For Poland, and most of the Western world, the Gdansk shipyards are much more than a place to build ships – they’re the cradle of the legendary Solidarity Movement. Here in 1980, an electrician named Lech Walesa led 17,000 workers in a series of strikes that triggered the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. Solidarity become a powerful political force, launching Mr. Walesa into international prominence. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and the Polish presidency in 1990.
Today the shipyards are fighting again – this time for their very survival. Financially stricken by the breakup of the Soviet Union and rapid privatization, only five ships were built here last year, down from 35 a year during the 1970s. Where 20,000 people once worked, today there are around 3,000. There’s a very real possibility the shipyards will soon close down completely.
It’s a call to action for Szlaga.
“This place is an obsession because it’s disappearing,” he says. “The more it disappears, the more photos I want to take. They keep knocking down buildings, so I feel like I have to.”
Looking through his pictures, you start to understand: Faces covered in grease and creased by decades of hard labor look directly into the camera, unsmiling. These are stark images of shipyard work – men and metal in a surreal landscape of oversized machinery and crumbling buildings. The compelling photos have gained international notice – Szlaga won a prestigious Lucie Award this year and exhibits in the US, Austria, and Sweden.
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