By Amanda White
All photos by Jason Brown
British picture maker Jason Brown has been wowing the dive industry with stunning magazine covers, striking underwater imagery, and creative commercial photography. If you haven’t heard of him or his company, BARDOCreative, he is a man of many talents, who has transported us through time and space to feel as if we are a part of his images. We recently had a chat with Jason to learn a little bit about him and his photography. Dive in!
InDepth: Please tell us a little bit about your background.
Jason Brown: As a kid growing up in the ’80s, I loved tinkering with early 8-bit computers. Like many teenagers of the time, I would spend my days glued to an old TV screen connected to a Commodore 64 in my bedroom. What really changed things for me, though, was the advent of the Commodore Amiga. The Amiga was a revelation, and programs like Deluxe Paint got me hooked on using computers for creativity. It did stuff that was just unheard of back then. You could record and remix digital sound, overlay graphics onto live video with a genlock, and even capture real-world digital images directly into the computer and manipulate them in Deluxe Paint. The Amiga practically invented digital art!
The Amiga got me my first job working in editorial for one of the biggest consumer magazine publishers in the U.K. Working on magazines was a lot of fun, as I would spend everyday rubbing shoulders with some very creative people—writers, fellow editors, designers, illustrators, and photographers. As a completely self-taught photographer, I credit those early magazine days as my best teacher.
How did your underwater journey begin?
If I have one regret, it’s that I wish I’d taken up diving earlier. Like many, I was convinced to sign up when a friend was given a PADI Open Water course for his birthday. I was in my late 20s when I took my first breath of compressed air and some twenty-plus years later, I’m still loving every minute of it. Having switched to diving a twinset fairly early on, I discovered Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) and took DIR Fundamentals (as it was called back then) in 2006 with former GUE instructor Andy Kerslake. Since then I’ve climbed the GUE ladder to Tech 2 and more recently, CCR 1 with Graham Blackmore, one of the best instructors that I’ve been fortunate enough to train with. The switch to CCR has been a revelation. It’s been tough unlearning some deeply ingrained habits, but it’s been so worth it.
What was your motivation to switch to CCR?
My switch to CCR was driven by a single, very focused desire to photograph the wrecks of Malin Head off the coast of Ireland. Laying in 60 meters-plus, you can do them on open circuit, but to truly appreciate them without running up an obscene helium bill, you need to dive them on CCR. I’m sure everyone has seen photo pioneer Leigh Bishop’s images of the massive 13.5” naval guns on the wreck of HMS Audacious or the Sherman tanks stacked on top of each other on the Empire Heritage—the Malin wrecks are a photographer’s dream! Visibility of 40 meters-plus is not unheard of, so you can really capture the scale of these amazing wrecks.
You participated in project diving before your switch to CCR. Can you tell me a little bit about what projects you were involved in and your role?
One of the first projects that I was lucky enough to be involved in was based out of Portland in Dorset here in the U.K. A team of passionate volunteers set it upon themselves to scour the seabed off Portland and Weymouth looking for uncharted wrecks, many of which had never been dived before. Using sidescan data captured during longs days scanning the seabed, we’d identify marks of interest and would set out to dive them. Sometimes those marks would simply be scrap on the seabed but, with surprising frequency, we’d find stuff of genuine historical interest, too.
“What always surprised me was the sheer volume of objects of historical significance just waiting to be discovered.”
What always surprised me was the sheer volume of objects of historical significance just waiting to be discovered. We got to the point where finding yet another Admiralty anchor or a centuries-old cannon was considered routine! Then, of course, there were those days when we’d stumble across really exciting finds. The seabed off Portland is very dynamic—it constantly shifts, burying some objects and revealing others. For me, a real highlight was the day we located a large section of hull from a 17th century vessel that had been buried for many years. We were certainly the first people to lay eyes on her since the day she sank! It’s a bittersweet memory too as my buddy that day is no longer with us.
My role on that project was to record what we’d find underwater through my photography. Photography had two purposes: The first would be to aid in the identification of the objects we’d find. The second—and possibly even more important purpose—would be that my images hopefully inspire others to take an interest in maritime history. We even set up a visitor center where divers and non-divers alike could view artifacts recovered from wrecks in the local area and learn more about Portland’s rich maritime history. These days, of course, the focus has switched more to photogrammetry, but I still feel that photography has an important role to play. 3D models are a fantastic visualisation tool, but they can also be rather clinical. Photography, on the other hand, gives far greater scope for creativity.
“These days, of course, the focus has switched more to photogrammetry, but I still feel that photography has an important role to play.”
In recent years, I’ve started giving something back to the community by sponsoring a number of U.K.-based projects. I’m proud to support the amazing work that GUE Instructor Marcus Rose has been doing with Project Baseline here in the U.K. Hopefully I’ll be able to get actively involved in a few of them, too!
You have no interest in photogrammetry?
Far from it. I honestly think that photogrammetry is a very exciting development, especially for project diving. I just don’t believe that it replaces traditional photography. If anything, it supplements it very nicely. Diving explorers like Ingmar and Richard Lundgren, Immi Wallin, Chris Rowlands, and Kari Hyttinen are doing some amazing things with photogrammetry and have proven its worth as a fantastic tool for visualising wreck sites. I see photogrammetry as an additional skill set that I could bring to diving projects, rather than being a skill I can offer commercially. The key to being a useful member of any project team is to bring skills to the table that both compliment and indeed supplement what they may already have. If you have the camera gear, it makes sense not to limit what you can offer.
