The very first sentence Mikolaj Nowacki said as a child was, “Look, Dad, a ship is floating by.” It was a fascination with boats on the Baltic Sea that continues to influence his photographic work to this day.
Nowacki grew up in Poland with two parents who are law professors, and he first tried his hand at law. But ten years into it, he had a change of heart, falling hard for the craft of documentary photography. He abandoned his doctoral studies and picked up a camera instead.
“I learned the rule of thirds and thought I was a National Geographic photographer,” says Nowacki of his first experience learning photography.
He’s now been practicing photography for 14 years and says his boyhood fascination with ships has turned into a full-time passion. In addition to producing a story on the 400-mile Odra River, he’s also spent four and a half years documenting the Polish Navy during battle training for a project called “War Games: The Baltic.”
“With my camera I like to explore topics which were always bothering me and which I loved,” he says. “In the 1970s and 80s I often went with my parents to the Baltic Sea. There was communism in Poland, and I remember dangerous-looking gray shapes on the horizon. I knew these were battleships, and I felt a sense of danger. So when I was a conscious photographer, I went back.”
But getting onto the battleships wasn’t easy. After covering Polish soldiers in Chad in 2008, Nowacki made contact with the PR department of the Polish Navy. He then spent six months trying to wrangle permission to board a ship.
(And he says getting permission has not gotten easier over the years—despite seven trips with the navy so far.)
“I very quickly become friends with these soldiers because I really respect their work. I love the sea and they love the sea. We have common passion,” he says.
Despite not being a sailor, Nowacki says he was pleasantly surprised to learn that he never got seasick—even during storms that sickened half the crew. This came in handy during one winter night when he ventured on deck in subzero temperatures to photograph the tempestuous sea. Both he and his camera got drenched with saltwater, but he says it was worth it.
“I knew my abilities. I knew I wouldn’t die. It was dangerous, but it was also fun,” he says.
Nowacki’s original goal was to show the beauty of life on naval ships, but with the help of mentor Antonin Kratochvil from the VII Mentor Program, he realized that that approach didn’t capture the feeling of being on board. He says he sensed tension and stress among the crew—particularly in recent years as NATO forces geared up against perceived aggression from Russia—and decided to capture this feeling of anxiety on film.
“They had so many alarms during the day and night—they had to get out of their beds to prepare for fire or attack from a submarine or aircraft, so I took pictures which were mostly out of focus and blurred to give more feeling,” he says.
And, to increase intimacy, Nowacki says he shot mainly with 28mm and 35mm prime lenses—getting extremely close to his subjects to give viewers a sense of being part of the action.
“When I sense the possibility of good pictures I just forget about everything,” he says.
Nowacki’s photos shows both officers and privates alike on small, 30-crew battleships and on large, 200-crew frigates. And, he says, he’s continuing to work on his project, even after more than four years of coverage.
“When I think it’s done, after a couple of months I just miss this project so much that I have to do it.”
Mikolaj Nowacki is based in Wroclaw, Poland, and is a contributing photographer to the Polish edition of National Geographic. His photo stories have been published on the New York Times and CNN’s photo blogs, among others. See more work from “War Games. The Baltic.” on his website and follow him on Instagram.