The content of your image

Photo by Maciek NabrdalikAn exhibition of documentary photographs by journalist Maciek Nabrdalik follows the journey of refugees and tells a story beyond statistics and numbers. 

By Samantha Neville '19


The news photographer Maciek Nabrdalik got the idea for Refugee Crisis, an exhibition of documentary photographs at the Harvard Ed Portal Crossings Gallery through October 27, from reading the news. As he was scrolling down the pages, he saw something he had never seen before in a small, cursive font.

“It read, ‘Due to the amount of xenophobic views shared in the comments, we decided to block those comment sections under each reporting on refugee crisis,’” Nabrdalik told the audience at the opening reception for his show at the Ed Portal last week. “It moved me much more than all the numbers and statistics given by reports.”

Nabrdalik became worried about the xenophobic views in his home country, Poland. The same day he read that the comments had been blocked, he learned about a statistics professor who assigned students to figure out how many refugees would need to be kicked out of the boat for everyone to arrive safely to shore.

Photo by Maciek Nabrdalik
Nabrdalik then went to Lesbos, an island off the coast of Greece, to document the arrival of refugees through photography. He eventually developed Refugee Crisis, his photographic series about following refugees on their journey throughout Europe

“I started questioning my own life as a photographer,” Nabrdalik said. “I did a book with my wife about Holocaust survivors. And maybe I victimized those. Maybe I added to the stereotypes of Chernoble survivors as well. This island was haunted with all those questions.”

On the island, he found photographers who were perpetuating some of the same stereotypes he found in Poland.

“I think that if the media would show refugees with selfies, and with the cellphones, just like us, maybe people in Poland would like to have them as neighbors,” said Nabrdalik who is in residence this year as a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. “If you choose to call yourself a photojournalist, you want to put the spotlight on your subject not at yourself, nor your creativity nor your talent. The content of your image is most important.”

Maciek Nabrdalik
Nabrdalik has worked since 2001 as a professional photographer, but his interest in photography began with his grandfather, who was also photographer.

“I was too young to learn from him directly before he died but his influence was crucial in igniting my passion for photography,” Nabrdalik told me.

Another turning point in his photography career came the summer Nabrdalik was on an exchange program in the U.S. and met a magazine editor from New York.

Since then, he has been published by news sources here and in Europe, and has been awarded grants from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and the Pierre & Alexandra Boulat Association.

His time at Harvard will be spent deepening his focus about the immigrant experience.

“I am here to learn more about the migrations in general, and about the challenges countries face in integrating immigrants but I also study new ways of storytelling in case photography won’t be enough,” Nabrdalik said.

His advice to aspiring photographers?

“Read and be curious.”