Artists try to save Gdansk shipyards – in images
The view is stark as the birthplace of Poland’s Solidarity movement faces possible closure.
Gdansk, PolandSkip to next paragraph
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When Michal Szlaga got his first job at the Gdansk shipyards five years ago, he was fresh out of the arts academy, a struggling photographer desperate for money. He was hired as a shipyard painter, a job that required getting up at 4 a.m. for a day of punishing manual labor in the harsh winter of northern Poland. One morning he woke up crying.
He lasted eight days. Then he quit.
But Mr. Szlaga couldn’t leave; he may not have been able to hack it as a painter, but as a photographer he was hooked. This giant industrial complex – site of the beginning of the end of the communist Bloc – holds a hallowed place in Poland’s collective memory, even as it disappears off this nation’s economic map.
“These are the most recognized shipyard workers in the world. They are heroes for some people,” Szlaga says, explaining why he traded winches and blowtorches for his camera and began documenting the men and women who spent their lives there. “I realized I could only take pictures. It’s all I could do here, really.”
He’s not alone. For seven years, a colony of artists like him have lived and worked among the towering cranes and 19th century buildings.
For Poland, and most of the Western world, the Gdansk shipyards are much more than a place to build ships – they’re the cradle of the legendary Solidarity Movement. Here in 1980, an electrician named Lech Walesa led 17,000 workers in a series of strikes that triggered the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. Solidarity become a powerful political force, launching Mr. Walesa into international prominence. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and the Polish presidency in 1990.
Today the shipyards are fighting again – this time for their very survival. Financially stricken by the breakup of the Soviet Union and rapid privatization, only five ships were built here last year, down from 35 a year during the 1970s. Where 20,000 people once worked, today there are around 3,000. There’s a very real possibility the shipyards will soon close down completely.
It’s a call to action for Szlaga.
“This place is an obsession because it’s disappearing,” he says. “The more it disappears, the more photos I want to take. They keep knocking down buildings, so I feel like I have to.”
Looking through his pictures, you start to understand: Faces covered in grease and creased by decades of hard labor look directly into the camera, unsmiling. These are stark images of shipyard work – men and metal in a surreal landscape of oversized machinery and crumbling buildings. The compelling photos have gained international notice – Szlaga won a prestigious Lucie Award this year and exhibits in the US, Austria, and Sweden.
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This marriage of art and industry began in 2001, when management decided to rejuvenate the grounds by renting out cheap studios to artists. Szlaga and 25 other photographers, painters, dancers, and architects moved in. They all lived and worked together in a building only a few hundred feet from where Walesa signed his landmark agreements with the communist authorities.
“We were the first [artists] here,” explains Szlaga. “That’s why people were so enthusiastic about creating something. The atmosphere was magic, extraordinary.”