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In October of last year, the photojournalist Natalia Kepesz visited a military-themed club for children and young people near Gdansk, Poland. As the kids marched, like soldiers, toward a training camp in the forest, carrying heavy gear, they were told to be prepared for “enemy attacks.” When the camp leader shouted, “grenade!” they all fell to the ground as instructed. 

A moment later, Kepesz heard a frightened eight-year-old girl ask, “Why didn’t the grenade explode?” An eleven-year-old boy, laughing, explained that they were just pretending: it wasn’t a real grenade but a niewybuch, meaning “dud bomb.”

Kepesz’s latest project, titled Niewybuch, tells the story of military clubs, summer camps, and schools for children. These kinds of facilities date back to the 1920s, but the photographer says they’ve grown in popularity in Poland in recent years. While the guns and grenades might be “make-believe” toys, these programs are designed to teach real-world military skills and instill a sense of patriotism, teamwork, and discipline within their young participants. 

Often taking place on former army training grounds, these military boot camps involve instruction in survival, self-defense, topography, and more. Shooting is taught with air rifles or replica weaponry. Some of these children might grow up and join the military, but others might not. 

Although the training exercises are serious business, they’re also meant to be fun for the kids. Many are highly competitive. Proponents say they help keep children from playing with real weapons, but critics view them as a symptom of a disturbing trend toward nationalism in Poland–and in countries around the world. 

Although Kepesz is now based in Berlin, she was born in Zlotoryja, a historic town in Lower Silesia, and she remained in Poland throughout elementary and high school. “I was lucky to grow up in Poland in a very great time,” she says. “In the 1990s and early 2000s, everything was possible there. All of a sudden, you could travel and conquer the world. You could feel the freedom. 

“After that, however, things went downhill again in Poland. The right-wing government managed to impose itself. I’ve never seen Poland the way it is now. I experienced a completely different Poland. The country still fascinates me today. It is my homeland. Many things are very familiar and close to me there, and at the same time, many things are also foreign.”

The photojournalist returned to Lower Silesia to visit an old monastery in 2020 while working on another project; by chance, it was there that she also encountered her first military high school. “When I lived in Poland, these military schools weren’t that popular,” she tells us. “I started researching and soon discovered the scale of this movement. Not only are these kinds of schools enjoying a huge demand, but there are countless other organizations (camps, clubs, etc.) offering military training.”

Her interest piqued, she contacted several facilities, asking to document the training, and some agreed. By August of 2020, she found herself at a camp on the Polish coast, where the kids were divided into groups, each with a different focus. “One exercise in particular has stayed in my memory,” she says. “On the second day, the children were divided into two groups: soldiers and terrorists. 

“The terrorists barricaded themselves in the rooms of the house where the children normally lived. The smallest ones were characterized as victims and ‘placed’ in the corridors. The soldiers were then supposed to ‘liberate’ the house. The ‘game’ went on all day, and the children took their roles very seriously.”

The theme of childhood is one Kepesz has returned to again and again, from many different angles. It’s worth noting that adults rarely appear throughout Niewybuch; the focus is, and always has been, on the kids themselves. She knows she can’t predict their futures, but she can help tell their stories in the present. “I am interested in the influence that is exerted on the children in these scenarios,” she tells us. “At that age, children can’t defend themselves, so they are easy to influence. I think that adults sometimes trust children with things that are not meant for them and their psyches.” 

All images © Natalia Kepesz

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