I owe the love of photography to my father Franciszek. By simply looking at the seemingly ordinary family moments over the years, I had shaped my sub conscious mind to intuitively know what a great image looks like.
I am so very grateful that I still own his old Praktina camera.
But he was not the only photographer that has influenced my life.
The pictures you are looking at are from a different time in my life, a moment which I wish to share with you.
The first photo was taken somewhere around my old neighbourhood. I grew up nestled comfortably in building number three of Bohaterow Westerplatte, in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
That’s me on the right. Posing stoically for the camera. Those are my hand me down shorts and shirt. An inheritance from someone who outgrew them, and let’s not even mention the haircut.
My friend Marcin is on the left, sitting on his bicycle.
In Poland, I had three sets of friends. I had friends that I went to school with. Friends who lived in my apartment building and friends who I grew to love as an altar boy. Finally the fourth set, which isn’t really a set, was my best Bartek.
That’s him and I, in the picture below Marcin.
The photo was taken right outside the only building I knew so well as a child. If you were to see the building as a while, mine was the third. In this photo however, it is the first ugly slab of concrete pictured on the right.
The Soviet inspired architects at the time, designed this very mathematically efficient distribution of living spaces, and it held three apartments per entrance, for a sum of sixty inhabitable holes, and five points of entrance.
As you entered, there was an apartment on the left, the right, and in the middle. The left and right ones, had balconies on the pictured side of the complex. The people in the middle apartment had a balcony all to themselves, on the other side.
Marcin lived on the right, on the second floor.
We lived in the left apartment, on the fourth floor. Our little penthouse.
The picture of me with my hands wrapped around Bartek is a bit unusual. Looking back, I am in extremely grateful for our friendship, because on the surface we were exact opposites.
I was healthy.
He was a hemophiliac.
He had a very rare disorder that prevented his blood from clotting, which meant that if he ever cut himself, he would face to possibility of bleeding out and dying.
The fact that he is standing next to me, next to my home, is nothing short of a miracle.
Bartek’s family was very cautious, which is why I often visited him in his apartment. He didn’t go out very often.
I am not even sure how we got to be such close friends. Looking back, I remember my mother one day, giving me an address on a piece of paper, and asking me to visit a boy who lived there. I went, and we really hit it off.
We had other differences too.
My dad was a member of the Solidarity Movement and pain in the ass to those in authority, culminating in his unwelcomed stays in Potulice, as a political prisoner. Bartek’s dad, if you can believe it, was ironically a devoted member of the Polish Communist Party.
At the time, I served in the capacity as an altar boy, in at least two or three Masses a week. Bartek on the other hand, was an Atheist.
I can’t help to smile and think that we were the best of friends.
I smile because this is how it should be. Precious little matters at that age, until someone later convinces you that the things you take so joyously, are actually nothing more than a gigantic mountain that you simply cannot overcome.
The two pictures were taken by a nice, wondering, neighbourhood photographer.
I guess you could say that he was an amateur photographer of sorts. He went around the neighbourhoods and graciously took pictures of us, and later came back to give us the photos.
He never asked for anything in return.
I felt sorry for this man. He seemed like a gentle giant at the time. He was going a bit bald and he was very large. Not in a good way. He was simply fat, if I may be blunt and honest here.
He had a huge bulging stomach and a dress shirt that was always untucked to cover up by his massive girth. A bit unusual, considering the country had a difficult time finding something to eat.
He spoke in a very deliberate and slow manner, as though he had a learning disability. But regardless, he was very kind and friendly.
I have to be grateful because, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have any picture of my friend Marcin or Bartek.
I should note that the older kids in the neighbourhood, the teenagers that is, were extremely mean to him. They called him names and would punch and kick him.
I remember feeling so bad him and the way he was treated, that my mother had to spend time hugging and consoling me on several occasions.
I didn’t see him too often, but I was always happy when I did.
I will never forget him.
I won’t easily forget him not because of what he gave me. I will never forget him because of what he tried to take away from me.
I’m not sure if it was the picture on the left or the one on the right, that he came to deliver to me one sunny afternoon, but that was the reason I saw him.
He caught me coming home, when I was almost at the edge of the entrance to my apartment. There was no one around and I remember him calling my name.
After some time, I found myself alone with him, just inside the entrance. There was a flight of steps leading to my home, and a door leading towards the cold cellars, where we stored our food for the winter months.
He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and asked me if I would do him a favour and show him my ‘peepee’. He said it would be quite easy. Lots of boys have done it and liked it. All we had to do was just quietly walk downstairs. No one would know.
This forgotten memory from my early childhood days flooded back to me when I was sitting in Canada, in grade eleven, years later, in a law class, learning about pedophiles and the need to protect young children from predators.
A voice of an angel inside my head simply told me to run. I found the whole notion of me showing him my penis, absolutely hilarious. I giggled and I told him I had to go. I ran as fast as I could.
Looking back. I don’t know what I was doing. I don’t know why I said no. I don’t know why I ran so fast. I really don’t know what I did to deserve being saved, while so many other children do not get that opportunity.
I have tears in my eyes at this very moment, not as a victim, but because I really don’t understand why I was so lucky to be spared something so ugly.
I can’t even imagine who I would become. I shudder to think what choices in life I would have made.
Today, I certainly know why the older kids would beat the living shit out of him. At some point, all kids grow up and get bigger. If I stayed in Poland, and didn’t run up those stairs, I might have eventually put in a few licks in myself.
I don’t think about this moment very often, but it does come flooding back, especially when I accidently gaze upon the two wonderful faces in those pictures. As wonderful as Marcin and Bartek are, I will be forever be connected to the hand that held the camera.
I feel a bit ridiculous, that I spent any time shedding tears for this man. The man who wanted to hurt me.
I am grateful for those ugly concrete stairs, for my instinct, and my fast moving feet.
I thank you for reading.
This wasn’t easy to write. I can’t remember how many times I sat down to write it over the last few years, but have always changed my mind.
I’m not even sure why I needed to write this today, or why I did, but is certainly scares me to post it, so I definitely will.
There is a hidden story in every photograph.
There is much that lies beneath the surface.
This is why I have such a tremendous passion for photography.