Tell us a bit about how you came to name your business Bardo?
Contrary to what most seem to think, it’s got nothing to do with 1950s French actresses and a whole lot to do with my exploration of Buddhism back in my 20s. It’s actually a reference from the Bardo Thodol (or TheTibetan Book of the Dead as it’s called in the West). Wikipedia explains it better than I could as “the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth.” The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death in the Bardo—the interval between death and the next rebirth. Who knew I was quite so deep, eh?
Very poetic. How did you get into photography?
My first exposure to professional photography was during my magazine publishing days. Magazines are very visual mediums and need a constant supply of professional-quality photographs, and so I would spend many long days trapped in hot and stuffy photographic studios working alongside some very talented photographers. Seeing how they shaped light always fascinated me, and it’s something that I explore a lot through my own photography.
My own passion in photography started when I inherited my father’s SLR camera. It was a pretty basic camera, but it taught me how to shoot in full manual mode. Modern digital cameras are very sophisticated, but you still need to understand basic camera theory—f/stops, ISO speed, shutter speed, and so on. This is particularly important underwater as cameras will only capture what they perceive to be a correct exposure based on top-side theory. Full manual unlocks full creativity—you can capture the image you want rather than the image that the camera thinks you want.
When I first learned to dive, it didn’t take long before I wanted to take a camera with me on my adventures. Back then, film was still king, so my first attempts at underwater photography were captured on a roll of 36 exposures—many of which usually ended up in the bin. Shooting film is far more challenging than digital. Compared to the technology available to photographers today, getting a decent image on film was a lot more hit-and-miss.
Do you ever still shoot with film?
I honestly haven’t shot on film for many, many years now. Very occasionally, though, I do like to set myself a challenge. I will allow myself a maximum of 24 shots and go shoot something interesting. Forcing yourself to not “spray and pray” really makes you focus (if you’ll pardon the pun) on each and every shot. That’s one aspect of film photography that I fear we’ve lost—that sense that you’ve only got a very limited opportunity to get it right. In my experience at least, restricting yourself in this way often results in far better photos
“That’s one aspect of film photography that I fear we’ve lost—that sense that you’ve only got a very limited opportunity to get it right.”
You are doing more than just capturing your time underwater, you now work with brands and magazines doing commercial photography and graphic design. How did you get into that?
Through blood, sweat, and tears. Seriously though, none of it happened overnight, and it required a lot of networking to get my name out there and develop the contacts I have today. Ten years ago I was working in marketing for a travel company, and I would always become disheartened when days trapped in the office would stop me from going diving. In 2010 I made the decision to sack my boss and start working for myself. I really didn’t have a robust business plan; I just knew I wanted to be able to go diving whenever I wanted. Of course, the reality is somewhat different, and I still find myself occasionally trapped by work. Finding like-minded friends who can skip work to go diving is always a challenge, too, and then there are those pesky project deadlines that still get in the way. To be fair, being self-employed does give me a lot more flexibility to do what I want when I want, though. That alone makes it worthwhile.
Does anyone work with you on your projects?
For me, every shoot is a collaboration—whether it’s with your models, the client, or indeed your dive buddy. I always welcome input, and I’m always open to trying something different if I think they have a cool idea. Never assume that you’re the only one with the creative ideas.
You need to learn to collaborate when you’re working with diver models in water. As any underwater photographer will confirm, models can make or break a shoot. Diving with someone who instinctively knows how to be a good model can make the difference between capturing great images and a wasted dive. Developing that understanding takes time and doesn’t happen overnight. That said, I’m always mindful that I don’t want to monopolize my dive buddy’s in-water time. Often they’ve paid to be on the boat too, and the last thing they want is to spend the entire dive posing for my camera!
What is your thought process like when you’re doing a shoot?
It’s important to understand that every photoshoot is different. There’s no “do this, do that” formula that you can apply to ensure a successful shoot. The first step is to always talk to the client to get an understanding of what they want to get out of the shoot. Some clients have a very clear idea of what they want. The last shoot I did for Apeks, for example, was well-planned by the marketing team in Blackburn. They provided me with a comprehensive list of topside shots they needed to market and launch their then new VX-1 mask. How I executed those shots was up to me, but even then, a good photographer needs to develop an insight into the sort of “look and feel” that best matches the client’s brand. There’s no point shooting something completely off the wall if it doesn’t fit in with either the client’s brief or their own brand image. Photo commissions aren’t about you as a creative; they’re about satisfying the client’s needs.
“There’s no point shooting something completely off the wall if it doesn’t fit in with either the client’s brief or their own brand image. Photo commissions aren’t about you as a creative; they’re about satisfying the client’s needs.”
Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
Magazine shoots are always fun, and occasionally you get to travel to some quite exciting destinations. One of my favorite trips was to the beautiful island of Alphonse in the Indian Ocean, which was sponsored by the Seychelles tourist board. Three other photojournalists from the U.K. dive press and I were whisked away to a private island catering to the rich and famous. This island was just paradise personified and would normally cost far more than I could ever afford. Being able to spend a week on the island being treated like royalty under the pretense of writing a travel feature was quite a sweet gig!
Due to HSE restrictions here in the U.K., all my paid commissions are topside only. The stuff I shoot underwater is licensed as stock photography via my website, so I get a lot more free rein over my underwater images. That said, I do tend to tailor what I shoot with an eye to future licensing opportunities.
