in the 1980s with a photo essay published in National Geographic, titled The Last of Them. Today's Polish Jews (Ostatni. Współcześni Żydzi polscy). His images, and the accompanying article by Małgorzata Niezabitowska, spurred a huge amount of interest, with some 12,000 letters flooding the magazine's editorial office. As Tomaszewski shared in an interview with culture.pl,
In those times the world "Jew" wasn't to be spoken outside of commemorative events for the Warsaw Uprising. And we took on the subject mainly for ourselves, to find out for ourselves what it means to be a Jew. What Jews meant for Poland and what Poland meant for the Jews.
His photographs continued to spark interest and debate, such as Gypsies. Other People, Same as Us (Cyganie. Inni ludzie, tacy sami jak my), which documented the life of the Roma in Europe in the mid-1990s. He first had to win the trust of his subjects to gain entry into their world, a world which had not previously been seen by outsiders, and was careful not to commit any faux pas that would suddenly shut off his access to this private people. He spent 10 days in each one of 11 countries, preparing himself thoroughly for what he could expect to find and capture with his lens. The result is a rich series of intimate portraits of family life, everyday existence and celebration. As Tomaszewski says, "I capture the world in the most interesting moments. And this is what fascinates me".
Baroque shades of Silesia
Tomaszewski also aims his lens at Poles themselves. In 2007 he created a portrait series of Poland's impoverished countryside at the start of the new millennium, titled Just Next Door (Rzut beretem), which captures a significant moment in Poland's contemporary social history. In 2009 he photographed miners in Upper Silesia to create the Piece of Work (Cześć pracy) and Hades series, paying tribute to those whose lives are spent doing hard physical labour. As he described the process of making the series in conversation with Grzegorz Kopacz in the book The Deciding Moment (ed. Adam Mazur).
When I arrived in Silesia I was captivated by the spectacular colours and I wanted to bring it back to this place where it had disappeared. I looked into some books on Renaissance and Baroque painting. I realised that what I feel about Silesia, looking at its colours, is precisely what Renaissance painters had done 600 years ago, and later in the Baroque.
Other times he has taken his camera to the picturesque landscapes of the Podlasie region of Poland - Podlasie, a sugar factory in Indonesia - Sugar Town - and intimate black-and-white snaps of life in a Warsaw children's hospital in In the Centre (W centrum). Tomaszewski sees potential in a vast array of topics, without limits, as he explains in conversation with culture.pl,
There is nothing that cannot be photographed. The question is how to do so without stripping your subjects of their dignity. I can't imagine a situation in which I would steal a photograph, to take a picture without someone's permission. I ask questions, I listen, I look closely. In the end, when I become transparent, I take out my camera and press the shutter. I think of myself as a mailman, that perhaps I'm leaving something behind? I don't go to take a picture, I go to tell a story using visual language. I'm interested in the explanations that one human being offers another.
He elaborates on the limits of the subject's presence and the impact of his photography on the lives of his subjects in conversation with Hanna Maria Giza, saying
There was one time when a photograph of mine transformed the life of a person, actually, an entire village. In a photo-reportage on Salvador I showed a picture of a man who had lost his legs after stepping on a mine. He was a fisherman. Every day his wife would pull him out of his boat and carried him on her back 200-300 metres to and from the house at the edge of the lake where he fished. And so a wealthy lady in the United States saw the photo and wanted to buy him a wheelchair. We got in touch with him and he asked if he could get a motor for his boat instead. We sent him a huge motor for his boat, which let him get to places along the lake that he didn't have access to before. Within two years one motor changed the life of a village, residents were no longer hungry because they could catch more fish and eventually they began selling the fish.
From the "Rediscovering America" series by Tomasz Tomaszewski
25 years ago - in 1987 - Małgorzata Niezabitowska and Tomasz Tomaszewski traveled the U.S. and their reportage of the trip resulted in Discovering America, a series that was published in a special 100-year anniversary edition of National Geographic. The series also went on tour across Poland and was published as an album in 1993. This year he presented a reprisal of the project with Rediscovering America – A Generation Later. His work for the magazine took him to more than 60 countries around the world, but none fascinated him more than the United States. As he explained upon accepting the Czesław Miłosz award, together with Niezabitowska, for the new series in June 2013
For me, it's different most of all because here I feel a metaphysical experience of freedom, I can smell it in the air already at the airport after landing in the U.S. America is a country that defies description, it is a separate world divided into states and each of them is its own individual world. Over 25 years the world has changed, America has changed, we all changed.
Author: Anna Legierska, translated (with edits) by Agnes Monod-Gayraud
Sources: The Deciding Moment (ed. Adam Mazur), "Artyści mówią. Wywiady z mistrzami fotografii" (ed. Hanna Maria Giza), PAP, www.tomasztomaszewski.com, own sources