Photo Essays

A Photographer Retraces His Grandfather’s 1,300-Mile Escape from a Soviet Prison Camp

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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016), published by Brave Books (all images courtesy Michal Iwanowski)

In 1945, the final year of World War II, Anton Iwanowski and his brother Wiktor escaped from a Soviet gulag in a stolen rowboat. During the long voyage that followed, the pair of fugitives had to stay clear of people: They traveled mostly by night, hitched rides on freight trains, and dodged gunshots and Russian troops. They slowly made their way through Russia, Belarus, and Lithuania, sleeping in turns in forests, living on mushrooms, berries, and the occasional stolen cabbage. Three months and 1,367 miles after the escape, the brothers arrived safely at their home in Wroclaw, Poland.

Nearly 70 years later, Anton Iwanoski’s grandson, photographer Michal Iwanowski, retraced this journey using makeshift maps his uncle Wiktor had drawn. To document the trek through “a modern fugitive’s eyes,” he, too, tried to avoid people. The images from this 1,300-mile walk are now published in Clear of People (Brave Books), alongside old family photographs and Wiktor’s written account of his flight. Even out of context, the landscape photographs are mysterious and cinematic, like scenery from a dark Eastern European fairytale, but they take on extra power paired with the story of Iwanoski’s fugitive ancestors.

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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)

It wasn’t until after his grandfather and great-uncle had died that Iwanowski understood the significance of their saga. “I remember the journey being mentioned at home, but I never made much of it when I was younger,” Iwanowski told Hyperallergic. “My grandparents were both witty and funny, good storytellers, they did not create an air of martyrdom or heroism, so in many ways their past sounded like a fantasy to me.” The reality of the story only hit home when he read his uncle’s self-published memoir, Vilnius My Homeland, which detailed a harrowing wartime youth. The two brothers had fought with the Home Army, a Polish resistance movement that used guerrilla tactics against the Nazis. Russian troops, wary of the Home Army’s threat to their intended takeover of Poland, captured the brothers in Lithuania in 1944. They spent a year in prison camps in Kaluga, Russia, near Moscow, before escaping.

“When I think of it now, having done some research and having visited the places, I realize how humble and self-aware they were,” Iwanowski said. “When working on this project, I spent most of my time walking and regretting having missed the boat, so to speak — as both my grandparents had already been dead by that point. All the questions I suddenly had on my mind could not be answered straightforwardly, directly from the source.”

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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)

In attempt to answer these questions himself, Iwanowski walked eight hours a day through rural Eastern Europe, often in wet clothes, uphill, against the wind, in subzero temperatures. “But every night I had a roof above my head and a hot shower, so I can’t really complain,” he said. (He let himself stay in motels most nights, the main deviation from his grandfather’s script.) “Minor inconveniences, I would say. Nothing in comparison to the real fugitive experience.” Whereas his grandfather and great-uncle survived an ambush from Russian troops, the photographer’s biggest enemies were ticks and midges, mud holes and sharp branches. “I managed to make it without any injuries,” he said. “I kept myself in check by remembering how much more difficult it had been for the real fugitive. I was not in danger. I was not hungry. I had a smart phone to call for help if I needed to. So there was really no justification for a self-pity party, even though it was tempting at times.”

While the politics surrounding this route have transformed since 1945, most aspects of the landscape have not. “The trees, the roads, the rocks and hills looked the same for me as they had for my grandfather, I am sure of it now,” Iwanowski said. “As I walked, it was almost like being in a time capsule. At times I almost felt we were occupying the same space, crossing the river Oka at the same time, keeping to the same path, hearing the same foresters’ saws in the distance.”

Using only one camera and one lens — a prime 50mm — Iwanowski focused on photographing significant landmarks from his ancestors’ sojourn. “My uncle described a railway bridge leading into Kozielsk, Russia, where they had been ambushed,” he said. “As I stood on that bridge, I could see exactly where that scene must have taken place. That was a moment of intense connection.” In frosty light, the grays, browns, greens, and blues of these rural landscapes are accented by small signs of human life: Small fish in a plastic cup on a rock; a few telephone wires over a barn; the odd car or freight train; graffiti scratched on a rock wall; a plastic deer’s head poking out of snow.

The photographs focus on a single family history, but they’re also meant to stand in for countless untold stories of exodus. “[I didn’t think] their story was exceptionally important or unusual. Just the opposite,” Iwanoski said. “Having spent a month in Lithuania, a country with difficult and complex history, I was reminded the land was filled with stories of displacement and loss. And there is no room in history books to fit all those stories and people. So I wanted to see if I could create that space with images.”

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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)
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Michal Iwanowski, from ‘Clear of People’ (2016)

Clear of People by Michal Iwanowski is available from Brave Books.

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