“What I enjoy is shooting people underwater. For me, what makes an image interesting is human interaction with the underwater world.”
What I enjoy is shooting people underwater. For me, what makes an image interesting is human interaction with the underwater world. It’s that human element that subconsciously connects us to an image. Without a diver, a photo of a wreck is just a shot of a pile of rusty metal on the sea bed. Photography is story-telling, and having a diver in your shot just adds a whole different dimension that invites the viewer to ask questions about what they are seeing.
Tell us about the InnerSpace piece? What was the assignment? What was the most challenging aspect?
The InnerSpace poster was my panacea to the coronavirus lockdown. Like many self-employed people, the lockdown had a dramatic impact on my business. Virtually overnight, I found myself with zero work, as dive businesses and magazines all shuttered up and closed down for the duration. Not being the sort of person who would busy himself with gardening, I spotted a competition on Instagram being run by camera equipment manufacturer Godox inviting photographers to shoot cool and imaginative imagery at home during lockdown. It gave me the excuse I needed to get into the studio and get creative!
Being unable to dive my JJ-CCR due to lockdown restrictions, I decided to create a cool movie-style poster in the studio by combining a stylish sci-fi style shot of the CCR with one of my underwater shots from Dreamgate cenote in Mexico. My long-suffering wife was drafted to model. I set the unit up on a table top in the studio and sat her into it. You’ll be relieved to know that the unit wasn’t functioning and the loop was closed. She still hated every minute of it but tolerated my creative distraction without so much as a complaint. She’s definitely a keeper.
The images were then combined in Photoshop, and the fancy movie text added to complete the effect. I’m pleased to report that the movie poster image seemed to do well—Godox picked it up, and I bagged myself a nice prize. I’m pleased to report that the CCR diver image has also been picked up by Otter Drysuits for a future promotional campaign. All in all, not a bad way to turn lockdown into something positive.
I love the shot of the cave diver looking up towards the light. Can you tell me a little bit about it? What were you envisioning?
I captured that image on my first trip to Mexico back in 2013 at Chac Mool cenote—probably one of the most famous cenote dives in the area. Chac Mool is best known for the breathtaking light show that appears in the head pool for much of the day. To get the full effect, though, you need to time it just right so that the sunlight cuts through the water at just the right angle. I challenge anyone not to be blown away by the beauty of Chac Mool as the strong sunlight cuts through the clear cenote waters. As a photographer, it’s a dream come true. You cannot fail to capture amazing images in such an environment. The first time I visited Chac Mool, I don’t think I got any further than the head pool. I literally spent 90 minutes just shooting the light beams!
“As any cave diver will tell you, the stream of light that cuts through the water at the end of a cool cave dive is always a welcome sight. Even though it signals the end of the dive, we subconsciously feel drawn into the light as it signals safety and a return to the world.”
As any cave diver will tell you, the stream of light that cuts through the water at the end of a cool cave dive is always a welcome sight. Even though it signals the end of the dive, we subconsciously feel drawn into the light as it signals safety and a return to the world. My idea for the shot was to create an image of a diver literally being drawn into a welcoming beam of sunlight, drawing them toward the surface like a sci-fi movie tractor beam. Convincing my model to drop out of trim for the shot was probably the biggest challenge. As any GUE diver knows, diving out of trim just feels wrong, but once I’d explained what I wanted to achieve, he was very obliging. I’m still impressed that he got the angle so right!
None of what I capture underwater is shot for a particular client, and so it always pleases me when one of my photos is picked up by a big diving brand. That particular image was featured on a full-page advert and exhibition stand for Fourth Element. Seeing your work being used as the eye candy for a high-profile promotional campaign never gets dull.
How does it feel when you see your finished product being used at a dive show or in a magazine?
It’s always a buzz! I’ve been lucky enough to have my photography featured on quite a few magazine covers over the years, and even now it still makes me beam when I get a cover. Most magazines will tip you off when your image has been selected, and some will even send you a “strictly for your eyes only” preview of the cover layout. Getting a screenshot of a future cover in my inbox first thing in the morning always brightens my day!
The worst thing about getting a cover, though, is not being able to tell anyone for a couple of weeks. Until the issue hits the newsstands, I have to keep it to myself. Even now, I still get some of the better covers blown up to poster size and framed. These take pride of place on the wall in my office and serve as a constant reminder of some of the awesome stuff I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph over the years.
Spotting my photography at dive shows is always very cool, too. Most recently, my shot of the Bristol Beaufighter wreck in Malta was blown up and displayed on a 6 m/20 ft wide light box at the Go Diving Show in Coventry, U.K. You really couldn’t miss it!
Can you tell us a little bit about the shoot for this cover of Scuba Diver magazine with a 17-year-old cave diver?
That cover accompanied a feature that I’d pitched to the magazine about young U.K. cave diver Robert Thomas. It was a perfect fit for the magazine as they were keen to promote young people coming into diving. In fact, that feature was used as the launch pad for a series of articles which ran over several months, showcasing young divers and some of the cool stuff they were doing. Most of them weren’t quite as extreme as Robert who, accompanied by his father, was squeezing himself into tight holes in the ground from a very young age.
The feature first came about when I accompanied Robert and his father on a caving trip to Porth Yr Ogof in South Wales—a beautiful cave located near the village of Ystradfellte, near the southern boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park. I’d gone along to try my hand at dry cave photography using remote strobes dotted around the inside of the cave. During that trip, the idea of featuring Robert in the magazine had come about. I spent most of the day snapping shots for the potential feature of Robert and his father in this beautiful Welsh cave.
