Kacper Zapałowski Documents the Real People of Poland’s Protests

All images by Kacper Zapałowski. Used with permission.

“For me, it symbolizes something powerful, firm, and sudden…” says Kacper Zapalowski about his work during the current Polish protests around heavily restricting abortion laws. “Currently, they are one of the biggest protests in Poland to date. Over 100,000 people went to the capital city of Warsaw just yesterday, with many more in the rest of Poland.” There is something about Kacper’s images that really resonate with me. Maybe it’s the intensity in the peoples’ eyes. Though it could also be the way he framed them in a large protest. Shooting portraits the way Kacper did is pretty difficult. But Kacper finds a way to make us pay attention to the chaos. Singling out individuals is incredibly important. And seeing the faces of the people that protests affect can really impact our minds.

The Essential Photography Gear of Kacper Zapałowski

I shoot on a Fuji X-T20 with a 23mm lens at f/2. I always use a hand strap, since I’m afraid I will occasionally blackout and forget I’m holding a camera. The camera itself is very powerful and small, perfect to use in crowds on a street and events, pairing that with the even smaller 23mm f/2 Fujinon it’s something that doesn’t weigh you down. I picked the 23mm thinking I will get some documentary photos with many subjects in the frame, so something wide was obvious, but I believe I prefer a 50mm or 55mm (75mm & 85 on full-frame) due to how it renders a wider face for portraits, but this is just from observations. This camera, since I got it, always excited me to grab it and go shoot, I think that’s a very important thing, after all, why would you need that medium format Mamiya 645 beast if it doesn’t excite you to use it. And the small and compact format with the IQ of a bigger X-T2 was important in a way that it hardly gives me dilemmas whether I should take it with me, since even if I do and won’t go around to use it, it doesn’t bother having it on me, and I guess nobody wants to miss that great shot just because the camera was left at home due to its’ size. Fujifilm also gives me colors that are usually right in my taste, although I never used Canon gear and I think it would do the same based on the reviews I read. APS-C sensor doesn’t bother me, it makes for a powerful camera, and hey, it’s close to academy 35 and super 35 formats so I guess that’s also important in a way. Previously I tried shooting film, which I loved, and Nikon Full-Frame DSLR, but it didn’t sit right with me for some reason.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Kacper: I got into photography not so long ago, around 3 years ago. However, my main reason behind it wasn’t to simply learn photography, I didn’t view myself as a photographer wannabe at the time, but to learn the technical side of filmmaking, as it was practically my main point of interest at the time, of course still is to a high degree since I hope to end up doing it eventually. I did read about photographers and their work as well, but it wasn’t my igniter. After watching many documentaries, YouTube videos, tutorials, interviews and reading books about directing movies I got worried more each day with all the information how much there is still to learn, how much it takes to even make a simple, good movie, how hard it is to finance, to find people, establish a dedicated team and of course to write screenplays and adapt them etc. and then I stumbled upon a David Fincher interview in which he said that he always wanted to know what job everyone in the crew had on a movie set, or in his words “I want to know what every motherfucker in the room does,” but to just make sure they did it better, and I don’t know. I took it personally. Even though there was no magical story for me of finding an old camera in the attic, going out, shooting on it and falling in love, I did have an old Nikon N80 that was only collecting dust for way too many years, with a 24mm lens, which I then mounted on an old Nikon D40 and just went out and took pictures of everything. After a year I got lucky with a 2nd hand Nikon D610 where I began to get more technical with the photos. It was a little bit toxic in this relationship with me and learning the visuals and getting a great frame, but it grew on me and I think we’re getting along way better the minute I paid more attention to lighting. It is a great way to learn about the visuals of a movie. Each cinematographer is, after all, a photographer to a great extent, and I want to know “what every motherfucker does in a room”, but not so aggressively. I guess everyone has their own pace and learning process.

Phoblographer: What made you get into portraiture? We’ve seen you shoot a lot more than that: you typically shoot street. So this is a deviation for you, no?

