by Eryk Fitkau
(16th February 1952 - 28th May 2010)
I was born in Communist Poland in 1952. My background we can call Aristocratic; I was well educated, from a typical high class family of four, with Nanny and another woman for cooking and household chores. With all these benefits and luxuries, I missed out on some of the very important things of life, which I realized later on in life were hugs and kisses from my parents.
I grew up in a very funny way. I really wanted to express myself but I was a shy and timid child. For example, when my parents had guests for dinner, I requested to be in the solitary confines of my room; something my parents did not oppose. I realized early on that I was born shy and timid, but logic was telling me that this was a huge disadvantage for me. I remember since the age of about 3 or 4 having childhood memories of listening to the radio and curiously wondering how an orchestra could possibly fit into the confines of a small wooden box. I remember when I was about 6 or 7 years old, I was walking with my Nanny when I saw a group of teenagers climbing trees. This fascinated me as I had inherited from my mother a chronic fear of heights, but I felt an amazing drive to achieve what these guys had achieved. I thought to myself, if everyday I applied myself and climb a few meters higher each day, I wouldn't notice my position off the ground and eventually be able to overcome my fear of heights.
At the age of about 8 or 9 years old, I could climb huge tall trees right to the top and without any fear at all. As a child I also had a fascination with ice-skating. The first time I had my ice skates I was about 3 to 4 years old. What excited me in wintertime was to run down to the ice and check for the ice to be just right for me to skate. Another passion, which I had as a child, was building planes, which could fly. Having both mother and father as a doctor by profession, I managed in late spring and autumn (in which there was nothing much to do), to pretend to be sick to stay at home and build planes. I remember that it gave me so much happiness and I remember thinking that people who don’t know the satisfaction and pleasure of doing that are missing out on an amazing feeling and amazing satisfaction.
I had a lot of emotion inside of me as a child and a huge imagination, which I think was the basis for the creative energy I developed later on in life. I imagined that the trees had houses with people inside of them. I would pretend I was a milk man and was dragging a tray (which I pretended were my horses) whilst interacting with the make believe people in the trees; talking to them and delivering them their milk.
With the combination of playing ice hockey and climbing trees, I developed a high level of physical strength and endurance; which led to the first step of developing the confidence, which I was so lacking before. I was a placid child but I was very vulnerable to aggression towards me, which in turn led to fights that helped to condition my skill as a street fighter and scrapper. By nature I am not an aggressive person, but my drive and thirst to be accepted and have the admiration of my peers was well evident.
In my adolescent years I started really hitting the ice and growing a strong passion for ice hockey. Apart from the normal feeling of the game; adrenaline and winning, was also combined with an amazing feeling of freedom, power and a hard to describe plain love for the essence and feel of the ice and winter; my hair blowing in the icy cold wind; the ‘groupie’ fan club cheering on the side. Nothing could replicate the feeling and the freedom that was bestowed upon me on the ice; I was like a fish in water. Discouraged from dabbling in dancing, I felt that the rigid movement I had on the floor palled in comparison to how I could move on the ice and the freedom of that feeling.
The physicality of ice hockey really matured me and helped me grow physically and build my confidence to another level that I had never experienced before.
When I was 18 there was legislation passed which insisted that young people had to be accompanied by the "Stamp of Approval" from the government. Those who did not have this stamp were not employed by the government and would face dire consequences if caught. I was playing ice hockey at this time, but you have to remember it was communist Poland and the government was filing our heads with propaganda. They said that no sport was a professional career, that every sport was amateur. So whilst I was being paid to play ice hockey, I could not get the Stamp, because it was not considered a legitimate job. By this time I had scrapped around, hustled, and I had some involvement in the black market, which meant that I had managed to come up with a substantial savings amount and my main priority at this time was to obtain the "Stamp of Approval". I really did not want to get caught without this precious stamp because I did not want to interrupt my way of life nor get sent to concentration camps for hard labor. So I began to think about what was an easy job by which I could obtain this precious stamp?
By Polish standards I was 6 foot 3 and good looking. This led me to the idea that I may be able to tempt my hand at modeling. This modeling experience was great for my self-esteem and was an incredible learning curve in my life. I lost all inhibitions and self doubt I may have had previously to this. Modeling helped me to come out of my shell and be in my element; showing my true self; my true character. This worked well, helping others around me feel at ease and also allowed them to feed off my energy; and I felt the full support of my peers and crowd. I even feel that I helped to pioneer a new way of modeling, one, which was slightly unorthodox, compared to the conditions at the time. With my relaxed and playful demeanor, I put the catwalk at ease and released tension from the normally tense environment. To put it mildly, I started to enjoy entertaining the audiences, and bringing a different aspect to the catwalk.
