‘Martial law in a nutshell’: On the 37th anniversary of martial law being imposed, TFN meets Chris Niedenthal, the man whose photography came to define it

Chris Niedenthal moved to Poland in 1973 where he became one of the very few foreign photographers managing to smuggle pictures abroad, documenting Polish reality for western media. Marcin Obara /TFN

In the early hours of Sunday December 13, 1981 photographer Chris Niedenthal returned home to his house in Warsaw’s Saska Kepa district after a night of socialising with friends, family and various elements of Poland’s foreign press corps.

Rumours and stories had started to fly around of activists being arrested but nobody read much into them, and the parties had rolled on.

Now almost 37 years later to the hour, and surrounded by the chatter and cosmopolitan hubbub of a swish Warsaw café almost, he recalls what happened next.

“In a parking place I saw a car with dimmed lights, which didn’t look very pleasant—you think of the secret police,” he says. “But it turned out to be a friend of mine who was also a photographer and a cameraman who said: ‘Listen something’s happening in town. Get your camera and let’s go.’ So I grabbed my camera and didn’t see my wife again for about a week.”

What was happening was martial law. On the morning of December 13th, thousands of  troops, militia and police, backed by tanks and armoured vehicles took up positions across the country in an attempt to crush the Solidarity movement.

A curfew was imposed, telephone lines disconnected, the borders sealed, airports closed and road and rail transport between cities restricted. Scores of opposition activists were arrested.

“If tanks start running around the city and there are armed soldiers then you know that this is big,” says Niedenthal. “So we realised straight away that this was the story. At the time though we didn’t really know what martial law was. We knew what war was but didn’t know what martial law meant.”

'It was just a wonderful shot because it was martial law in a nutshell,' says photographer Chris Niedenthal. 'It was the Moscow Cinema, the film was Apocalypse Now and you had the armoured personnel carrier. I was in a good position to shoot it from because so it was naturally framed. But at the time you didn’t really think about that because you just wanted to shoot anything and get out without being caught.'Park miniatur - Rodzinny Park Rozrywki Mikroskala w Koninie

What he did know, however, is that he had to start taking photographs, but this was easier said than done. The authorities had banned the use of cameras in public so any photography had to be covert photography, and with the troops and police on the streets, and road blocks littering the city that came with risks.

It was during a surreptitious hunt for things to photograph that Niedenthal came across a scene outside the now-long-gone Moscow Cinema that would become his most famous photograph. An image that would soon ping around a world still trying to digest what was happening in Poland, and one that would become the defining images of martial law.

“It was just a wonderful shot because it was martial law in a nutshell,” he explains. “It was the Moscow Cinema, the film was Apocalypse Now and you had the armoured personnel carrier. I was in a good position to shoot it from because so it was naturally framed. But at the time you didn’t really think about that because you just wanted to shoot anything and get out without being caught.” 

The desire to avoid capture forced him to find a vantage point to take the shot in a block of flats, but even that had risks

It was during a surreptitious hunt for things to photograph that Niedenthal came across a scene outside the now-long-gone Moscow Cinema that would become his most famous photograph. An image that would soon ping around a world still trying to digest what was happening in Poland, and one that would become the defining images of martial law.Marcin Obara/TFN

“The picture was taken from a staircase window from the block of flats opposite,” Niedenthal explains. “I was frightened of knocking on doors because just round the corner was the interior ministry so I had no idea who lived in the flats, so I wasn’t going to risk knocking on doors. But I was lucky because there was that one staircase and I went up there and got the shot.”

Taking photographs was one thing but getting them out of Poland was proving to be an even greater challenge. With the borders all-but sealed, flights cancelled and movement between cities limited getting rolls of film to newspapers and magazines abroad was close to impossible, and Niedenthal’s deadline was also closing in. As a photographer for Newsweek, the magazine needed the pictures by Friday and their closest office to Warsaw was in Bonn, the West German capital. 

Niedenthal thought about taking them out himself either by car or on one of the few international trains still running. But a lack of petrol ruled out the car because he may not have had enough to get to the border. The train was possible but being a foreign journalist may have earmarked him for some special film-confiscating attention from border guards. And in both cases, even if Niedenthal had got out he may not have been allowed back in, something that he was not prepared to risk given that he had a wife and child in Warsaw, and that he was in the midst of the biggest story of his career.

In the end, on Tuesday night and with the curfew drawing in, he headed to the Gdańsk Station, then Warsaw’s international railway station, in the hope of finding someone willing and brave enough to take the precious films to West Germany on the Berlin train.

'The picture was taken from a staircase window from the block of flats opposite,” Niedenthal explains. “I was frightened of knocking on doors because just round the corner was the interior ministry so I had no idea who lived in the flats, so I wasn’t going to risk knocking on doors. But I was lucky because there was that one staircase and I went up there and got the shot.'Marcin Obara/TFN

“I got to the station but of course there weren’t any people there because nobody could travel so I was bit desperate,” he remembers. “Eventually I just ran through the train and at the last moment I found a young West German student who was going home. So I said to him, ‘You know what is happening here. I’m a photographer and I need to get some photographs out so can you please take these films and once you’re out can you call the Newsweek bureau in Bonn, and they’ll do the rest.’ I just had to prey that he got through. It was all I could do. If they had caught him with the film then he would have been in trouble.

“I never had time to find out his name or the name of his village or town,” adds Niedenthal, with regret. “I would like to thank him now because he got there and called Bonn.”

In order to avoid having to give the student anything on paper Niedenthal had earlier written out the captions for the photos on a piece of paper and photographed that so the Newsweek editors, who had no way of getting in contact with him, knew what was what.

The photographs, some of the first of images of Poland under martial law published in the international press, were something of a sensation when they hit the presses, and sky-rocketed Niedenthal’s profile.

Looking back on those days, the photographer realises that they were one of those life-changing moments.

“I guess it was my baptism by fire, he says. “Anything with guns and tanks is no small thing. It was the story, and I managed to get out of it with my head held high. I managed to get the pictures and I got them out.”