The one thing I didn’t have, though, was any underwater shots of Robert, so we hatched a plan to shoot some on another day. The U.K. isn’t blessed with too many caves that you can dive on a twinset, and even the cool caves like Wookey Hole are jealously guarded by the CDG (Cave Diving Group), so getting access to these wasn’t an option. Although both Robert and his father were CDG members, I was not, and CDG sadly doesn’t recognize other agency certs. To get around this problem, we travelled to Vobster Quay inland diving lake and shot some images there. If you know where to go underwater, there are quite a few little holes that, with a little creativity and some fancy lighting, you can make look like U.K. caves. So yes, I cheated. That cover shot was completely fake, but it really didn’t matter—it was an eye-catching image that grabbed the attention of anyone who picked up the magazine.
Do you do the layouts for magazine stories where your images appear? Or approve the finished product?
Magazines have their own designers, and I make a point of never interfering with their creativity. They may be my images and my words, but it’s their magazine and you have to be prepared to let go a little.
“As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get a little too attached to your own work. Different people see different things in a photo, and my opinion is no more or less valid than theirs.”
As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get a little too attached to your own work. Different people see different things in a photo, and my opinion is no more or less valid than theirs. That said, some magazines will occasionally invite your input. Scuba Diver magazine here in the U.K., for example, is really good, and I have a great relationship with both the editor and designer who makes our work look so eye-catching. If there’s a particular image that I’m really keen to have featured, they’ll normally accommodate my wish. Again, though, I don’t push it. Unless there’s a genuine reason why the image is important to the feature, I’m happy for them to choose the images that they think work best.
As a designer myself, I fully appreciate the pressures that magazine designers are under. The last thing they need is a precious photographer or writer asking them to make changes unless there’s a very, very good reason for it. Just let them do their job. Occasionally they’ll come up with something that doesn’t work for you but even then, it’s fascinating to see how others interpret your work.
Tell us about your work with EUROTEK and TEKCamp. What sort of challenges do you face with event photography and promotional designs?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some superb events over the years. I’m proud to be one of the organizers of the EUROTEK Advanced Diving Conference with responsibility for every aspect of the event’s branding and visuals. I’m also the regular event photographer for the Go Diving Show and TEKCamp masterclass events here in the U.K. and have also shot both TEKDiveUSA back in 2014 and the Baltictech Conference in Poland in 2017. Each event comes with its own unique set of challenges, but they all share one thing in common—they’re utterly exhausting but a whole lot of fun!
The biggest challenge with shooting an indoor event like EUROTEK is the lighting. Using flash photography isn’t really an option, as the last thing you want to do is disturb those who have paid good money to listen to the talks. Problem is, the conference rooms tend to be very dark, so you really need to know how to capture pin-sharp photos in low light and often work with difficult mixed lighting. Using the right equipment is key here. I shoot using a Nikon D4 which offers exceptional low-light capabilities with pro-level fast lenses. You get one chance to get the shot at an event—miss it and you’re stuck. There is no way to reproduce the shot at a later date.
What are your plans for the future? Any upcoming projects that you are working on, or personal plans that you can share with us?
Right now, I’ll just be happy to get back into the water. The pandemic that has swept the world has left us all with serious diving withdrawal symptoms! Once restrictions are fully lifted, my first port of call will be my local diving lake to spend a few hours getting comfortable on my rebreather again. I was lucky enough to recently squeeze a couple of shallow open-circuit shore dives in for a magazine feature, but that’s been it since early March. My poor CCR has a thick layer of dust on it!
After that, who knows. I’ve got a soft spot for the caves in the Lot region of France, so a trip across the channel with my camera and as many lights as I can smuggle through the border checks is definitely on the cards for later in the year. I’ve dived Mexico a few times, but there’s something about France that I just love. I suspect the stunning food and wine have something to do with it, as does the breathtaking countryside in that part of the world. If you’ve never visited France cave country, do it—it’s truly beautiful.
Scuba Diver magazine’s Webinar: Wreck photography with Jason Brown and Becky Kagan Schott
Connect With Jason Brown:
Amanda White is an editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Divers Helping Divers: Next Stop Ukraine
What can one diver do to change the world? Ask tech diver and fitness instructor Kenzie Potter Stephens, who is completing her undergraduate studies at KIT in Germany. Kenzie and her impassioned team reached out with open hearts to help fellow Ukrainian divers. The results? They conducted ten 1500km car caravan trips, ferrying supplies to the embattled country. They also bravely rescued and found homes for nearly 200 Ukrainians. Divers make a difference!
Text and images by Kenzie Potter Stephens. Lead image created by Rico Besserdich.
As divers, we often speak of community, teamwork, the effective use of energy, and applying a holistic approach to both our dives as well as our lives. I would have easily said I knew why these principles were so important; however, it is only recently, when under fire, their true meaning became clear to me.
News of the war in Ukraine is a constant in our lives. We are inundated with images of unimaginable crimes against humanity and are horrified to witness mass genocide in this country. In Europe, massive crowds of refugees needing help is a common topic of concern. It is exhausting to be confronted daily with our own fragility and mortality and to be disturbed in our own little worlds with our own little problems—problems that pale in comparison to those of those refugees.
