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‘Pilgrims’ in an urban land: An interview with photographer Zbigniew Bzdak

Zbigniew Bzdak’s adventures as a professional photographer have sent him across the globe. He is a staff photographer with the Chicago Tribune and has covered major assignments such as the war in Iraq and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Bzdak settled in the U.S. after emigrating from Poland in 1979 to photograph Latin American rivers. His photography has been published in National Geographic, among other publications, and he won an award for the photographic book “Living in Wyoming, Settling for More.”

In the photographic exhibit “Pilgrims,” which the Polish Museum of America on the city’s Near North Side displayed earlier this fall, religion in Chicago was the provocative driving force. The images came from two major endeavors:

• Bzdak’s continual coverage of an annual pilgrimage from Chicago’s South Side to Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine at a monastery in Merrillville, Ind.

• Bzdak’s contributions to CITY 2000, a privately funded effort to document life in Chicago at the end of the 20th century through the yearlong work of more than 200 photographers.

To read Zbigniew Bzdak’s Chicago Tribune bio, click here.

For more information about the CITY 2000 project and where you can view it, click here.

Colleen Kujawa: How did you get your start as a photographer? How many years have you been a professional?

Zbigniew Bzdak (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

Zbigniew Bzdak: I think, in newspapers, I started in 1987. Here, in the United States. But I was working as a photo editor and photographer for a student publication in Krakow [Poland]. I had internships with magazines and other journalistic experiences.

I got into photography in my high school years. I photographed the school, my friends, outdoors, and participated in a photo club as well.

CK: You’ve covered a lot of ground in your international travels as a photojournalist. Which assignment, here or overseas, challenged you the most as a visual storyteller?

ZB: The first big stories I had, had to do with photographing a whitewater kayaking expedition. I went on an expedition with a kayaking club from my college. We did a lot of first descents of rivers in Mexico, Costa Rica and Peru. The biggest chunk of time I spent in Peru. The group made the first navigation of Colca Canyon, which is the deepest canyon in the world, in southern Peru. With a couple of friends from the same group, a few years later I spent six months going down the Amazon as well. Both of those assignments were for National Geographic. For me, as a young person at the time, the biggest challenge was coming up with professional pictures for the most demanding magazine for photojournalists. The challenge also was that I had to be part of the kayaking, rafting team. I was handling the raft, and I was photographing the event.

With the Tribune, there are a lot of challenging assignments, unusual assignments.

I think out of all of those assignments the most unusual was backpacking in Sichuan province in China. I had to take all of my equipment, my computer, everything else in a backpack. We walked several miles every day. Backpacking gave us a freedom of movement. By being lightweight, we could make plans very quickly. Covering a backpack expedition logistically is much more intense. You have to waterproof your equipment, and there’s the [risk] of losing it.

But that all serves one purpose — which is to tell a visual story or document a journey. With all of those difficulties of technology or something malfunctioning, it becomes kind of irrelevant when you look at it from the perspective of the time. It’s more important what you actually gather, what you’re able to show in the pictures.

CK: Why does visual storytelling matter?

ZB: Photography is a universal language. You don’t need to know any [verbal] language, you don’t need to even read or write to be able to see and appreciate a photograph, to see the information in the photograph. It’s all very universal. Across borders, across different cultures. I didn’t speak English when I came here. Just looking at the pictures, you learn so much. What matters, too, is it serves as a document. When I look at my pictures from 30 years ago, I start remembering a lot of things, a lot of unrelated events. Without that kind of documentation, I probably wouldn’t remember any of that.

Zbigniew Bzdak, “Mural depicting Jesus,” 2000. Pilsen neighborhood, Chicago. (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

CK: What makes the photography community in Chicago distinctive?

ZB: Street photography is important because [Chicago is] a large, very diverse city, so there are so many opportunities for street photography, if someone wants to do that. There are a number of great photographers, and a good number of photographers to be discovered who photograph the street scenes in Chicago.

CK: The journey to Our Lady of Czestochowa Shrine in Indiana mirrors a much larger pilgrimage in Poland to pay homage to the Black Madonna, a deeply revered icon. Locally each year, thousands of Catholics of mostly Polish descent walk for more than 30 miles from Chicago to Northwest Indiana, camping overnight at the Carmelite Monastery in Munster, Ind. You participated in a Black Madonna pilgrimage as a child in Poland, but you don’t consider yourself a religious person. What do you find most compelling about the local pilgrimage?

ZB: I was working at The Times [of Northwest Indiana] at the time. I stumbled across the pilgrimage because there was an issue [related to] a permit. I think I was photographing a city council [meeting] at the time, probably Griffith [Indiana], and they started talking about several thousands of people asking for a permit to walk on one of the streets. And I got very interested in it because when I grew up, I went to school in Czestochowa, which is the place where pilgrimages come [to] from all over Poland for Our Lady of Czestochowa. So I was very familiar with that kind of event. I participated in one of those as a child because my family lived about 30 miles from Czestochowa. What really attracted me to this one and many others, it is a big event, and all kinds of people walk in areas which they probably would never go and visit. They just have a destination. They also do it for themselves. Something is missing, and that’s what motivates them.

