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Gali Tibbon on <br class="br_visual" /> photographing a <br class="br_visual" />religious pilgrimage <br class="br_visual" />in Poland

Gali Tibbon on
photographing a
religious pilgrimage
in Poland

© Gali Tibbon

May 2013

Canon Explorer, and recent winner of a World Photography Award, Gali Tibbon showcases a set of images from the holy mountain of Grabarka, Poland. Taken with one camera and one lens (an EOS 5D Mark II and EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM zoom), she reveals the story behind her images…

Hidden in the deep woodland of rural Poland, the Holy Mountain of Grabarka is considered a place of wonder and revelation. Also known as the Hill of Crosses, it is located in the picturesque countryside of north-east Poland. The road leading there passes through fields and pine forests and is dotted with small wooden houses, where old villagers sit on benches and watch the world go by. Grabarka attracts thousands of Polish Orthodox pilgrims from all over this predominant Catholic country, who flock to the sacred ground every summer.

© Gali Tibbon

Elder Polish Orthodox worshippers rest during the annual pilgrimage on the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Hill of Thousands of Crosses at Grabarka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 34mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 320.

Seeking absolution and a cleansing of their souls, the faithful walk here from miles around, carrying crosses as they fall to their knees and crawl in an act of penitence. The atmosphere of mystery intensifies every year as the faithful leave their three-beamed crosses on the hill as testimonies of their pilgrimage.

But the journey is not only an act of religious devotion for believers; it has become a celebration of cultural identity for Poland's Orthodox community that has a troubled history.

Before World War II, there were around five million Orthodox Christians in Poland. But after the war, the Soviet Union annexed most of the ethnically Ukrainian and Belarusian areas where up to 80% of them lived, meaning their numbers in Poland dropped to about 250,000. Nowadays, the Orthodox community is still a minority in what is a predominantly Catholic state, numbering around half a million people, or just 1% of the entire population of 38 million people. Orthodox churches can be found in almost every major city; sometimes it is a sign of a local community often it is a testimony to Poland’s multicultural past.

For them, the history of Grabarka has its roots in local folklore when a cholera epidemic devastated the region in 1710. At the time, an old man had a dream – some say a revelation – in which a cross was made and taken to the top of the hill by the water spring in order to save the villagers from the plague.

© Gali Tibbon

A young Polish Orthodox boy plays hide-and-seek among the thousands of crosses left behind by pilgrims along the years during the annual pilgrimage on the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Hill of Thousands of Crosses at Grabarka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 24mm; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/2.8, ISO 640.

The people followed his advice; those who reached the top escaped death and soon the epidemic vanished. As an act of thankfulness the people built a wooden chapel on the exact spot. Since then, for over 300 years the Orthodox pilgrims bring crosses here to place them in the wood alongside the first cross. It became an extraordinary forest of thousands of wooden crosses, some say more than 10,000. Some are weather-beaten or rotten while others are brand new. Some stand two metres tall, while others are scarcely 20 centimetres high. All of them were brought here by believers in search of forgiveness, hope or strength. This sea of crosses represents generations of prayers.

Photographing faith

Documenting sacred and religious subjects is always a very delicate and difficult task. My aim is for my images to have a strong visual quality to match the intensity of the emotions and faith involved, and the spiritual energy of the event. What goes on inside a person’s heart when they experience forgiveness, when they are anointed with oil, baptised with holy water? I always find myself asking: can faith be photographed? It is a question I often have in my mind while shooting. Faith is a spiritual thing, which I’m trying to capture and transform into a more earthly dimension – through photography.

Driving through the endless pine forests on the way to Grabarka, I sensed there was something very promising about the place. In the early morning, after climbing the steps to the sacred hill, I saw the forest, but this time it wasn't just pine trees, it was all the crosses – thousands of them. Soon after I met the Polish Orthodox faithful and my feeling about the place turned out to be true.

