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Reimagining the narratives of Polish women during the Second World War through photographs

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The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the research on migration and displacement can be enhanced through the use of oral histories and photographs. The example discussed is an ongoing research project organised by the Piłsudski Institute of London in 2019 called Forgotten Force – Polish Women in the Second World War (watch the project’s trailer here). The project aims to give first-hand evidence of the past through audio and video recordings of stories of Polish women survivors of the war who in the early 1940s have been displaced from the Eastern borderlines of Poland (so-called Kresy). Their journey through a number of refugee and labour camps in Siberia, Middle East, India and Africa led many of them to the United Kingdom in the 1940s, subsequently making their host country their home. There are six main participants of this project, however, to limit the scope of this paper and the number of photographs, I will focus on Mrs Danuta Pniewska (Photos 1 and 2). As a Girl Scout, Danuta had lived under the Soviet occupation for two years before being deported from Nowogródek in 1942 to Achinsk area in Krasnoyarsk Krai. Together with her mother, she was placed in a kolkhoz where they worked the land. Left with the Polish Army from Krasnovodsk to Pahlevi. She was evacuated with Polish children to India where she stayed until 1946, ultimately to settle in the UK [1].

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Photo 1: Mrs Danuta Pniewska as a teenager. Source: Danuta’s personal archive.

In the context of this paper, photo-elicitation, a term first coined by John Collier Jr. [2], is understood as the use of photographs during an interview process where participants can be stimulated through the visual clues in the images. According to an American sociologist and photographer Douglas Harper, ‘photo-elicitation evokes information, feelings, and memories that are due to the photograph’s particular form of representation’ [3]. Evoking memories was particularly important for this project because the discussed events took place over seventy years ago. 

However, in the very early stages of the Forgotten Force project, the term photo-elicitation was not mentioned as one of the key methods of research. The project had a very strong audio-visual concept from the very beginning, but it focused on filming oral histories and collecting material for a multimedia exhibition. This material was assumed to be photographs and documents which would be loaned from the participants and copied, either in the form of scans or simply just re-photographed if scanning was not possible. 

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Photo 2: Magdalena Paczocha (author, left) and Danuta Pniewska (right) viewing one of the albums. Photo: Olga Topol.

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Photo 3: Danuta and her photographs. Photo: Magdalena Paczocha.

Photo-elicitation and oral histories 

Over the course of the interviews, it became clear that photographs have more potential than just illustrative – they can be used as a research tool in their own right. 


My colleague and I were invited to Danuta’s apartment in London to conduct the interview. We engaged in an informal chat first as I was setting up the film equipment. At the point where we were ready to start recording, the conversation would turn into a semi-structured interview, open-ended, giving the participants enough free space to tell us their story at their own pace. Although the existence of various photographs was mentioned during the conversation, we usually waited until the end of the interview to see them. Danuta invited us into another room where she stored all her photographs into albums and boxes. 

The number of photographs our research participants have in their personal archives is astonishing to the point where their whole life history could be told with images, and Danuta in no exception. As seen in Photo 4 below, Danuta keeps her documents and photographs categorised in files, boxes and albums as she is preparing material for her own publication. 

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Photo 4: Danuta Pniewska (left) and Olga Topol (curator of the Pilsudski Institute, right). Photo: Magdalena Paczocha.


Taking the albums one by one and turning the many pages filled with photographs, Danuta shared stories about her friends and family pictured, the events she participated in and places she has been. It was particularly fascinating to see which photographs Danuta paid special attention to and which were omitted. 

Selections of photographs could be seen as an exercise in remembering and forgetting in this case. There was a sense that by selecting photographs to discuss, Danuta was selecting memories which she felt were either the most important or the most interesting. She seemed fond of photographs from her childhood and teenage years, telling us stories about swimming in the ocean (Photo 7) and her best friends, such as Hania who used to live nearby with her mother. Women, and mothers in particular, strongly featured in Danuta’s stories and photographs. This was a common theme in the stories of all research participants – the absence of men who often were drawn into the army or labour camps, was filled with women who had to occupy a range of roles in the camps and provide for their children. Interestingly, most photographs of bigger groups were not discussed in much detail. Danuta had plenty of them in her album, but noticeably, these were the pages which would turn over the fastest. Apart from a few exceptions, Danuta would not elaborate on them – posed, planned photographs did not evocate as many memories as vernacular photographs of close family and friends, at least in this case.

Photo 5: In a room where Danuta keeps her photographs there is a table covered with a white tablecloth. The table is by the window, making it the perfect place with natural light to view photographs.

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Photo 6: Some photographs have been purposely ‘adjusted’ to remove certain people (from memory?) by cutting them out of the photograph.

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Photo 7: Photograph in the right bottom corner, Danuta pictured with a friend. Both wearing swimsuits made by their mothers while staying in a refugee camp. The photograph is a sweet memory for Danuta, showing that regardless of the situation, mothers and children tried to live a ‘normal’ life.

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Photo 8: A mixture of photographs from Poland and Jalalabad, Afghanistan. When showing these photographs, Danuta was especially proud of her braided hair because most people had their heads shaved clean to prevent the spread of diseases when they travelled through Russia and the Middle East (top right corner).


Photographs reveal unbelievable personal histories which go beyond the family narrative; such is the case of the photographs which have been shared by Danuta and the rest of our participants. One of a kind, they collectively tell a history of displacement, hunger, pain and social injustice. More importantly, they also tell stories of unimaginable bravery, dedication, and a will to live and are witness to the history of women who bore extremely difficult life experiences and rose above them. Photo-elicitation has massively aided the project, letting Danuta and the other participants take the lead, and be true heroes of their stories.

Notes and References

[1] Art and Memory virtual exhibition. Art and Memory is a part of Forgotten Force – an oral history project by the Piłsudski Institute of London giving first-hand evidence of the past by audio and video recording stories of Polish women survivors of the Second World War who have been residing in the UK for the past seventy years. 

[2] Collier, John Jr. 1957. ‘Photography in Anthropology: A Report on Two Experiments’. American Anthropologist, 59(5), 843-859.

[3] Harper, Douglas. 2002. ‘Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation’. Visual Studies, 17(1), 13-26.

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Magdalena Paczocha

Magdalena Paczocha is a Master’s student in Visual, Material and Museum Anthropology at the University of Oxford. She holds a First-Class honours Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Visual Practice from Goldsmiths, University of London. Also trained as a videographer, Magdalena is interested in the role of still and moving images in archives, museums, and the Internet, as a source of knowledge and a research method.

You can find Magdalena on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as @magpaczocha or email her at

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