I can fully understand anyone who is overwhelmed or even annoyed by the constant coverage. When the war first broke out, I found myself glued to my phone in utter and complete shock. I had trouble sleeping and would even awake at night to check the current death toll. Nowadays I, too, flinch as soon as I hear news concerning Ukraine, and my first instinct is to turn off the radio. So what changed?
Two months ago, feeling nervous on the morning of my last final exam for the winter semester, I was brushing my teeth when I realized I could no longer ignore the misery that surrounded me. I had grown up in the US Army; both parents served in one way or another. My father had done a few tours in Kuwait. My childhood had been spent with reminders of war—harrowing tales of tragedies, traumas, and heroism were part of my life’s narrative.
In spite of, or perhaps because of this upbringing, I had avoided both war movies as well as political discussions about “right” and “wrong.” But this was different. This war was within driving distance for me. This invasion was happening to people who shopped at the same stores I and my friends did, visited the same cities, and worked in the same businesses. This was personal.
Setting The Wave Into Motion
In a series of events that now seem surreal to me, I was able to set up a small team via social media (including platforms like Craigslist) consisting of equally motivated individuals within a 100-mile radius of my town. My husband and I canceled the much-needed vacation that was planned to bring us stress relief from our busy, safe lives, and I spread the word. I couldn’t quite place it at that moment, but something about shouting my mission out into the world seemed so daunting at that moment. Like a loose area of snow you somehow know is going to send off an avalanche that will change everything. And change everything it did.
Within a single day, hundreds of people reached out, made donations, sent well wishes, and our hallway began to fill with boxes–supplies and sleeping bags. The response was overwhelming, and I canceled my fin-swimming training in order to process and sort the sheer volume of donations. As a dive instructor in training, I am generally in close contact with other diving instructors, and one has become a great mentor to me. Immediately, he connected me with a dive colleague of ours, Igor Siryk, located in Poltava, Ukraine. Within minutes we had aligned our missions and created a joint plan on how to get him humanitarian aid. My thrown-together team asked me if I knew him personally, to which I said: “The world is full of divers who are close friends that you just haven’t met yet”.
The financial support following my shout out was so massive that I made two of the largest in-person purchases I had ever made in my life (aside from my drysuit). Never would I have imagined myself walking into a German army shop and plainly stating, “I need to equip an army with protective gear. Here is $2000.” After loading up on boots, camouflage nets, propane stoves, backpacks, binoculars, and such, I headed over to an electrical shop and bought every single external battery pack and heavy duty flashlight I could find, amounting to around $1500.
Both shops gave a 5% discount and wished us good luck. Still, the final stop to the grocery store in the same building for food for the next few days was what really touched me. As I pushed my cart full of electrical supplies past the cashier, I was prompted to produce a receipt. In doing so, I explained the mission and on the spot, the cashier opened her wallet and with tears in her eyes, handed me the last 10 Euro she had.
The next day, our team packed their cars and finally met for the first time. Rolling up to the tee: The managing director of “Carbon-Scooter,” who was also part of our local diving community, whose daughter had photographed my wedding, and who now had a bus load of valuable medical supplies for our new friend, Igor Siryk.
Our convoy consisted of four cars with 16 free seats, seven drivers, and a ground crew that supported us from our starting point in Stuttgart, Germany. Despite being complete strangers, the meeting felt familiar and exciting, like old friends who were casually loading up buses to head off to a place no one had actually been before. Around 8 pm on Friday evening, about a week after the invasion of Ukraine, we were off.
The Helmet City
Twenty hours later we arrived in Chelm, (pronounced: Helm, literally meaning helmet–quite fitting to our mission) Poland, which was 10km/15 miles from the Ukrainian border. Igor had given us the contact information of a Polish logistics company that would bring our donations directly into Ukraine and to the cities needing it most. After finally finding the correct truck lot and office, we then engaged in a conversation between all parties in six different languages: Polish, German, English, Ukrainian, Russian.
The initial confusion and exhaustion from the road was so large that it even took us a full 15 minutes to understand that one man spoke only Dutch, and could not, in fact, understand a single word of the information we had translated into Polish for him. After a good laugh, the mission continued. One team unloaded the boxes, the next worked together to label each box in Ukrainian, and the last loaded it into the storage space where it would be held for the night, before getting driven to Poltava, Ukraine.
Seeing our boxes stacked up, ready to go, with a team full of strangers working together hand in hand was really quite moving. Finally, we had the feeling that we could actually make a difference.
A List Of New Homes
Knowing we had to be exhausted, but unable to feel it, we jumped back in the car and headed over to the local refugee camp, where it had been suggested we would find refugees wanting to travel to Germany. The lobby of the converted gym was full of people with yellow vests, smiles, and rosy cheeks and, in contrast, those with exhausted eyes, small children, and trash bags and suitcases filled with the only belongings they could carry.
As soon as I stepped foot inside, my diver brain immediately shut down any feelings of panic and grief. This sight triggered my full task-solving mode. I, along with two other drivers, found our way to the head volunteers and stated our case. Anton, one of the only English speaking volunteers there, nodded and told us that borders were chaotic, the people were scared, and the realization that they were homeless had oftentimes not yet set in.