All my images were taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM zoom lens. I decided to travel light this time, with minimal gear, in order to make myself as indistinct as possible. I chose the EF24-70mm lens because of its optical quality and the fact that it covered pretty much every situation I was likely to encounter.

The lens covers a good range of wide and medium focal lengths and I wanted my images to be as intimate as possible; this meant getting close to the pilgrims to be part of the pilgrimage, and not just a mere observer.

Many of the images were shot in aperture priority mode, often set to f/2.8, in order to get a shallow depth-of-field to isolate an individual among the crowd or a detail from the background. It also allowed me to shoot at very low ISO speeds for maximum quality. Other times the exposures were made manually or on shutter priority mode, depending on the light and the feel I wanted an image to have.

© Gali Tibbon

A Polish Orthodox worshipper crawls on her knees as she carries her cross during the annual pilgrimage on the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Hill of Thousands of Crosses at Grabarka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 34mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 250.

During the night I shot at ISO 1000 or 1600. Since I don’t use a tripod and I always shoot hand-held, I wanted to avoid unsharp images during relatively long exposures when the only source of light was just candles.

A bonding experience

As they travel along the road, the travellers form bonds with each other, creating an intimate community of hundreds or even thousands of people all on the same path in search of forgiveness and salvation. Walking with them offers a rare glimpse into a world where Jesus, Mary and the Saints are regarded not as remote celestial beings, but as intimate friends that the faithful commune with on a daily basis.

This mass of people sharing a collective belief is what gives these celebrations a vivid sense of spiritual energy and power. Not only does it give people a sense of unity with their fellow believers but also a connection with ancestors, many of who took the same path generations earlier.

The journey demands a sacrifice, a physical effort. In many senses it becomes a metaphor for life on earth, a path of transformation that culminates in the moment of arrival – on reaching their destination, the pilgrims are spiritually reborn.

© Gali Tibbon

Dozens of Polish Orthodox worshippers crawl on their knees as they carry crosses during the annual pilgrimage on the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Hill of Thousands of Crosses at Grabarka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 34mm; the exposure was 1/640sec at f/2.8, ISO 160.

The highlight of the pilgrimage is the Feast of Transfiguration, one of the great twelve feast days in the Orthodox calendar. Since the 18th century, Orthodox faithful flock to the Holy Mountain of Grabarka, which commemorates the change in the appearance and resurrection of Christ on Mount Tabor, in Galilee, but also calls the worshippers to transfigure spiritually. It’s here where I made my best images.

At the hill, in a mystical atmosphere, the believers mark the feast with an all-night vigil, singing by candlelight under a starlit sky, surrounded by thousands of crosses as they pray until dawn for the dead to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. But the feast is also a celebration of cultural identity that offers a powerful insight into the roots of traditional rural Polish Orthodoxy.

As they arrive hungry for revelation, and to taste the healing power of the hill and its spring, many fall to their knees in prayerful ecstasy, embracing their crosses. Three times they encircle the church, shuffling along on their knees, leaving a path in the ground. Some are truly suffering. It is a display of pure and simple faith. At the end, each pilgrim plants their cross in the ground as a testament to their presence on the holy hill.

Biografie: Gali Tibbon

Gali Tibbon

Gali Tibbon is an Israeli photojournalist and documentary photographer, based in Jerusalem. With over a decade of experience covering issues in the Middle East, her work has also taken her on many assignments across Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa. In recent years she has used her skills as a photojournalist to illustrate stories on faith through pilgrimage. These include documenting religious rituals such as baptism in the River Jordan, the ancient Samaritans, Ethiopian Christianity and religious journeys across Europe. Her project on Christianity in Jerusalem, entitled 'Echoes of Christian Jerusalem', was exhibited in museums, galleries and photo festivals around the world, including at the Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism in 2010.


A Polish Orthodox worshipper holds up his cross as he prays during the annual pilgrimage on the Feast of the Transfiguration at the Hill of Thousands of Crosses at Grabarka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 34mm; the exposure was 1/1000sec at f/2.8, ISO 320.