The Archive of Protest Photography documents the growing protest movements in Poland and celebrates their creativity


This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

A digital platform, active Instagram feed and printed newspaper, the APP pairs photography with bold design to keep the cause on the agenda

The year 2015 marked a turning point in Polish society. Andrzej Duda of the conservative rightwing party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, translating to Law and Justice) won the presidential elections. Within weeks, the new government made drastic changes to policy and legislation, directly threatening the constitution and what had previously been a liberal and progressive democracy. In 2020, Duda narrowly won a second term. 

With every election, the party targets new ‘enemies’; people who don’t fit neatly into its idea of a model Polish citizen. First, it was refugees, said to be draining public funds and overwhelming the workforce. Then the LGBTQ+ community; during his second election campaign, Duda claimed its “ideology” threatens the Catholic Church and is “worse than communism”.

The leadership has also threatened women’s rights over their bodies. In October 2020, the constitutional tribunal ruled that abortion would only be legal in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life. And no longer for “severe and irreversible foetal defects or incurable illnesses that would threaten the foetus’ life”. Earlier that year, Poland announced it would pull out of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty focused on preventing violence against women.

Image © Wojtek Radwanski, courtesy APP

Since 2015, the increase in the number of protests and, indeed, protest movements in Poland has been exponential. Poles, particularly the younger generation, have taken to the streets in huge numbers to demonstrate against the country’s leadership.

The Women’s Strike, a social movement initiated in September 2016 at the height of the first wave of pro-choice demonstrations, is just one example of the many key organising bodies. And following the renewed restrictions on abortion last October, some 400,000 pro-choice activists gathered across the country – the largest show of opposition against the sitting government recorded in the last half-decade. 

Karolina Gembara, a Polish photographer working towards a PhD at the University of Economics and Human Sciences, Warsaw, is an active participant in the demonstrations. She also critically observes them for her academic research, and says the rhetoric has shifted. “The language of the protest has become very radical – some would even say it has become vulgar,” she explains. People are exasperated, and they are angry. The marches may be peaceful, but the messages are clear. The word ‘Wypierdalac [Get the fuck out]’ is echoed throughout the crowd.

“There is the language, but also a lot that is happening in the visual sphere,” continues Gembara. “The banners, the costumes, the makeup, the things that people shout, the music. We see the protests as cultural phenomena, but also perhaps as pieces of art. We are dealing with a different type of imagery, it’s not linear documentation.”

Warsaw 23.10.2020 Another day in a wave of Women’s Strike protests in whole Poland. Police is guarding a villa where polish PM and Jarosław Kaczyński are placed. © Paweł Starzec.

The demonstrations are animated. The crowds march to the sound of drums and song, and spontaneous performances of dance and coordinated movement spring up around cities and along streets. The symbol of a crimson lightning bolt has become synonymous with the Women’s Strike. It is painted on faces and bodies, projected onto buildings and even made into fashion accessories. The colour red permeates through the masses, marked by ink or clothing – a sign of solidarity. 

Image © Grzegorz Wełnicki, courtesy APP
Warsaw 13.12.2020 Police forces securing the monument of Smolensk Air Disaster at the anti-governmental protest «We March for Freedom. We March for All». Various groups and organizations joined the Women’s Strike in the protest that took place on the 39th anniversary of the introduction of Martial Law in communist Poland. 54th day of protests against the nearly total abortion ban. © Michalina Kuczyńska, courtesy of APP.

Gathering evidence

It comes as no surprise that Polish mainstream media, which is now almost entirely controlled by the state, has given little airtime to the ongoing action. Because of this lack of visibility, it became important for a group of like-minded image-makers to record the events themselves. One of them is Magnum member and Polish visual artist Rafał Milach.

“All of a sudden, we as photographers found ourselves in a strange position, where our role was blending between being a photographer, a citizen, a protester, and many other things,” he explains. 

Documenting the protests was an intuitive way for the group to engage with them. Indeed, assigning themselves this task gave them a new sense of purpose and urgency. For some, this fast and reactive way of working was unfamiliar. This included Milach, who is known for his long-term, research-led methodology. The practitioners persevered, and eventually, Milach and five others decided that it was important to collate the imagery in one place. The initiative was originally Warsaw-centred, but now the collective has grown to 17 members based across the country. Launched in 2016, the result is the Archive of Public Protests (APP).

