I guess when you have been doing something for nigh on' fifty years, there aren't many weeks that go by without some kind of memory, some anniversary which hops out from the cloudy mess of "today," and reminds you that there was Life in a previous era. For the most part, even as an ex-math major I have some disbelieving moments when I try and do the calculations of some thing which has very clearly made a long term impression, but seems impossible to really be "that long ago...." And so it is that yesterday marked a day which I shall remember for a very long time. It was the beginning of winter, 1981, in Poland, at a time when Solidarity and its vibrant leader Lech Walesa had created what would be come one of the first crashes of the Eastern bloc underpinnings. From small beginnings at the Gdansk shipyard, and building into something which spread across the whole of Poland, the movement itself became one of the "intolerables" which the Soviets, in their role as leader of the Warsaw Pact countries had decided must be put down. Like Hungary in 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968, Solidarity was a force which came from within, the "effect" which had been borne by the stilting force of the Communist orthodoxy. A human reaction to a not terribly human stimulus. It was clear in the fall of '81 that because of the rise of Solidarity, and the consequent flummoxing of Polish officials, that year-end articles in all the weeklies would look upon this social uprising as something of note. I was the recipient of another of those "magic phone calls..." -- an out of the blue call from Arnold Drapkin of TIME, who dangled one of those photographic trinkets in front of me. TIME was putting a team together to cover the next couple of weeks of activity in Poland, and would I join that group. Those calls which came the first week of December usually meant just one thing: MOY -- or as it was then known... (because it was mostly men...) the Man of The Year. Then as now it was one of the biggest stories in print journalism, and to most of us, it was pretty clear that Lech Walesa would be that Man. As usual I pretended that I had to check my schedule, but internally, from the moment Arnold say "Hi..." I was up and running. "Yes... " I said with a mildly diffident conviction. I mean, really, you never wanna let on that you're totally psyched to be asked to do that story, do you? Or maybe, just maybe, you do.
Logistics were a bit of an issue. I had no visa for Poland, and in the early 80s, they were about as easy to come by as an affordable mint Nikon SP on eBay. We thought of trying the consulate in New York, but after a day decided my chances might be better in Paris. There, things were a little more open, slightly less tense than with the Americans. So off I went to Paris, hoping to snag a visa quickly and head east to Warsaw. The Polish embassy was just off the Bld Ste Germain, a big imposing, 19th century palace of heavy rock, and I made it there on a Tuesday to apply for my visa, and hope for the best. It was cold, snowy, and very un-Parisian those few days, and while I did look after the visa process, annoying some chap in the Visa section a couple of times a day, my lasting memory of that waiting time is playing indoor tennis, bundled up, and emitting frosty breaths, with TIME photo editor Barbara Naglesmith. She'd lived in Paris for years, understood the ups and downs of difficult visas, and I think she just wanted to get my mind off of the worry. That was really the point. You see yourself as a journalist, a photo-fucking-journalist, and the thing you do best is take pictures. Waiting around in the snowy cold for a visa isn't exactly the kind of thing you are remembered for. Of course there were always people who would try and cheer you up, reminding you that spending a few days off the clock in the city of light isn’t such a bad thing, especially on someone else’s dime. But when you are picture hunting, when you are ready for the story, nothing is more frustrating than being a single sheet of paper away from cranking up your cameras.
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, I heard they had approved the visa, and I was ready to book. But I still had to convince the consul that if he could just stay open a few more minutes, and let me get there, I could be on Friday’s morning plane, and not lose another day. I remember how breathless I was, walking the stairs of the Consulate, and that feeling of great satisfaction as I walked out with my passport in hand. Then I realized there was little to be joyful about. I’d been on the story 4 or 5 days, and hadn’t taken a single picture yet. I tried to refocus as I packed my “worldsLargestHalliburtonCase” and took the Lufthansa flight which eventually got me to Warsaw. The TIME team had already started working the story. Saturday night there would be a big rally in Gdansk, Walesa speaking. But my path would be slightly different. In the morning I would go with Greg Wierzynski, a Polish born, American TIME correspondent, who still had family in the country, to one of his distant cousins’ farm, a couple of hours out of Warsaw. In the afternoon, another car would take Greg to the rally in Gdansk, and I would head back to Warsaw, and start working Sunday for real. Everything seemed to be falling in to place. We made it to the cousin’s farm, I shot like crazy, Greg left, and towards evening I headed back to the city. It was storming with snow flurries, and as we drove those country roads we kept passing long streams of APC’s and Eastern bloc Jeeps. I remember thinking, “that’s a LOT of armour…” followed by “hey, its the Warsaw pact.. that’s what they do!” Who knew?
Back at the hotel, during this time of privation, even the Intercon had virtually nothing in the cafe after 6 or 7pm. They closed early so that the staff could get home. But it meant nothing to eat except a bar of chocolate from the lobby “Hard Currency” store. You can only eat so much chocolate. In my room, later, I dumped my film and started making caption envelopes (we still have them!) About 11:30 I called the UPI office, to speak with my old friend Ruth Gruber, a yank who had worked her way across one Eastern bloc bureau after another for UPI, and was currently in charge of their Poland operation. We chatted a while, and at was exactly midnight, the line went dead. Dead. I tried hanging up and calling again. No luck. I gave up, went to bed, and tried sleeping off my nervous energy.