A new busload of people poured out into the parking lot and hurried in from the cold, and Anton made a list with 16 free seats. Seconds later, we were surrounded by a crowd of people all trying to “buy passage” to a new home. Ann, 17, spoke English and said she would take anything that got her and her mother somewhere safe. Lena had her six-year-old daughter’s hand clenched in hers as she desperately explained that two additional families would be arriving in the night. If we could only wait, they would go with us, she promised. Olena was a 40-something-year-old woman with a stern, calm face, who said she was alone and had no family to be tied to. She had only one question: “Is it safe?”.
Finally, there was one place left to offer. Lilly, a young mother who fought back tears and panic, had a four-year-old daughter and asked if we would take her child alone, that there was family waiting, and she needed to get her little girl 900 km/550 miles to Dresden, Germany. Unable to imagine allowing that child to travel all that way without her mother, the other mothers agreed to squeeze together in order to make room for one more.
Still more people had gathered around us, talking to Anton, or to me, or anyone who would listen, but our cars were more than full, and we were forced to turn them down. When our part was done, we spent a short night in an old barn that had been converted into guest rooms. Sitting together before bed, we all agreed this would not be our last trip.
The next morning, we picked our 17 people up from the camp and set out on the journey “home” – 17 hours, 1500km/900 miles, away. At about halfway, we met up with Lilly’s brother-in-law. As soon as Lilly and her daughter got out of the car, the brother-in-law’s own daughter who couldn’t have been older than four herself, hugged the Ukrainian girl tight, stroked her hair and told her that everything would be okay, she was safe now.
Before leaving with the other 15 Ukrainians, Lilly asked me via Google Translate if I could pick her up the next week on my way back to the border for the second trip. She explained that her son and husband were still over there, but that she needed to bring her daughter to safety. (Note from the present: Lilly ended up spending three days with her daughter and family before we brought her back to the border, where she got a ride with our truck driver back to her husband and son, where she remains to this day).
Finally, around 5 am on Monday morning, we arrived in Stuttgart and Karlsruhe, Germany, where friends and family of ours had previously offered to take in anyone needing a home. Despite the exhaustion, the Ukrainian families all perked up once more as they met their new families and realized for the first time that we were in fact helping them, free of cost, no strings attached. I was convinced I saw the mothers breathe for the first time in days, knowing their little ones would have a bed instead of a train floor to sleep on. Olena hugged me with teary eyes, before she gifted me her cloth bracelet in Ukrainian colors and hurried off into her new room.
After more than 50 hours of driving and little sleep, our team who started as strangers felt like a family that had always known one another. Without bureaucracy, more than two days of planning or meetings, we had changed 17 lives and had seen the worst and best of what this war meant. Finally, sinking into my safe, first world fluffy bed, the mission without “deco stops” fulfilled, I was able to decompress, sob, and realize what had happened.
A Status Update Grown Into A Full-Blown Operation
The week after our first tour to Poland was by far the hardest. There was a severe sense of some sort of culture shock or perhaps secondary shell shock from something so significantly different from the kind of life any of us had previously experienced. Everyone was certain that we needed to help more, better, and bigger.
Now that we had physically been there, had talked to people in the middle of it all, and had seen it with our own eyes, we knew there was work to be done. Any sign of government help had been missing in any and every place where it was obviously desperately needed. Thus, while the state heads were busy talking, we got to work planning and doing.
One point was clear: driving private cars required a high investment of drivers and small capacity for those seeking refuge on the way back. We needed to obtain some minivans or small buses in order to maximize our ability to help. In Germany, a car license allows you to drive with a maximum of eight passengers, besides the driver, before a commercial license is required. Thus our team made it a priority to find nine-seater buses.
Once we overcame our initial difficulties communicating with the logistics company, the head of the operation there – Anastasia – proved to be an absolute sweetheart and a real asset. Although we had no real proof yet that our donations would actually be arriving where they were needed most, we all shared the distinct gut feeling that they were on their way. We knew of the challenges even the largest organizations and governments faced in transporting goods into Ukraine, especially into the most affected cities. Our supply chain was certainly something special and unimaginably valuable. With a clear mission in mind, gathering donations continued.
I must preface this point by saying that our drivers accomplish a huge feat. The trip to Chelm (Helmet City) takes about 20 hours, one-way. It is extremely taxing. It is difficult to sleep, the mind is riled up, the car is uncomfortable, and being a good co-pilot is a serious task. Still, the trip is harder yet on our travel guests. These people have been traveling via any and every mode of transportation: on foot, in buses, overfilled trains, trucks, tanks and even inside the occasional trunk. We tried our absolute best to make the transit to their “final” destination as comfortable as possible, but arriving after 20 hours of driving at 5 am was simply no longer an option. Mainly, this gave our Ukrainian guests no time to get to know their host families before they had to entrust their children, grandchildren, friends and themselves to complete strangers in the dead of night. Additionally, we were forced to face the reality that our first tour was full of people that had mainly fled before the war. The next waves of refugees would consist of increasingly traumatized and sick families and individuals.
By luck, chance, or perhaps fate, it just so happened that a fellow yoga teacher reached out to me. She had friends in Poland who wanted to help house the drivers or perhaps some of the refugees on our travels. These friends ended up having other friends, who had bought a house in need of renovation that was sitting empty until the craftsman shortage let up. Within just a few days, this group of friends rallied together and were able to come up with 30 cots, blankets, pillows, cribs, electrical heaters and children’s toys. They fixed the running water, and every weekend since then, the local kindergarten has supplied us with bucket loads of “Bigos,” a Polish national dish. Today, this place is proudly called “The Wroclaw Stop” (TWS) and is filled with memories from the travelers who have passed through.