Introduction to Photography
Through modeling I met a photographer who was just starting out in the scene. This was where my career in photography first started. Considering that we were very different characters it was funny that we did become good friends. His character was sensitive and he was not physically strong. I on the other hand, was strong (from my involvement in ice hockey) and able to do things he could not. Through ice hockey I learned how to defend myself and in a situation, which required physical strength, I knew how to cope with physical contact. I remember this one day that he asked me to go with him on a dangerous photographic assignment, to act as his body guard. The assignment was about people who get flats or apartments from the government and demolish, or destroy them for whatever reason they desire. As I mentioned before this was communist Poland and police were very different from what we experience here in Australia; to get to places you were supposed to have police on side. After talking to police I was informed that I was allowed to break into places when police were not present.
1st Photojournalism assignment
I have seen a lot and experienced a lot, but what I saw in this assignment was simply shocking. We went to a flat without police presence and we were situated outside. From the inside we could hear an obvious scuffle and screaming and fighting. I knocked several times before asking him to get ready with the camera, and I took a bit of a run up to break down the door. Inside were two men fighting; covered with blood. A 150kg woman was spread over the bed, naked, and crying kids were scuffling around the place. I remember the bed had sheets, which were grey, and looking old and tattered; a naked ass was pointing directly at me and little kids were running around hysterically. He was standing with the camera, shocked, and obviously not connecting. I remember yelling at the top of my lungs, screaming "SHOOT! SHOOT!" Eventually, I seized the moment and for the first time ever, ripped the camera from his grasp and started shooting away with the camera. It was almost as if the camera was set up perfectly and we got amazing results. The pictures were perfect.
Becoming a Photographer
After this experience my photographer friend said we had to talk, and when we talked he insisted on me becoming a photographer. As I mentioned before I was playing ice hockey and surviving off means, which, in societies view, were not totally acceptable. This was my absolute first time maneuvering a camera; I had never previously taken photos of any kind. This was a chance of perhaps making a profession, which would be accepted too. With ice hockey I was always getting injured and dealing with the problems of black eye, broken ribs. Photography meant I could still get pleasure and satisfaction in doing something, which wasn’t really my forte and main occupation.
Putting it mildly, when I picked up my confidence and became the number one model in Poland, I was able to overcome the problems of black eyes and broken ribs from playing ice hockey, and I also got a lot of fun out of modeling. I got to experience something, which I will never forget. I got a lot of money and also experienced amazing things whilst traveling across Eastern Communist Europe. You can only describe this as an amazing experience, fun and cliché expression sex, vodka, and rock and roll were the rule of the land.
Reaction to being a Photographer
My first initial reaction to photography, and the idea of being behind the camera, rather than in front of it, was a complete shock, and to me, an idea that came totally from left field. However, after carefully assessing my options, I was well educated (however nothing more than high school standard); I had no knowledge of photography, besides that from my modeling experiences. I came to the conclusion that photography would not hurt me, so I mean, why not give it a go? I was young, well educated, of a good background, street smart and also hungry with ambition.
My 1st Camera
The following day I got back to the photographer and told him that I could have a go; what was involved in getting me started? He gave me my first camera, which was a small Pentax 35mm, and he asked me to contribute a minimum 8 hours a day towards focusing on moving objects such as cars, trams, people, and animals; anything that moved.
I then got to work and spent two weeks vigorously focusing on everything I could lay my camera to. He then gave me back the films and he explained the basics of cameras, explaining depth of field and shutter speed. He then sent me off to shoot. I was puzzled, and asked him what to shoot, he then told me shoot everything you can, and are able to shoot. I took this week and shot everything in sight. He then showed me how to develop film, apply negative to paper, and how to apply the negative to then see what you have shot. We developed the films and talked about these shots and then he told me "pick yourself two assignments from which you feel comfortable, something that you can show people different aspects of, from which you can teach them something that they don't know or they don't understand'
I have done in my life a lot of things, some were maybe not very correct, however these experiences gave me access to life experiences, which other people did not have.