Zbigniew Bzdak, “Pilgrimage 01,” 1996. Hegewisch neighborhood, Chicago. (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

I immerse myself in the story when I’m doing it, but I’m not a very religious person. That might be better because I think it’s different to be a participant. And it’s really different to be an observer. I’m basically watching, observing, interacting with people. I get to know everybody because there’s a group of people that walks in front, always, the most dedicated ones. I knew all of them and learned about their stories, why they come, because that’s very interesting to me — people like to share, when you’re walking for several miles.

I’d been doing this for 10 years at the time, and I think that everyone understood quite well. And they ask me, are you doing this to photograph, or are you doing this because of your conviction as a Catholic? And I set them straight: I’m doing this as a documentary project.

CK: Which pilgrimage-related image speaks most strongly to you? Why?

ZB: Every picture has a story.

[Regarding a photo of pilgrims ascending stairs on their knees at the Carmelite Monastery in Munster, Ind.]: It was pretty amazing. They have a grotto in Munster. People come after walking over 20 miles that day. They relax a little, have a meal and participate in the Mass that’s in the evening. But before that, a lot of them will go and climb that hill. [The monastery has] a railing by the stairs. This staircase, you can only walk on your knees. I photographed this from below. It’s really amazing — the people who come, they’re tired, they feel that these are the few final steps they will take going up the hill to the cross, on their knees. You strain yourself to get some revival, get something out of it.

Zbigniew Bzdak, “Pilgrimage 08,” 2001. Carmelite Monastery, Munster, Ind. (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

Some people walk barefoot [during the pilgrimage], and I photograph them throughout the whole journey, including close-ups of their wounds when they reach Merrillville. And they have very clear reasons why they’re doing it. Their motivations are very consistent.

CK: For CITY 2000, also known as Chicago in the Year 2000, you took a yearlong sabbatical from your day job to photograph religious communities in the city and contribute to an expansive visual document of life in Chicago that year. You were able to observe practitioners from all of the world’s major spiritual traditions. What were some of the similarities you witnessed among believers from those faiths?

ZB: Witnessing worship in immigrant communities is pretty amazing. They’re bound by language, traditions; everything commingles. If you go to an immigrant congregation, it’s not just [about] prayer. This is a community. It shares food; it shares stories.

For me, it was a photographic tour of the world because Chicago has vibrant communities. They express their faith, and it was such a privilege to witness. I felt like sometimes I was going to three different countries on one Sunday.

Zbigniew Bzdak, “Divali observance at Gayatri Mandir-Pragya Yug Literature Center,” 2000. Devon Avenue, Chicago. (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

What struck me were lots of similarities, no matter what faith, what country, there are so many similarities in the way people worship and also in the ways they act as a community.

When you see the youths from different congregations, they act a little bit differently. Some of them really reject the old ways, and some of them embrace them. It’s amazing to witness those kinds of dynamics.

The language is also an important part. A lot of worship is going to be in the native language.

CK: How were you able to gain such intimate access to those religious rituals?

ZB: When you come as part of a documentary project, you have to make a pitch. You do have to make your case to the pastor or the head of the congregation. Once you get [authorization from a religious leader], most of the congregants embrace you or at least ignore you, which is the best thing they can do.

Once I got into it, I got to kind of know what to ask for. I don’t think I remember being rejected flatly or being controlled. I offered to witness, photograph and put them in the archive. That was right on the edge [of the proliferation] of the Internet, so Yellow Book helped [me] find contacts.

Zbigniew Bzdak, “Baptism at St. Agnes of Bohemia Catholic Church,” 2000. Little Village neighborhood, Chicago. (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

CK: Do you have any stories you’d like to share related to your CITY 2000 photos?

ZB: Every moment I remember well. Especially with this exhibit, there were no pictures [purely] for effect. Every picture had the information and function that I wanted.

When you do this kind of work, you witness so many unusual things. I went to Baptist churches in Englewood and on the West Side, and they’re all different. Different preachers, different charisma, different congregations. But the music flows the same way. The stories flow the same way.

After many Sundays, I was tuned into [it].

But you go to Pentecostal [churches], and you have 50 people lying on the floor, speaking tongues. At first, you don’t know how to relate to it. It’s so intense. Some of the services are three hours. I always stayed from the very beginning to the very end to give respect to people. I was exhausted from being an observer. There’s so much energy. It’s really face to face.

Praying is intimate, but it’s also exposed. In some places, you walk to the cross on your knees, for example. Some people want you to see what they’re going through. Or they want to show the extent of the connection they have. It’s a fine line.

Zbigniew Bzdak, “Sabbath service at Beth Shalom B’Nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation,” 2000. West Lawn neighborhood, Chicago. (Photo Credit: Zbigniew Bzdak)

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