Far above the human eye and lower than the planes fly, aerial photographer Kacper Kowalski shows us another way of looking at our world.
Words & Photography Kacper Kowalski
I grew up in Gdansk, near the sea, and I love the Polish landscape. Sometimes I think it would be nice to live somewhere like California, but it would be boring for photography – every day you have the same weather and the same landscape. Here, in Poland, where I still live, every week has different weather, different light, different processes of nature - from winter through to spring. You can see the changes, and it's amazing.
I began paragliding in 1996, a long time ago, and actually I don't remember the early days. When I want to fly for fun, I go paragliding without an engine, just free-flying, through clouds and over the horizon, with the wind. When I want to fly for photography, I use an engine. With an engine on my back, I can fly to almost every site I want to, although some areas are prohibited because of air traffic. When you are flying a jumbo jet, the last thing you want to see is a paraglider taking pictures.
I was a competitive pilot for six years and it was very important to me. It was an amazing adventure and a very nice way to travel. You could be in India, for example, taking off from a mountain in the Himalayas and travelling sixty or forty kilometres to land in an unknown place, where you have real contact with the real citizens of those places. It's unpredictable where you will land, but the people are mostly natural and happy to see you. Sometimes it's late and you have to sleep in the place where you landed, on a high mountain. It’s a good way to see the world. I've flown from many sites – Vietnam, Australia – and I'd love to fly in many more places, particularly North Africa, some day.
In 2005/2006 I quit my job as an architect and started to work full-time as a professional photographer. I think it's visible that I'm an architect, because my pictures are a two-dimensional flat map or drawing of the three- dimensional reality that you can see. Also, because of my competitive history, I can fly precisely. I have good orientation. I always know how to fly back and I always know where is north; I have the map in my head, my own GPS, so it’s easy.
With my photography, I’m trying to capture a classic thing in an abstract way. What can I see from above? I can see the landscape, of course, and the nature, and I can see the signs of human activity, like the construction of a highway or a harbour. But it is very hard to shoot a story of news or reportage, because those actions happen between people, in close areas, too fast, and there are lots of places you cannot fly. There are a lot of situations that I would like to photograph that I cannot because of the conditions, too. Last year, I had an opportunity to fly over the flood in Sandomierz [Poland]. The town was 100 kilometres under water and I was there for a month. I was flying a lot, very slowly, looking for places to shoot and trying to catch the image that is impossible to catch from the ground.
Most of the challenges in paragliding are small, normal things. When there is a lot of snow, you cannot find a place to stop a car and take off. If you want to stop somewhere, you have to dig a place for your car with your hands. After that, how can you launch? You cannot run, you cannot take speed, so you have to create your own site for take-off. When it's snowing, it's very cold, so you can fly about half an hour before your fingers start to freeze and you have to land to warm yourself. But if you do it, you will have pictures that no one else has. So it’s worth fighting against those weather conditions.
Air is invisible, so you cannot see its power. It’s more dangerous for beginners than for pilots who have a lot of experience, but even if you have something like 3000 hours in the air, there can be unpredictable [elements] or you will do some little mistake, forget to do some very routine thing, and have an accident. Last year I broke my spine, but it was very little damage - nothing that will affect me for the next part of life. You have to remember[gallery order="DESC" orderby="rand"]
that people can fly, but nature designed people to walk. Sometimes I get scared and if I feel like, ‘What am I doing here? Am I crazy?' I will land. Last year, my partner and I bought a gyroplane and we are learning to fly gyro - a mix between a plane and a helicopter. It looks like it won’t fly, but it does, and it’s amazing.
I’m trying not to follow anyone else, because I don't want to lose my own way of seeing. I think that’s important. I don’t want to use the word 'unique', but it’s very personal and you have to be careful not to lose it. Right now I’m focused on aerial photography. Of course, if I can see something really unexpected on the ground, I will try and capture it, but right now I’m focused on aerial – although I'd like to learn more about film. I hope I will have the chance to fly in new sites, and do new projects with partners around the world, but Poland is a fantastic place to live. A lot of things have changed during these last years and you can have a very nice life here now. I have two kids and I want them to grow up here. As for the future? I don't know. There are so many things that change day to day, I just want to document them, and that’s it.