Warsaw 18.11.2020 Womens’ Strike protest at the Warsaw Uprisers’s Square. Police used pepper spray and metal clubs to pacify the protesters. © Alicja Lesiak.

“We intend to make a strong statement with it.”

Rafal Milach

A collaborative digital platform and Instagram account host the images. The collective created the archive to serve as a resource, as evidence of the protests from the street point of view. There is no editorial goal. Instead, the APP is a depository of information for academics, historians and journalists to utilise. However, the archive is not objective. “We intend to make a strong statement with it,” explains Milach. 

Alongside the anti-government protests, Warsaw’s streets have also become a platform for rightwing nationalist marches and neo-Nazi movements. “We document these events as well, but we don’t give [the images] an equal platform for distribution within the APP,” says Milach. “We don’t want to create any feeling of symmetry, or to give voice to the ideologies that we fundamentally disagree with.”

Cracow 28.10.2020. People stand together at the Main Square in Krakow, Poland, to protest against new abortion laws. © Dawid Zieliński, courtesy APP.

The archive physically manifests as a newspaper, which launched in 2020 with two issues, one of which focused on the Women’s Strike. In March 2021, it printed its third issue, dedicated to the climate protests. The publication combines the archive’s most striking photographs with bold typography and coded symbolism. Words echoing the impassioned street slogans are printed in large capital letters across double-page spreads. The red lightning bolt graces the cover and is echoed throughout. 

“By releasing the newspaper and creating this alternative circulation of images, we control the narrative and their usage,” explains Milach. “This is crucial, especially today – facing all the fake news or half-truths that influence our political and social life more and more. By creating a distribution channel – one of many – we can crystallise the message. It’s a coherent, closed document, which is manifesting certain clear ideas.”

“It’s like the act of performing this archive, taking it back to the streets and doing something with those images so they don’t just stay within the sphere of an online existence.” 

Karolina Gembara

The paper is handed out for free. Its bold design and lettering inspire people to hold up the pages as flags, paste them on walls as posters, and display them in windows. “It’s like the act of performing this archive, taking it back to the streets and doing something with those images so they don’t just stay within the sphere of an online existence,” says Gembara. “The newspaper is made in such a way that you can do things with it. It’s not a book, it’s not an object that you should be careful with. It is ephemeral, but also tangible. You need to open it, dismantle it and use it [for] gestures.”

Phones capture images of the pages in action, which are shared on social media and increase the photographs’ visibility even more. The creative contribution of the newspaper is particularly effective in the smaller cities outside of the capital, where the bold visual language stands out in the smaller gatherings.

Rzeszow 30.10.2020 © Marcin Kruk.
Strike Newspaper © Archive of Public Protests.

Power of the people

A recent survey shows that almost 70 per cent of Poles are in favour of the Women’s Strike. Some 30 per cent of these people are former PiS voters. “There’s a huge support for the message,” says Gembara. However, the numbers of people demonstrating on the street does not reflect this data. “In a way, this movement is not only about abortion and women’s rights, but it’s also about everything that has been happening since 2015, and some of the inequalities and the issues that have been silenced for many years before.” 

Gembara is based in Berlin, Milach in Warsaw, and I am in London. All three of us have family in Poland who we remember as the conversation turns to gestures of solidarity and learning. ‘Solidarity’ carries a certain significance in Poland. It was the name of the first trade union, founded in 1980. Back then, it stood for the power of the people to drive social and political change during a time of great adversity. “It’s not just some abstract value we’re talking about here; as a word, as a phenomenon, ‘solidarity’ has been a strong part of the narrative [for years],” says Gembara. “Right now, it’s like we are physically experiencing what solidarity is. People need those small gestures – even if it’s just bringing hot tea to the protesters who are sitting on the ground in minus 20.” 

Strike Newspaper © Archive of Public Protests.
Strike Newspaper © Archive of Public Protests.

Milach adds: “This is something that we shouldn’t forget. We should look around carefully because there are a lot of allies that can either help us or we can help them. We are going through a learning process but also re-evaluating our foundations as a society. I think that we are rebooting somehow. Even if the political result [we want] is not here yet, something fundamental is changing in our mentality.”

The photographers behind the APP see the project as an extension of this sentiment. Using their craft to create something that can be useful and visually empower the narrative of the protests is their show of support for the movement and contribution to the discourse. It is their way of standing in solidarity.  



Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Managing Editor of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.

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