One day in Warsaw: A Dignity City photographer captures the faces of those who have fled Ukraine
Updated: Apr 18
PHOTO ESSAY / COMMENTARY
Photography by Mark White
A boy at the Ptak Humanitarian Aid Center southwest of Warsaw shows a shrapnel wound.
By Mark White Dignity City
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in late February, more than 2.3 million displaced Ukrainians — mostly women, children and the elderly — have crossed into Poland, a country of 39 million.
By any measurement, that’s an extraordinary number of refugees for a country to accept. In relative terms, that would be as if the United States, with its population of 330 million, were to allow nearly 20 million refugees to suddenly cross its borders.
To lend perspective, last year the U.S. allowed in 3,300 refugees according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Overnight, Poland, with its hard-core nationalist, anti-immigration government, went from being ranked No. 101 globally in the numbers of refugees it hosted, to No. 2, just behind Turkey.
To lend further perspective to this change of heart, just six months earlier the Polish government made international headlines for erecting a fence on its border with Belarus, forcing a few thousand Kurdish and Afghan refugees to survive on their own in the forest through the winter. Many froze to death.
I spent several days in Warsaw in early April, photographing the streets, talking to shop owners and residents, trying to get a sense of this extraordinary situation. This was my second trip to Warsaw in less than a year. With the exception of anti-Russian and pro-Ukrainian graffiti and billboards throughout the city, and the chatter of Russian and Ukrainian voices on the sidewalks and in the parks, the city did not seem much affected. I could not see any obvious outward signs of stress from this massive influx.
It was only when I ventured 30 minutes southwest of Warsaw to the Ptak Humanitarian Aid Center that I saw the impact. There, the sprawling Warsaw Exposition Center, with its six pavilions covering 143,000 square meters of floor space — about 27 football fields, or more than 1.5 million square feet — has been transformed into the largest refugee support center in Europe.
More than 65,000 refugees have passed through its doors. On the day I visited, about 7,000 were being sheltered. The center is also a transit hub, with chartered buses arriving continuously to transport refugees to destinations throughout Europe, especially Germany.
The center is administered and secured with the help of volunteers and the Polish military. Without proper authorization, which I found impossible to gain in the short time I was in the country, I was not allowed into the halls with my camera; but after some pleading on my part, the commanding officer permitted me to engage with people outside the halls as they waited for their buses or queued up for lunch.
Most of my images were made in the queue that formed at one of the food trucks. The food trucks were hosted by a volunteer group out of the Netherlands. Every week four new volunteers from the city of Genemuiden, supported by more than €120,000 ($129,000) in donations, travel 14 hours to Warsaw in a van filled with food and supplies. Since March 2, they have been feeding volunteers and refugees at the center and at another site in Korczowa, on the Ukrainian border.
I know only a few Russian phrases, and no Ukrainian, so my interaction with folks consisted mostly of gestures. I tried to decipher isolated words, like finding their homes — such as Kyiv or Uman — their preferred destinations — Germany, Estonia, Hungary — and, as in one boy’s case, the cause of a purple scar that ran down his face — it was from shrapnel.
In his case, and many others his age, it’s wrong to assume, “children are children,” or in any way imply that they resilient enough to withstand the trauma of war and relocation. We may not know for years the effects that the war in Ukraine will have on the children I met. But children are better at escaping their circumstance through play and imagination.
Getting on my knees to follow a few of the children as they ran around blowing and popping soap bubbles that the volunteers handed out seemed to enamor me with the adults and helped me to gain their trust. About two-thirds of the adults I approached allowed me to photograph them. Without having the details of their personal stories as context, I decided to focus my camera on portrait close-ups, or on their relationships with others.
Specifically with the portraits, I wanted to pull my subjects out of their surroundings as I way of isolating and studying their humanness. I can’t explain it any other way.
CATCHING THE EMOTION
That I largely captured people expressing a surprising calmness — what a colleague described as “relief” — astounds me. And that these images could have just as easily been taken in the context of virtually any “normal” situation in which most Americans have found themselves — a shopping mall, a bus station, a food-truck line at a fairground — and not an “exotic” location most Americans would never venture into, gives me hope that perhaps an image or two will touch a viewer who has otherwise become numb to the images of violence and suffering that is proliferating the news from Ukraine.
One the one hand, these are just snapshots of people. But I took them as an act of witness, capturing an authentic moment that can never be taken away or denied.
These are pictures of women, children and men who are homeless, displaced by a barbaric and unjust war, with everything they own in whatever sacks they could carry on their backs.
These are the photographs of who they were in a moment of time on April 11, between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., in Warsaw, Poland.
These images are made of women, children and men who are hundreds of miles from their home, and perhaps hundreds of miles from where they hope to eventually call home.
Photography by Mark White, Dignity City