Natalia Kepesz documents life within Poland’s military summer camps

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Children are placed in bootcamp configurations, and trained in skills for example survival, self-defense, and shooting. Here, Kepesz introduces us to life on campus

In Poland, military schools, summer camps and weekend clubs have got existed since the 1920s. Children are placed in bootcamp settings, plus trained in skills such as survival, self-defense, and shooting. They are taught to use air rifles, and sometimes replica weaponry like machine guns and grenades.  

In the summer of 2020, Natalia Kepesz travelled to several such schools across the country, documenting life in the camping. Titled Niewybuch (Polish pertaining to unexploded bomb) the series of images was awarded third prize in the portraits tales categories of the World Press Photograph Contest 2021, and has given that been shortlisted in several honours including Palm Photo Award, and Luis Valtueña Education Photography Award.

Through a choice of images from the series, Kepesz introduces us to life upon campus.

This photo was taken at in a military camp in Mrzeżyno, in northeast Poland. Piotr, Jurek and Tomek are usually participating in an exercise simulating an air pollution emergency. Each program lasts around two-to-three hrs. First, they march in-line into the forest. Then, the different drills are explained and practised. For example , “Someone can be injured and needs to be moved for care” or “The enemy has used a chemical weapon and you must crawl to get away”. It was a hot summer’s day time. You could tell the children had been exhausted, but no kid wanted to admit they were tired. Everyone wanted to impress the particular instructors and they took it very seriously.  

This is where the children live. Every room had two bunkbeds, with just the bare essentials and no real comforts. There is a kitchen on the premises, where the children go to eat three foods a day. Just like the military, the children had to gather before, and march in a line to the dining hall. Everyone was assigned a seat. The food was simple, but okay. There was little time for socialising outside of training. Sometimes there was a campfire for all the children in the evening.  

Some factors in the camp were ready professionally, while others were basically improvised. Not all of the folks who ran the camp were from the military. Some of them had been young adults who saw it as an adventure or a survival. This is Arek, one of the instructors of a group where the kids were reenacting war games in the forest. There were regarding 10 groups in the camp. Each one had a different focus, like shooting and protection; there was also a special group for live action role playing.

Here, Karol is playing the role of an injured person in an exercise simulating a terrorist strike. The children were divided directly into groups: soldiers, terrorists and victims. The terrorists barricaded themselves in the dormitories, and the soldiers task was to “liberate” the house. This online game went on all day, and the kids took the roles extremely seriously. The smallest children received the role of sufferers, and placed at different points throughout the dorms. The children had to take these roles very seriously, because the soldiers were trained to check in which the victims were dead, or just injured in need of care.  

Ola is a student at the Liceum Wojskowo-Policyjne, a military and police high school. She was proud and happy to become at this school; she stated it would provide her with job opportunities, and educate her important lessons like organisation and obedience. We took this portrait in the classroom after everyone else got left. She chose how she wanted to sit, and am wanted to give her the space to present herself.   At the same time, it was important to me that this children noticed the camera and looked in. So that their gaze can connect how they feel and what they experience. For me, this contradiction can also be important. Ola is a teenager, an age where you wish to be an individual, where the personality can be developing. In the military, each one is equal. Still, even though she wears an uniform, the girl eyebrows bring a little conundrum – something individual.

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