Working as a freelance photojournalist has opened my eyes to so many different people and perspectives. Every day is different, which is beautiful but can be stressful at the same time. I’ve found embracing the unpredictability and remembering to enjoy the ride is key. Working as a freelancer also gives me the time and freedom to pursue stories I am interested in. While I spend most of the year working for editorial clients and corporate clients in Toronto, I make it a priority to set money and time aside to pursue personal work as well. I will take you through a recent three-week trip I made to Poland this year for a story exploring the territories my grandparents came from as part of a bigger project looking at the scattered Ukrainian diaspora.
Before I even lift my camera, there’s a lot of planning I need to do. The story isn’t new to me; it’s been on my mind for a few years now. When my last grandparent passed away in 2012, it really got me thinking about my roots and the connections to the culture beginning to fade. My grandparents were all born in the lands near the southeastern border of Ukraine and Poland in what was then ancestral Ukrainian land. The borders were constantly changing hands at that time, and the casualties mounted on both sides. In 1947, my grandparents, along with almost 150,000 Ukrainians, were deported and dispersed across Poland as part of military Operation Vistula. My parents immigrated to Canada in the late ’80s, and I grew up in the tight-knit Ukrainian diaspora in Toronto. I decide to start a project by turning my lens on what was closest to me. And after spending time photographing the diaspora in Canada as well as photographing in Ukraine during the Maidan protests, I want to add a chapter to the story by exploring the lands where the deportations happened.
In between assignment work in Toronto, I am reading books about the area to understand the historical context. I’m also looking at artwork and reading fiction from the area. I am spending a lot of time looking at a map, planning the route and researching the villages I will visit and their significance to the story. I am using my contacts in the diaspora community to find people I can visit along the way. After the deportations, some people returned, but not many. I want to find those people. It seems like a needle in a haystack, but I am optimistic. It usually just takes one person, who introduces you to three people, who introduces you to another three people, and so on. I am also talking with my father, who has worked on three documentary films about the area. In the end, he decides to come with me on this trip. It’s important to him as well to show me where we came from.
My father and I meet in Krakow, Poland, where we rent a car and set off on our journey. I pack light on gear. I usually like to work with one body and one lens—a Nikon D810 and a 35 mm lens. I also carry a 24-70 mm lens and a flash with me.
Szczawnik is the first village we visit. It is the village my maternal grandfather grew up in. As I step out of the car, it is one of those moments where illusion meets reality. Everything I had heard about the place had been painted in my mind from someone else’s memory. Instead of a village in 1940s Poland, I see newly built buildings funded with European Union money and a ski resort. I feel nothing. I feel no connection to the land that was supposed to be our homeland. My father sees my disillusionment and laughs, “Marta, places are constantly changing. You didn’t expect them to make a museum out of this.” It’s a tough story to illustrate because so much of it has passed and so much of it relies on memory. I’m asking myself, how do I communicate this in the present? I tell myself to keep going.
We start our days off early to make the most of the light. We get to Regietow, which is a village that once had 445 Ukrainians, who were deported. Almost 70 years later, the majority of the village is still uninhabited. What used to be plots of land are now overgrown by trees and bush. There is a cemetery at the top of the hill, but little else remains of the Ukrainians who used to live there. I see three people walking in a field and stop to talk to them. They are Ukrainians who were born here but deported under Operation Vistula. They’ve come back to visit their grandparents’ graves and pay their respects. I photograph them while they do this. It’s a little reminder to me, to always be curious and open to people, because you never know what stories they may have if you don’t take the time to stop and talk to them.
We visit my maternal grandmother’s village of Malastow. We have the contact of a man whose family we know in Toronto, and he promises to show us around. He introduces us to two women in the village who were also deported and returned. The trip so far has had a pretty rigid schedule, which makes it great to see a lot in three weeks, but I am longing for more depth. It feels right to stay in this village a while longer. I sit with the women and hear their stories. I photograph them through their daily life and hear them sing. One of the women, Antonina Bajus, remembers my grandmother. She sings a song they used to sing together, and I am brought to tears. It is through these types of encounters and listening to music that I really begin to feel a connection to the place. As my empathy and understanding of the story becomes deeper, it guides me with the feeling in which to photograph.
I make contact with a Ukrainian priest, Ivan Tarapatckiy, in Przemysl, Poland, and drive with him to his three parishes one Sunday. He is the sole priest for a region that, before the deportations, had over 100. “Trees now grow where our people once lived,” he says as forests and abandoned churches pass by our windows. The first parish he visits for the day is in Dziewiecierz, Poland. A total of four parishioners remain in the Ukrainian church in the village, which before the deportations by the Polish authorities in the 1940s, was populated by over 2,000 Ukrainians. I take photos of the church service and record audio of them singing.
Every night before bed, I am also downloading photos onto my laptop and backing them up on an external hard drive. I am batch captioning the photos as well to keep everything organized. I also carry a 32 GB USB key with me and put my favourite photos on this USB as a third backup in case of theft or loss.
We visit my paternal grandmother’s village. It’s the last village before the Polish-Ukrainian border. We can see the border crossing in the distance. “People often ask me where I was living before Toronto,” my father says. “I say Warsaw, but before that was Legnica in western Poland, and before that was Banie Mazurskie [where his parents were deported to] and before that was Honiatyn. But once you get to Honiatyn, it’s Honiatyn and Honiatyn and Honiatyn for centuries back.” It made me realize one moment in history scattered our family and countless others for generations. But it’s, of course, not the only one, just one that occurred within the families that were from these territories. After this chapter is done, there will be many more places across the globe to explore how cultural identity changes when displaced from their land.
And in the blink of an eye the trip is finished and I’m back home in Toronto. At home, I will make prints of the work and start to make edits. I will consult people I trust for help and step away from the story for a while, then come back and look at it with fresh eyes. Seeing as this is a very personal story, it’s even harder for me to edit, so an outsider’s perspective is key. They will be able to point out the photos that make an impact on them as photos, not with a whole back story that every photo comes attached with for me. At this point, I am also working on grants and seeing the holes in the story, which I need to go back and fill on another trip. I am working on pitches to editors. I also make sure to send pictures to the people I photographed through email or makes prints for my next trip to see them.
What I love about this job is that you basically start from nothing and watch the story come to life. You see expectations meet reality and see the story become fluid and living. And finally, when it’s published, to see people connect with it is the most beautiful thing.