Notes and observations | Poland

“When photographing, I had to wear protective goggles”

Polish photographer Natalia Kepesz travelled to her hometown of Złotoryja in southwestern Poland for her latest works. She also documented a new Polish trend, military summer camps for local children 

A 14-year-old boy in military uniform is sitting under an olive-green tarpaulin by a tree. He looks out from under the tarpaulin. Two weapons are leaning against the tree trunk.

A boy poses at a military weekend camp near Gdansk

Interview conducted by Gundula Haage

Translated from German by Cathrin Schaer

Water sports: A youth dives in the pool with his rifle at a military camp in Mrzeżyno

Ms. Kepesz , in our dossier on Poland we present works from two of your photographic essays. One is titled “Goldberg”, which is a town in Lower Silesia (today Złotoryja). You were born there. What sort of things do you associate with the place you grew up in? 

I know the feeling of rootlessness very well. No families in Goldberg have lived there for many generations. Because when Lower Silesia became part of Poland after 1945 [and the end of World War II], the Germans that had lived there fled.

You can find the wonderful old ruins of their houses in the middle of nature there. I always remember how, as children, we’d climb around in those ruined old villas, looking for treasure.

A lot of the people who lived there had to leave very quickly and they left their valuables behind. We would always find old porcelain or jewellery. There are also a lot of stories about that area.

One was the rumour about the “golden train”, which said that at the end of WWII, a train carriage full of gold and jewellery was hidden somewhere near Walbrzych. Apparently it’s supposed to be the  long lost treasure of Wroclaw. Even today people go into the woods searching for it.

Your second photo series, named Niewybuch, shows children playing war games in military camps. What gave you the idea of photographing them? 

It's become popular for parents to send their children to summer camps or weekend camps where they do military drills. I find the idea - of training kids with weapons that are not at all age-appropriate - a difficult one and I wanted to tackle that. 

Some of the pictures are very martial in nature and show armed children wearing unforms. What was it like photographing those scenes? 

I felt quite emotional. At times, it really felt like I was at war. When photographing them, I had to wear protective goggles because even though they're just shooting plastic pellets in the forest you can get hurt. And the children were all very earnest about it. Nobody stepped out of character.

Participants at a summer camp in Mrzeżyno undertake a military exercise

What sort of role does military education play in the Polish education system? 

The “child who fights” is an heroic sort of figure in Poland. Even when I was at school, it was an important part of our history lessons, to learn that children had fought for the nation too during WWII. However since the [right wing] Law and Justice party has been in power, there is much more nationalistic content in Polish lessons. The army and a military education are seen as very positive, which doubtless accounts for the attraction of these military summer camps. It actually irritates me.