Thanks to them, only one or two buses had to drive to Chelm to drop off donations to Anastasia’s firm “Magnolia Plus,” while the others drove to Wroclaw (Breslau), 600km/400 miles closer to home. Saturdays were spent gathering the Ukrainians, bringing them together in TWS, spending time with them, and creating a good foundation of trust and friendship. Sunday mornings at 8 o’clock, the TWS crew brought pancakes and toast, and the buses rolled out at 9 am. We arrived around 10 hours later with enough time for the Ukrainians to enjoy a warm meal with their hosts and get acquainted with their new surroundings before falling into their real beds.
A wonderful thing about placing Ukrainians with our friends and family is that their circles of friends and acquaintances witnessed the journeys of these desperate people, and they saw how they too could help. The circle widened. Today, we have an extensive list of hosts that we fall back on weekly. Many hosts reached out through the company “Bosch’s” intranet, others found us via news articles, our website, or Facebook. One of the saddest parts of many testimonies people give us when offering their homes is that they registered with their local city offices only to be told that creating a support network would take weeks. After more than ten weeks of experience, every single one of us can confidently say that the government had unfortunately failed in creating an effective network.
The application process for both sides is grueling. It’s slow, and almost impossible to understand. Private organizations have been more effective in helping many people out of refugee camps, off the streets, and into environments that actually allow integration. I myself took a group of our very first Ukrainians to register at the local city office where there was a serious lack of a clear plan on how to go about the registration process. Today, I am happy to say, many cities have been able to streamline the process, and welfare often arrives after just a few days or weeks. Unfortunately, the streamlined process is wholly unhelpful for thousands of people waiting in refugee camps unable to connect with host families due to government restrictions and bureaucratic red tape in Poland and Germany.
Personally, I avoid this term wherever possible because I feel it is dehumanizing and strips these people of their personal identities —all of the experiences they’ve had, the skills and abilities they possess, as well as their unique opinions, beliefs, and feelings. Many of those who have traveled with us have since become great friends to whom I look up to, with whom I can enjoy a sunny day, or nonverbally share in their children’s most precious moments, without needing to share a language. These friendships motivate me to work toward making the trip easier for both sides. Nowadays we have many channels through which those seeking refuge can reach out to us and receive support.
Each week, the aim has been to get the full list of travelers by Thursday, generally amounting to something between 15 and 30 people. This allows time for us to find fitting host families. The assignment takes place on a basis of information such as the number of children, their ages, allergies, pets, stairs up to the rooms, medical conditions, personal needs such as peace and quiet vs. the opportunities that a bustling city offers, friends in proximity, level of assistance needed, and much more. Still, each week, no matter how much we planned and sorted, unexpected things happened. There was little left that would shock me at this point. Chaos has become a constant, and I have learned to live by the idea of “Plan the dive. Dive the backup plan x, y, and also z.”
The result? As of today, we have made 10 tours to Poland and have helped almost 200 Ukrainians travel to Germany and find refuge in private guest families. Within the first few weeks, our team and operation gained so much traction, that we finally founded our own not-for-profit organization. This allowed us to prove our legitimacy toward Ukrainians and donors, to apply for special NGO offers, and to issue donation receipts needed by many companies.
We have been able to borrow buses from various clubs and organizations, as well as from private individuals. We have received many generous monetary donations, and the best part is that every single cent goes 100% to the mission. There are no administration fees, no salaries to be paid, no rerouting: every dollar that goes into our account, leaves our account to help Ukrainians. We buy medicine at reduced prices for Poltava, Ukraine, shoes and diapers, canned food, and even bought a birthday cake for Igor, as a little surprise, in the height of war.
Season Tickets To The Hospital
Heartbreakingly, the war follows the people on their escape, and only one week of war was enough for us to feel the repercussions in Poland. Suddenly, almost every child we encountered seemed to be sick. By the time they arrived at TWS, their eyes had glassed over and their little bodies were hardly strong enough to hold the bucket in front of them, into which they threw up every ounce of fluid or solid food they consumed.
Our first experience was quite terrifying. A little boy could not even keep water down, and apparently hadn’t for a day. Upon asking, his mother admitted that they had been on a train for over 30 hours with no breaks. The small amount of food that was available on the train was soon gone. The children had thus been forced to live off chocolate and candy bars, their mothers thinking sugar being what they needed. In reality, their children were entering a dangerous state of malnourishment and their bodies were so out of balance, store-bought electrolytes had no effect.
We spent the better part of the night at a small local hospital, and while the boy was wheeled from doctor to doctor, I simply collapsed onto the most uncomfortable hospital chair, feeling overwhelmed, sad, and scared. Thankfully, the cocktail of vitamins, salts and other good stuff was able to get every child back to their strength. We have since become regulars at the hospital and often end up leaving families with sick children in Poland, and picking them up a week later, when the little ones had their strength back. What a sad thing to be in the habit of doing.
WARNING: The following text contains graphic and potentially upsetting information.
The Hardest Stories
A few weeks into our operation, I received a call from a stranger who had gotten my phone number from who-knows-where. This was normal by now and no surprise. I spent hours on my phone every single day communicating with Ukrainian people, hosts, drivers, companies, team members, and donors. The woman on the other line was Olga, who had married a German years ago and lived an hour or two away. She called requesting help to get her friend who was still in Charkiw, one of the hotspot cities on the eastern front of the war. The friend, Julie (not her real name), and her husband had decided to stay in Charkiw with their two children, one and four, in order to help cook for and feed the military.
