Cows can smell the scent of death – Black & White Photography Award 2021 Winner | | Essay by Misho Antadze

In his series of haunting images, Michał Dyjuk rethinks photography in an attempt to preserve the memory of a lesser-known tragedy of the 20th century that unfolded in the forests of Augustow, his home in Poland.

A man’s naked body appears through a hole in the haystack, and another man is hiding in a tree. Something—or someone—is lurking in the forest. Can we discern a set of eyes there in the bushes, or is it just stray lights from a flashlight? In the morning light, the fog sets in. But this forest is no less haunted in the daylight, and the phantoms of the past cross paths with those burdened by the atrocities of the present day. Traces of text superimposed onto the photos, grotesque portraits and ghostly landscapes give away a hint of the tragedy at the center of the project.

In July 1945, in the forests of Augustow, Soviet troops rounded up thousands of members of the Polish resistance, who had fought against both the Nazi and Communist occupations of their country. Approximately 2000 were arrested, and at least 600 disappeared without a trace, their subsequent fate and resting place unknown to this day. The haunted atmosphere of the images is not just a stylistic exercise. “I was born here, and it is an idyllic place, with its forest, lakes, and rivers,” says Michał, the photographer behind the project. “But in opposition to this, the area used to be a constant battlefield. If you could peel off this layer of idyllic scenery, you would start to see a lot of bad things that happened in the past. I think I am the only local who hates the forest.”

No wonder then, that Michał came to the project only after moving away and coming back. “When I was younger, all I dreamt of was getting away from this area. I could not see myself in this rural place. My only wish was to run away.” And so he moved to Warsaw, where he started working as a photojournalist, both locally and internationally. Yet he felt haunted by the local history even during his time away. “One of my earliest memories was a picture of a man in military uniform. I was told that this is my great-grandfather, who was captured in a manhunt in Augustow. When I grew older, and became more conscious; I realized what a ‘manhunt’ really means.”

It was during lockdown that Michał decided to move back home and make a project about this history. Yet the survivors of the era had mostly passed away, and he found that many of the younger generation did not remember the events. “I was so used to shooting as a photojournalist. Now I did not know what to do when things were no longer happening in front of my eyes.” So what can a documentary photographer do when images of the event are missing?
For the project, Michał had to readjust his attitude towards what it means to ‘document’ an event. He started spending more time in the forest that he so detested, and also began meeting locals from the region that he had escaped. This was, as he soon learned, the generation that no longer has a memory of the tragedy that transpired. So, he decided that he would restage some of the episodes that oral history had preserved. Local youth became the vessels that would bring history back to life, by modeling the stories recounted by the survivors of the event. “Maybe I am too optimistic,” Michał says, “but I hoped this would also instill a sense of memory in them.”

Untitled #1. I was born on the border with Belarus. In a picturesque place surrounded with a dense old forests and beautiful lakes. An idyllic scenery for a Manhunt. © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #2. “He led his cows to a clearing in the forest. People heard shots, saw trucks coming and going but were too scared to go there. When everything was quiet, he again chase these cows into the forest. And then it happened…the cows went totally mad, started to dig in the ground restlessly, snorting, rolling over like lunatics. The cows sensed them… I am telling you, cows can smell the dead.” © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #3. He had connections at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. They told him to stop asking: “Tell him this matter will never be solved,” they said. It was forbidden to even mentioned what happened. In the time of Communism Era speaking about it you could have ended up in a dark basement or far away in the frosty East. © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled#4. “I dreamt about my father once, in the early 1960s. In this dream, there is a field where I can see my father is coming from a distance. He walks across this field in a long white shirt, barefoot. He recognizes me and comes closer. I can see clearly trails of blood dropping down from his knees. And he keeps walking toward me… I think this way he gave me a sign that he was dead.” © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #5. He came for my great grandfather and pointed at him with his finger. Everyone knew he was handing people over and thereby sentencing them to death. When he died in 1986, the locals desecrated his grave several times. Someone put up a death notice around the city: “We are pleased to inform you that the greatest executioner of Augustów has died.” © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #6. The statue of Stalin put in the heart of the city years ago had some design defect. His head was loose and spinning. Everyone, especially the young boys returning from school, were twisting it and turning in every direction. © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #7. It is scientifically proven that orally transmitted memory lasts for three generations. I belong to the third, theoretically the last one that remembers or wants to remember. After us there comes a void. © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #8. The forest is a natural fortress. After all, everyone here lives in the forest or on the edge of the forest, it is impossible to run away from the forest. It has always served people, and people have served him. “When it happened, when they started to hunt for men, people hid wherever they could, climbed trees, went into animal burrows, jumped into haystacks, hid in lakes. One of them did not know what to do and stood in his home, behind the door! They did not find him.” © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #9. Her father went missing in the Manhunt. She was in absolute despair and when she returned to school in September. One day, in front of everyone, she tore a Stalin portrait off the wall in the corridor and gouged out his eyes. © Michał Dyjuk
Untitled #10. “He built a house in which his room had no windows.
– No windows?
– Yes, you can still see it today. He was afraid there were some attempts of revenge. He had a room without windows because he was afraid that someone would cut his head off.” © Michał Dyjuk

The project transcends the photographic, becoming an important historical research in and of itself. Michał started working with Dr. Barbara Szacka, a PhD researcher from the University of Warsaw who studies oral memory. In the course of his work, Michał has essentially created an extensive archive of the manhunt. Ever since Belarus has been pushing Middle Eastern refugees into Poland through the forest, the area itself has been declared off-limits by the Polish government, even for those providing humanitarian aid. Now, besides the ghosts of the past, refugees fleeing death and destruction in their countries inhabit the forest, only to be met with violence by the Polish border guards. Nevertheless, using available information, Michał managed to map out the possible locations of the massacres and mass graves.

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has been covering up the traces of the massacre, including the documents that might reveal the exact locations of the long-dead Poles. I spoke to Michał a few weeks before Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. Even then, he said “it is unlikely that Russians will ever allow research to confirm the details.” Now, it seems almost impossible. In the information war, even the past is under assault. To struggle against forgetting is an act of resistance in itself.

The landscape too seems to forget human suffering. Struggle as we might against forgetting, generations change, and tragedies are absorbed into everyday existence. Who remembers the turbulence of war of centuries long past? Do death and pain leave no trace?

Michał told me a story he had heard whilst working on the project. This happened, they say, during the Manhunt. A man was living near the forest, on what is now the Belorussian side. Once, as he was hearding his cows near a clearing in the forest, trucks started driving by and shots were fired. No one dared to see what was happening. When it was time to herd the cows back into the forest, they started behaving strangely. They mooed, they howled, they refused to go back into the forest. “Apparently, cows are very sensitive creatures. They can feel various pheromones in the air,” Michał says, “Cows can smell the scent of death.”

This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Black & White Photography Awards 2021. See all of the winners.

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