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Four Floors In Bielany
Warsaw, Poland
By Kirk Ellingham
21 May 2013

Chechen Refugees in Warsaw

Kirk Ellingham

Every day dozens of Chechens try to escape the Putin-proclaimed happy paradise in Chechnya by entering the European Union illegally via the border with Ukraine or Belarus. Despite the news of general peace and prosperity widely circulated by the news media in the Chechen Republic, more and more people dream of leaving the allegedly problem-free Chechnya.

Each time I returned to the rundown refugee centre on the edge of Warsaw that house nearly 300 mainly Chechen refugees to Poland, I found it harder and harder to get a grip both ethically and photographically on their situation.
Some of the residents had moved out into Warsaw apartments, some had been repatriated home; others had just disappeared into the E.U, especially if their asylum claims had been rejected. Some may have even returned to Chechnya voluntary, even perhaps to fight in the insurgence. Often if they had been refused status to stay in Poland or elsewhere the militant young felt they were left with little choice, but to return back to Chechnya to face violent reprisals or join the Islamic insurgence in the Caucasus Mountains.
It became a confusing place but with so many kind and courageous people letting me into their lives to photograph them I felt I needed to continue document the transient and desperate nature of their existence on the four floors of Bielany, the reasons they fled their homeland, in an original way at least.
So how could I transpose these notes and photographs into a viable project? The stories they told me ranged from horrific tales of torture to ones of simply trying to rejoin family members who had left Chechnya years before, during the two wars.
So I began to present the images with my written notes, thoughts and also the pictures the children made for me whilst wandering the cold corridors waiting to interview and photograph their parents.
I often felt like a useless recorder of tragedy and after one visit I felt despair at being only able being able to record these courageous peoples images and voices with a view to just using the work for my MA and not to implement any real change for their situation in Poland. I destroyed my first notebook in a Warsaw youth hostel in anger one night but later I fished its torn remains back from the kitchen bin.
A Bielany resident who I had spoken to about my frustrations had told me the next day even though it may sound clichéd that “It didn’t matter, at least you are listening to us, at least you are here trying to understand us, to document us” this helped waive my doubts about continuing the project, but I still feel that a photojournalist without empathy or ethics is only taking, often not helping; I hope I can give something back even if its only a testament to the fact that the Chechen people were here, in a small part of Warsaw waiting in a bureaucratic limbo as to whether they could continue there journey or travel back to a bleeding homeland.

I plan to make this project into a multimedia piece including all the notebooks, text and audio as well as a finished book and exhibition

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From All Sides: Violence and Policing...
Oakland, CA
By upheavalproductions
01 Apr 2013

A quick sample taken from preliminary interviews providing an overview of the proposed subject matter for a short documentary news piece.

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X Addicts
Oxford, UK
By Kirk Ellingham
01 Aug 2010

The Ley Community is a drug rehabilitation centre in Yarnton, Oxfordshire.
They help men and women build new lives after addiction to drugs and alcohol.

I grew up in and around the south London area. At the age of 16 I started smoking crack cocaine and getting more into crime. I was hanging around with people a lot older than me, in big groups fighting a lot and committing a lot of crime, getting into a lot of trouble. Back then it was all about who was the maddest and who was the baddest.

I grew up around a lot of drugs and violence and back then I thought that was what it was all about, being the big hard man. This led me to spend a lot of my life in prison from the age of 16. When I was out there involved in all the madness I didn't care about anyone or anything, I was a mess. Through all this my partner, who I met when I was 16, stuck by me. I was being very violent, drinking too much all the time.

When I was 20 my son was born and I was in prison at the time and that hurt me but it was down to my own stupidity. I came out and tried to stay off drugs but I couldn't do it and in the end my partner left me and took my son and I went off and ended up in prison on a robbery charge looking at a few years locked up again. I'd just had enough of the lifestyle, the drugs and spending all my life locked up. I spoke to a drugs worker in the prison and they said what about a rehab. I thought I would give it a go. I went to court and the judge sent me here.

Coming to the Ley was strange after spending so much time in prison and putting on the hard man act all that time. Everyone here was so nice to me, kind, caring and helpful. I've been here a while and I'm getting used to things and learning a lot about myself, the real me. When you look at the people at the end of the programme you see the benefits and if you put in the work you will get there. I'm rebuilding my relationship with my partner of seven years who has never used drugs and my son who is three years old now.

Now I'm looking forward to the future and being a good father and having a good life, a clean life. I know here I will learn what I need to live that life, I'm done with my old life, I now see it was nothing but crap but I now know my future will be good. My family and people that know me and even I can see a change in me and it's a good change. I would say to anyone that really wants to sort their life out that this is the place.

At times it is not easy but it’s what we need. My future is now about getting a job and a nice little place to live, once I have done this programme, and being a proper family with my partner and my son and living a drug and crime free life. Just being happy and grateful for the things I've got and being a good father and to make sure my son doesn't go down the road I did. I grew up without my father but I'm now getting my life back and my son will grow up with his father there for him and I'm really happy I've got this chance to get my life together.

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The Last Village
Bohoniki, Poland
By Kirk Ellingham
01 Mar 2010

Muslim Tartars in Poland

Bohoniki is a peaceful little village not far from Sokolka in the east of Poland,it is the last Tartar village before Belarus; maybe also the last of its kind.
There is no doubt that few people would have heard about it be it not for one fact: it was in this area that, in 1679, thirty Tatar soldiers were granted land for their faithful service to the Polish King Jan III Sobieski. A Tatar lady, who takes care of the Mosque, does not fail to stress that it was a reward for their valour in battle. Other sources simply say that the King was in financial straits and presented the land to his Tatar soldiers in lieu of due pay.
There are now only three Tatar families living in Bohoniki, but, considering that the village does not comprise more than thirty houses altogether, they make up about a fifth of the local population. And it is their Mosque that makes the village famous and attracts visitors from all over Poland and abroad.
Eugenia Radkieicz is the Mosque caretaker and you catch her dashing across the empty street to the small wooden Mosque when a tour bus arrives to conduct her lecture on the history of Bohoniki for groups of Polish schoolchildren.

The few families that remain are mostly elderly or sick, Evelina's father is bedridden and suffers from a Liver complaint. She takes care of the animials now and her mother worries about her future, as she must take care of them both when she gets older.
Many of the other family members are alone with their children working in cities as far afield as London to Riad.
Mrs Koztowska's son is in Spain and her elder son just returned from London, she cares for her blind husband who was injured as a boy by a German shell during World War II.
The community is still strong, the Iman comes in from Bialystock once a week for friday prayers and they are trying to set up a Religouse School in nearby Sokolka.
The village is changing though,as the young leave for foreign cities the old are left behind, but they have survived for 400 years in Poland , so they will survive still, by struggling and adapting.
The large Muslim cementary on the wooded hill just outside the village is proof of their endurance and intergration; with its Slavanised surnames and Muslim Crescents.

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Protest Journey
Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil
By Kirk Ellingham
01 Jul 2009

A two month journey following indigenous protests from Paraguay to Bolivia in 2007.