From The Photographer: The Polish Border

On a grey morning in Warsaw, Poland, I met with four of Care International’s team outside their offices, with our videographer Rafal. We were embarking on a two-day whistlestop assignment through Poland to gather photo and video content for the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and International Women’s Day. The first top on our tour was Autonomia in Krakow, whose purpose is to provide support to and empower Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian women.

A woman walks past the entrance to Autonomia. Eden Sparke / CARE International UK / Arete

The building sits on the side of a busy road, and even though the large windows reveal the bright interior, many people walk by without a glance. But had they looked in that night, they would have seen a group of women – many wearing the black Autonomia sweatshirts – gathered together for a social event organised by Olga Lanievska.

Olga Lanievska poses for a photo in the lobby of Autonomia. CARE International UK / Eden Sparke / Arete

Olga seemed uncomfortable in front of the camera, but warmed up to me after a while and we managed to communicate through hand gestures and enthusiastic nodding. She is a certified trainer of WENDO – a self-defence art centred on women. Sadly, we didn’t get to see any WENDO in action, but the women that Autonomia and Olga support were having fun making badges and fabric painting, which made for some great photos.

A member of Autonomia takes part in sponge painting at a social event. CARE International UK / Eden Sparke / Arete

Autonomia is the kind of place filled with interesting people where I could have happily shot all night. But after hiding in a plant three times trying to get a particular shot of women painting fabric, even I had to concede that it was time to let them enjoy their evenings in peace.

The next morning, we walked to the minibus past a group of vans parked in the town square, which Rafal told me were providing visas services for Ukranians. Indeed, there was already a large crowd waiting around them – a small reminder of just how many people were being affected by the conflict.

A sign on a platform at Przemyśl train station. CARE International UK / Eden Sparke / Arete

We drove onwards towards the Ukrainian border, and the town of Przemyśl (pronounced ‘Shamesh’), which has seen thousands of refugees pass through thanks to its train station. We walked through the empty ticket office onto the platforms to catch a glimpse of what, for many Ukrainian refugees, is their first landing point in Poland.

It was a challenge to capture the mood that hung over the station. The train from Ukraine is due to arrive at 2pm, but it’s often a few hours delayed. It feels like the station is holding its breath until the next trainload of people seeking shelter from the invasion arrive.

A woman makes pierogis in the kitchen of Ukrainian House in Przemyśl. CARE International UK / Eden Sparke / Arete

Station visited, we drove 10 minutes through town to Ukrainian House. White this grand building’s massive interior once served to promote Ukrainian culture, this latest escalation has seen it pivot to providing a whole host of services, from childcare and language learning to legal advice. But today we were here to see one thing in particular; a group of women who dedicate hours of their day to making pierogis for refugees living in a nearby shelter.

As Rafal and I manoeuvred around each other and tried hard not to get in the way of everyone in the small kitchen, I had the luxury of being able to focus almost entirely on beautiful detail shots of this well-engineered process, as well as portraits of the women capable of producing hundreds of pierogis at a time.

Oksana Hurij-Podwyszynska poses for a photo in the kitchen of Ukrainian House. CARE International UK / Eden Sparke / Arete

Finally, we had some interviews to conduct. A lot of the time while working for Arete, I will lead the interview to allow the videographer to focus on the shot, but with the partner present and leading, I was able to really absorb the conversations.

Despite their different struggles, there was one common thread between all of the women we interviewed. While we in other parts of the world may think of the war with Russia only having begun one year ago, they all referred to the last twelve months as merely an escalation of a conflict that has been raging – in one way or another – since 2014. The acute nature of this current situation might be making headlines now, but once the news agenda has moved on, it’s crucial that we remember that the stories, and the women who carry them, deserve our support as much as ever.

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