FRAME OF WORK – exploring humankind
ZBIGNIEW BZDAK (photographer)
by Stefan Danielski
It was one of those sleepless early mornings in a featureless Holiday-Inn-style hotel room in St. Catharines, Ont. Flipping through TV channels I became intrigued by pictures of Guatemalan children working on the city garbage dump site and homeless St. Petersburg kids living in the city heating-pipe underground ducts. There was an authentic sadness and heartbreaking drama in these black-and-white photos, presenting a vastly different version of human life than the safe and secure existence found in every day America. And then there was a calm Polish-accented voice in the background which appeared to be familiar. Being captivated by the pictures, I did not pay too much attention to a narrator until the camera focused on him. Unbelievable! It was my expedition partner and a friend- Zbigniew Bzdak. Of course, that’s the Zbigniew I know- unassuming and modest- who didn’t bother to mention to me that Canadian television had made a special 30-min program about him and his work as part of documentary sequence featuring prominent North American photographers.
Later, I learned that Bzdak is also a recipient of prestigious photographic awards which help to establish his credentials on the highly competitive American scene, including the 1991 and 1994 Communication Arts Award of Excellence. First, for the book titled Living in Wyoming-Settling for More and second for pictures published in National Geographic Magazine with the article “Roaring Through Earth’s Deepest Canyon”. He also received a Special Merit Award in 1990 from the Wyoming Press Association for a series of photographic essays about Poland.
Bzdak’s photos document us –human beings, whether it is a worn-out kayaker driven for months by his sheer willpower to reach the point where the Amazon River enters the ocean or a bezprizorny (Russian term for homeless orphan) sniffing glue in the sewer system. They reveal a complex nature of our existence, as well as our character, determination, resourcefulness and survival instinct. His pictures stripped of embellishment and mannerisms are frank, revealing humanity at its best and at its worst, in places where we by and large wouldn’t expect to find them. They resonate, provoking us to think. “I believe that this kind of photography has an immense effect, turning public attention to problems which is not aware of,” says Bzdak, a 50-year-old Polish American. His conviction and social consciousness lead him to work closely with the charitable organizations to promote their cause. After publishing Bzdak’s pictures from Guatemala, generous donations start flowing to the Hearts in Motion, a charity registered in state of Indiana to help specially Central American children working on landfill sites.
From the Polish town of Radomsko where he began taking first pictures in high school 35 years ago, to a photojournalist in one of the most influential and distinguished daily newspapers in the USA, Chicago Tribune, where he works as a staff photographer.
In everyone’s livelihood there is that one special moment which dramatically changes the course of someone’s life, and its effect becomes obvious years later. In Bzdak’s case, it came in 1979, when he was a student of Academy Of Mining and Metallurgy actively engaged in running a photographic gallery of the Student Cultural Center “Pod Jaszczurami”. It was an out of the blue offer to participate in the whitewater expedition as a photographer when an appointed person quit last minute. There was also something ominous with the expedition itself named “Canoandes 79” as its destination kept changing due to political volatility in the region, first from Argentina to Peru, then from Peru to Mexico- far away from the Andes as its name suggested. The two-and-half-year nomadic life with Canoandes, exploring rivers of Central, North and South America, became Bzdak’s university, making him a die-hard Explorer with a capital letter “E”, and above all shaped his artistic sensibilities. Seeing people of different races, cultures and religions, affluent and utterly poor, it was an eye and soul opener and convinced the young photographer that photography was his calling. “I wanted to penetrate the life of a diverse range of people. Document the light and darkness of human life in all forms and show them to the world,” Bzdak says.
Another important date in his life, while waiting in Peru for a flight back to Poland, was December 13, 1981 – a infamous day in which Polish communist government enslaved the entire nation by declaring martial law, suspended civil liberties, sealed the country’s borders and outlawed Solidarity. Seeing a nation hope for change being crushed, Zbyszek with his expedition friends protested publicly to the dismay of the Polish diplomatic officials by setting up an ad hoc a Solidarity Support Committee in Peru and organizing a massive public demonstration on the streets of Lima. After that they came to point of no return and the only option was to find home in North America, or face retribution.
In the U.S.A., Bzdak started his career first by running a photographic department of Casper Star-Tribune, a newspaper based in Casper, Wyoming, then became a staff photographer at The Times in Munster, Indiana, and later moved to the prestigious Chicago Tribune. Because of his line of work, he moves frequently from comfort to danger zone, exploring all facets of human life in Chicago multi-ethnic sacred and spiritual places, sometimes in murky water alleys of the Amazon tributaries, or in the chaotic streets of post-Saddam-Hussein Baghdad or Basra.
In addition, Bzdak built a solid reputation as an expedition photographer ready to tackle the whitewater exploration of the deepest gorge in the world, the Colca Canyon, for the National Geographic Magazine; document life of the remote and hostile Huaorani tribesmen in the Amazon jungle; or search with explorers and scientists for the true source of the Amazon. Certainly, with it comes a risk and a constant exposure to life-or-death situations. And for Bzdak they are a part of the game, a testimony to his stamina and character. He had survived being shot at, then held hostage by the moribund and desperate Shinning Path fanatics (Peruvian Maoist guerillas), a lengthy battle with misdiagnosed malaria and taken the worst swim in his life after being thrown over the side from the raft on the wild river (just to mention few).
In 1986, he was offered to participate as a photographer in the multinational expedition to navigate for the first time from source to sea the entire Amazon River. The expedition reached an epic proportion and became a modern version of Jason’s Golden-Fleece myth, after only few had reached its ultimate goal. Bzdak stayed to the end, documenting the exploits of its members and, at the end, running the support team. The account of the Amazon expedition was captured by Joe Kane’s bestseller Running the Amazon illustrated with his photos, and lately recognized as one of the best expedition stories of all times. It was Bzdak’s personal satisfaction, when Polish publisher Pascal, recognizing the value of his photographs, set up a new standard in publishing world and printed Kane’s book with an extensive selection of his pictures, creating as someone put it: “the best illustrated coffee-table book to read and the best story book to look at”.
His work appeared in National Geographic Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Americas, The New Yorker, American Way, Reader’s Digest as well as numerous newspapers, including The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and, of course, Chicago Tribune. Bzdak’s photos illustrated the following books: Running the Amazon by Joe Kane, Savages- by the same author, Chicago Guidebook written by Jack Schnedler and Living in Wyoming-Settling for More by Susan Anderson.
He finds time to teach photography in Columbia College of Chicago and takes up projects such as a year-long documentation of spiritual life in a multi-ethnic Chicago, called the CITY 2000 project which resulted in the exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center and a book. And he still travels on his own, participates in the events, exploring life of people of different religions and cultures, trying to build with his pictures better understanding among us.
Looking back, one can say that travelling with Canoandes was a long journey. For Zbyszek, however, it wasn’t a journey at all, it was just beginning of true, meaningful life.
© Stefan Danielski