Early the next morning, unaware of what had happened overnight, I rose and wandered into the lobby. With all the international hacks staying there, the lobby of the hotel was a constant source of rumor, background, and lies, with a few actual facts tossed in as well. My memory is of the absolutely brobdinagian Danish Radio reporter, a man whose enormous and elongated pear shape was topped with a totally unruly mass of silver hair, racing around the lobby, in the fashion of a night watch man, yelling “the soldiers have raided Solidarinosc!!!” It took me a minute to try and fathom what had gone on. You try not to look to be TOO stupid, but sometimes you just have ask “what in the hell happened last night?” Walesa had been arrested backstage at the Gdansk rally, was being held by the Army and Poland had been declared to be in a state of Martial Law.
The shock of the news chilled my bones, but I grabbed my gear and headed to the Solidarity offices. Hundreds of files and papers were strewn about the place. There had obviously been a major sacking by the authorities, but there was almost no one there but a few other reporters, so I kept moving. I went to a church, ever mindful that Poland — whose Cardinal was now the Pope in Rome — was a devout Catholic country. From the church, there were other stops around the city, always trying to be on the alert for some one - a cop or a soldier, who might demand you give them that last roll of film you just shot. Sunday evening, I found myself back at the cathedral, the faces of the worshippers telling far more than could words. As the service ended, I wandered back into the street to find a group huddled in the cold, several women holding candles wrapped in paper lanterns. They didn’t say a thing. They didn’t have to. That night, that Sunday, was 35 years ago. It feels like a week ago. From time to time I remember some little moment of that trip, and they are crystal clear.
Then there was Sygma photographer Henri Bureau - the man who had once jokingly told me that owing to his propensity to show up just when the shit really hits the fan - that, in his words… when the leaders see me coming —- they tremble. Henri had gone to Gdansk, made the last pictures of Walesa before his arrest, and was now busy packing his bags to get out of town with his film. He called me over to where he was packing, his cameras stacked in his fishing bag, his winter boots next to them. “Have a look…” he said… and I did, looking at the boots and poking my hands inside. I handed them back to him. “Ca m’intreresse ce que tu fait…” (“I’m interested by what you’re doing…”) and then reached over, and pulled the inside bottom of his boot, yielding a dozen rolls of shot film - his Walesa take. If he wore the boots (this was way before the days of magnetometers & heavy xray machines) all the way home, his film would make it. I asked if he would carry my film, and he agreed, if I would agree to bring his cameras out. “Deal,” I said. I was probably the only photographer to leave Warsaw that week with a full set of both Nikons and Canons, not to mention a couple of M-4s.
Henri took the night train to Berlin, made it unscathed, though of course this being 1981 and no email, no social media, no internet to speak of…. we had no idea. He flew on to Paris, and his pictures ran around the world (including TIME.) We were cut off in Warsaw from what happened on the outside. It was said his pictures of that week bought him a house in the French country side. Yeah, that’s what the photo business used to be like. My films made it to Paris, then on to New York, and into several pages of that week’s magazine. But somehow the publishing never really held up to the combination of exhilaration, fright, anger, and worry which made for those few days of shooting Martial Law. Chris Niedenthal, the great Polish PFJ was a true friend. We trouped around the city for a couple of days, looking for something symbolic which could make a picture, but wouldn’t get us arrested. I remember the gut punch I felt when I’d mistakenly raised a camera in the car, just as we were being passed by a jeep-full of soldiers. Nothing happened, but it was a reminder that you still had to be cool.
A few friendships were solidfied that week. Most of us are used to the company of friends and are often good with strangers. We would often run into the same group of 50 photographers, no matter where you were around the world. But when you find yourself in inhospitable territory, and the job of photographer becomes many times more difficult, it can be very soothing to just have a few pals to have a drink with at the end of the day, before you had to do it all again, tomorrow. I waited a few more days, snuck all my film out on that same overnight train to Berlin, then flew to Paris, gave someone hopping off the plane Henri’s cameras, and then off to London, where I took my first and only flight on the Concord. Home in a couple of hours, only to wonder if anyone was taking notice of the pictures — and hopes that they would shed some light on what had happened that week. Those “2nd week of December” memories come back every year. You see a date on a calendar, the appointments secretary working on that cramped little desk in the back of your mind, sends a note to the frontal lobe, reminding you that it has only been 35 years - in my case, about half a life - since that week in Warsaw. Amazingly, in the course of the next year and a half - the summer of 1983 - as things calmed down, and Pope JPII came back for a 2nd and even more energizing trip to Poland, the Soviets and the Polish hardliners had no idea, their time was slowly coming to an end.
Sometimes it can be something as prosaic as a phone line being cut. You just cannot always know what it means, so you grab you camera, and try to figure it the hell out. When you see the small crowd outside the cathedral, with candle-lanterns trying to shed a bit of light in the oncoming night, make a few frames. You just never know. We’re just sayin’… David