,,Gdańsk Suburbia” 1995-2004 – text

Gdańsk has always been a very unique city. It is one of the largest harbors on the Baltic coast and there were always many conflicts concerning to which territory it should belong or who should rule it. This even constituted a pretext for German army to attack Poland and consequently caused the outbreak of the World War II. Later Gdańsk also played a significant role in world history. It is the place where the Solidarity movement originated and where workers of the Gdańsk shipyard, among them the icon of the revolution in 1980 – Lech Wałęsa – the shipyard electrician, and their fight to free Poland triggered political changes in the East-Bloc countries. As a result of the changes the Iron Curtain was torn apart and the Communist regime in Eastern Europe fell. All these events took place twenty-five years ago; Wierzbicki was five years old at that time. Paradoxically, the first day Jerzy Wierzbicki began photographing his hometown was also the last day Lech Wałęsa was the president of Poland. Soon afterwards Jerzy departed to Poznań to study archeology at the Adam Mickiewicz University. He frequently traveled to his hometown and photographed. The fact that he lived in a different city, as well as his historical educational background prompted him to explore places of interest to him even more carefully.

At the beginning he photographed old, abandoned and decaying shipwrecks lying abundantly in port canals and off shore. Soon he felt the need to depict people – ordinary inhabitants of the harbor districts. Often poor and unemployed, they embodied the part of Polish society which did not benefit from the conducted reforms. Wierzbicki would visit their neighborhoods and present their lifestyle not deprived of folk customs and traditions. But many scenes observed in his photographs have now become scarce and certain folk rites have fallen into oblivion as we live in an era of globalization. Our world is becoming more and more unified and forces us to look, behave and live in a standardized manner. Wierzbicki tries to prevent this valuable uniqueness from sinking into oblivion. He has also depicted traditional, yet disappearing professions, for instance fishermen at work. However, their bulltrout-fishing method is now vanishing. From over twenty fishing crews now only half remain. As a result of economic changes and the country’s policy, many traditional professions became unnecessary and workplaces were closed. But that is not only the fishermen’s fate. The famous Gdańsk shipyard also suffered from the changes. After World War II the Gdańsk shipyard was the largest shipbuilding site in Eastern Europe. These days it has lost much of its prestige, the number of employees has been dramatically reduced and what remains is a mere shadow of its former glory.

In 2000 Wierzbicki was finishing his studies in Poznań and his regular visits in his hometown allowed him to look at the whole project from a different perspective. At that time the title of the whole project Suburbia was coined. However, it was not supposed to designate typical suburbs – living estates away from the city center – but places and people who are not in the heart of attention as they are not perceived representative. The whole photographic project lasted for another four years. It was completed at the moment of Polish accession to the European Union. Wierzbicki’s photographs tell a story of an epoch of transitions in Poland. They were taken at a very particular moment of Polish history – the time of great changes and the turning point. They show the way from communism to capitalism, from Eastern-Bloc to the European Union. This relatively short span when Poland, freed from decades of communist rule, was struggling in order to catch up with the rest of the Western world.

Maja Hrehorowicz