Kacper: I always enjoyed portrait series in which there’s a story, where the whole frame is interesting, even the things that are out of focus in the bokeh, but I never got around to shoot it, as in, went out with a model and shoot him or her. It could be my laziness or I simply couldn’t get around to find anyone who excited me to make that happen. The only portraits I’ve been taking were on the street, unplanned, and portraits of my friends. This is a deviation for me, I normally prefer photos with more movement in them, I enjoyed Greg Williams, David duChemin, Hiroji Kubota or Richard Kavlar photos, to name a few, about whom I only read about before picking up a camera and I think this is what I tried to follow instinctively. I still view myself as a beginner looking for his style so I hope I will shoot more portraits, there’s a lot of planning that can be done on a portrait shoot and that sounds exciting. After all, a closeup is quite important in filmmaking, better learn that.

Phoblographer: This series is sort of documentary portraiture. Can you tell us about the face markings and the protest?

Kacper: The face markings are of a red lightning bolt, even though the whole sign of the protest is a black profile of a woman’s face and the designer, if I’m not mistaken, needed something to contrast it, trying to avoid anything that could be related to blood, the red lighting bolt came into play. It’s an easy sign to adapt in a movement and it was immediately picked up. People play with it in all sorts of art. For me, it symbolizes something powerful, firm, and sudden, which goes together with the fact how much the protests picked up after the ruling of top Poland’s court about heavily restricting abortion laws. Currently, they are one of the biggest protests in Poland to date. Over 100 000 people went to the capital city of Warsaw just yesterday, with many more in the rest of Poland. We had over 500 protests combined with over 600 000 people. Thus far, the people I encountered were great, desperately wanting change and still positive in their hearts. The cars honking in traffic stretching a few miles to show their support and the bikes protests with hundreds of unique bike bells sounds.

Phoblographer: Why did you choose to focus on individual people and how they look instead of the protest?

Kacper: To be honest, each time I moved the camera to my eye at any point on the protest I found the framing boring, I viewed it as just people walking in a protest, nothing was exciting about it for me or I simply couldn’t find anything myself. Understandably, there are lots of people in one place, everyone is doing something that could make a great photo, and you don’t pay attention to the details but look at the broader picture per se. The majority of the photos posted by others didn’t move me much, so I knew I wanted something else with my photos and I began to notice how many people, especially young ones, had these face markings, each of them different. Some done on the way with just 3 strokes of a lipstick borrowed from a friend, and some done with precision in front of a mirror, way before the protest began. I liked that. Despite having many difficulties in shooting people while we’re both moving, I managed to snap as many as I could while they stopped for a few minutes to wait for the police to clear the roads. During the height of Hong Kong protests, I followed how they unraveled and watched all the photographs taken, rarely someone posted a portrait, and I loved every single one, of every protester, the police, and bystanders. You could see a masked face that still told an engaging story with just their eyes, clothing, and stuff in the blurred background, I guess I tried to reproduce that a bit. Even in my series you can see a couple of very different expressions, despite the masks, and build your own story on that. Overall I think I simply wanted to act like a rebel and do something different for the sake of it and it worked out. Sometimes going the unpopular way pays off, especially in creative areas.

Phoblographer: What do you want to do with this series?

Kacper: With you reaching out to me, I may finally bring myself around to post more stuff online, to this day I kept all photos to myself and it’s always great to get feedback, especially on the worst ones. But in terms of the series itself, to show them from a different point of view, by focusing on covered faces with these markings. It was painted to be seen and I think that is why it is necessary to be photographed as well. Despite the above-mentioned protests being sparked by the ruling of the court regarding abortion, the movement was active in Poland for a few years. It seemed and still seems to be connected to many other issues facing the country and current political power. With all the photos of moving protesters, and lots of great situational shots of people in quarantine supporting from their balconies or people engaged in unique situations during protests, such as these with an attacking opposition trying to disrupt the movement, the majority of news did show a broad, kind of chaotic, story about protests with their photos, my wish was to showcase the protesters individually as humans who protest something they believe in, a showcase that seems to be lacking very often. I hope my series might catch an eye of someone not interested in the protests or someone just being a neutral observer, who might find something in them that they didn’t find previously in other photos, which can, in turn, put them on a path to establish their own opinion on the matter and perhaps engage in an appropriate way with their views. I wished to paint a different angle, of a story in eyes and faces, open for their interpretation.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.