One day, a Russian invasion group hit their building. Julie’s husband immediately grabbed the children and his wife and ran with them to a nearby bomb shelter, always staying a little behind and shielding them from the bullets. Just a few yards from the life saving shelter, Julie’s husband was shot dead while his children watched him collapse. In the shelter, Julie had to be put under sedation and was not responsive for days. By the time we picked her up from the border, we could hardly recognize her from the photos we had previously received of her. The children were fine. As far as they knew, their Daddy was in the hospital waiting to get better and would follow later. Today Julie lives with her children in Germany and is learning to cope.
Another call we received two weeks ago was from Igor. In general, Igor is a very sturdy, big guy. He doesn’t show much emotion, and he is lucky enough that his wife and children are also living in Germany with extended family. Igor has been in Ukraine since the beginning of the war and coordinates the humanitarian aid that we, and others, send to his organization “Humanist Poltava.” Every few days we receive short status updates from Igor mainly consisting of what is needed. The most recent have been tourniquets used to stop the bleeding with severed limbs and open wounds as well as a recent call with Igor close to tears, begging us for food, any kind, as the people are starving.
We have had fathers who were diagnosed with cancer in Ukraine, which prompted their wives to return with their children to spend the last days with them. We have had mothers who were so confused and scared by the unfamiliar language they returned to Ukraine in search of doctors that could help with simple medical conditions. Anna (not her real name) is also a mother of two with various problems that had already been serious before the war. She was left with two children born of situations beyond her control, leaving her to earn money by any means possible, and eventually using substances to cope, all the while loving her children and her country. The war has forced her to flee her home for the sake of her children, but her innate wish to fight for her country has left her confused and unstable. She had been passed around multiple homes and brought the best of people to their maximum helping capacity. The system has no place for people like Anna.
She is not in an abusive relationship which is “required” for many support offers; rehab would cause her to lose her children, refugee camps add horrific amounts of stress, and she has not been stable enough to register, so child services cannot work with her. How many more Annas have fallen through the cracks? Angela (name changed) is another gentle soul. She quickly became great friends with her host and the pair of them went through their days together as if they had known each other for years. The family dog loved her, the friends of Angela’s host loved her and her German skills had significantly improved in the past months.
A few days ago, she received an email from her work: she must return immediately or lose any rights to her job. With two dogs, a sister and a nephew relying on her to pay off the house, she was forced to pack her bags and take the next bus. Angela’s mother, who we had previously retrieved for her, remains in Germany, and Angela’s host communicates with her daily, their lives forever intertwined from now on.
NOTE: End of potentially triggering content. Please read on for the heartwarming part.
The Silver Linings
As I said at the beginning of this article, yes, I flinch when the news mentions Ukraine. I turn off the radio when they report where the troops have moved and how many civilians are left unevacuated. It does not make me, or anyone else who avoids the topic, a bad person. The reality is traumatizing and it can be suffocating to a point where daily chores feel difficult. But the reason we do it is for the beautiful moments. Seeing four-year-old girls consoling one another; knowing Angela and her mother have been reunited on German soil after weeks of fear, watching Anthony, the eight-year-old son of the family I look after in Karlsruhe racing to the German ice cream parlor on his new bike, reading Igor’s messages about how great a difference we make for Ukrainians’ lives, and having a picnic with all the Karlsruhe Ukrainians on a warm, summer day with only clouds in the skies. There are many more memorable, heart-warming experiences.
Our mission truly attracts the kindest-hearted people who give all they can with their entire heart and soul and who radiate genuine love. Today, we have been able to personally help almost 200 Ukrainians. But even if that number was only one, it would have been worth it. I have had the honor of meeting people who will inspire me for the rest of my life. Olga, Julie’s friend, has become a guardian angel who is just a phone call away from anyone I am struggling to communicate with or help. Dorota, Marek, Zu and the rest of the TWS crew have become partners. Ann, the 17-year old daughter from our first tour has become a great friend. I truly believe she is the strongest person I have ever met, and seeing her flinch in pain at loud noises and planes, breaks my heart.
Together we will win this war. We will stand together, help one another with every last penny we have and when this is all over, we will take a long trip through Ukraine, and let all of our new friends-for-life show us their life and culture. Slava Ukraini, and may the skies over your heads always be clear.
In Ukrainian: Разом ми переможемо в цій війні. Ми вистоємо разом, допомагаючи один одному останнім пенні, що в нас є і коли все це закінчиться, ми будемо довго мандрувати по Україні і наші нові друзі покажуть нам своє життя і свою культуру. Слава Україні і мирного неба Вам.
The team’s website is here: Süd-West Sonne für die Ukraine e.V. (South-West Sun for the Ukraine e.V)
Follow us on Instagram: @Suedwestsonne
Follow us on Facebook: Suedwestsonnefuerukr
Kenzie Potter Stephens is a production artist for InDepth as well as part of the GUE marketing team. She is currently working on two BS degrees in Industrial Engineering and Marketing, as well as Biochemistry at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany.
In addition to her activities as a yoga teacher and an underwater rugby trainer, she has completed her GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 training and is on her way to becoming a GUE instructor. As a scientist, she is currently working within the Phreatic Organisation based in Cala Gonone, Sardinia, to research and protect the extensive cave system in the Gulf of Orosei.
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