Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki
Title: Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki
Author: Chris Niedenthal
Year taken: 1989
The original photograph is kept in Chris Niedenthal’s private archive; a large-format copy is exhibited, by the author’s consent, at the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk
The photograph in the shape of a horizontal rectangle shows Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the Sessions Chamber of the Polish Parliament, just after the Assembly had voted in his government. Centred in the frame, the Prime Minister is shown down to his waist, sitting in the government benches.
Behind Mazowiecki, a section of two rows of empty oak wood benches can be seen. Positioning of each row slightly higher than the one before it lends the image some depth. The colour of the benches is warm brown. The upholstered, soft backs of the benches are separated by vertical oak wood elements to indicate individual seats.
Prime Minister Mazowiecki is wearing a pale-blue shirt, dark-red tie and a navy blue jacket with wide lapels.
His face has an oval shape, with a high forehead and hair receding at the temples. His short grey hair is combed to the right. The nose is long, the mouth closed with the lower lip clearly outlined. Looking ahead, his eyes are focused on a single point, thoughtful, with circles underneath. His face shows a mixture of emotions: concentration and reflection after a powerful experience, as well as contentment and concern.
The Prime Minister’s left arm, placed along his side, is visible down to the elbow. His raised right arm is straight, the hand showing the victory sign: the index and middle fingers are straight; the thumb, ring and small fingers clenched. The hand is caught in motion, slightly blurred.
Through that movement the photograph becomes dynamic. The gesture fills the void, breaking the silence.
At the bottom of the photograph, in front of the politician, there is a barely visible section of an oak wood balustrade. On the balustrade sits a wooden sculpture of an eagle – his beak sharp and wings spread-out. On the eagle’s chest is the Warsaw coat of arms, featuring a mermaid – half woman, half fish, brandishing a sword and a shield.
The victory sign, also known as “bunny ears” was popularised during the Second World War by the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill; in Poland, the popularity of the victory sign is largely attributed to Lech Wałęsa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
The eagle with the emblem of Warsaw, as well as other reliefs on the balustrade separating the section for the Parliament Committee from the benches where Members of the Parliament sit, were made by Aleksander Żurakowski (1892-1978), a sculptor, sculpture restorer and a soldier in Józef Piłsudski’s Legions.
Foreign journalists found it incredulous that in Poland, in just a few months of 1989, a peace revolution prevailed, with an activist of the opposition placed at the helm of the government. Most emphasised was the fact that Tadeusz Mazowiecki was the first non-communist Prime Minister in the entire Eastern bloc.
After the June elections, the events took a totally different turn than what the authorities had predicted. They had hoped that the agreements struck at the Round Table would put the opposition within the framework of the old system, that it could be made responsible for future reforms while the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) would retain control over the state. The scale of the parliamentary defeat, however, paralysed the Party’s top leadership leaving General Kiszczak unable to form a government. For its part, the opposition feared that the authorities would not respect the outcome of the June elections and try to restore its domination by force. Lech Wałęsa’s advisers concluded that one way out of the impasse would be to create a parliamentary coalition with the reformist wing of the PZPR. Public debate on the subject was launched by Adam Michnik, who in his Gazeta Wyborcza daily called out: “Your President, our Prime Minister”. As time passed, that idea became increasingly plausible. Eventually, on 19th of July the National Assembly elected General Wojciech Jaruzelski as Poland’s President – by a majority of a single vote. Then, on the 24th of August 1989 the Parliament appointed the opposition’s leader Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the head of the government, making him the first non-communist Prime Minister in the entire Eastern bloc. His cabinet, dominated by Solidarity representatives, led the country onto a difficult road of disassembling the old political system of the People’s Republic. In that way, the revolution that Solidarity started in August 1980 was finally victorious in 1989. The West was surprised by the fact that the Polish transition from communism to democracy entailed no bloodshed, which was possible as a result of a compromise between the authorities and the opposition and then the parliamentary elections.
Chris Niedenthal – a renowned European photographer, has worked for such media as the American weekly Newsweek and since the mid-1980’s for the Time weekly, for which he was shooting across eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Born in London in 1950, as a son of Polish émigrés to the UK, Chris Niedenthal has been a Polish citizen since 1998.
Together with the English journalist Michael Dobbs, Niedenthal was the first foreign photojournalist let inside the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk during the strikes of August 1980. During Martial Law, he covertly took several hundred photographs. One of them, showing an armoured personnel carrier on a Warsaw street, against the backdrop of a cinema called Moskwa (Moscow), whose façade carried a billboard advertising Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, won international fame and is regarded as an iconic image of the Polish Martial Law.