Magazine: On Wheels, living in an RV

Ben Levkov international, photos, storytelling

The number of people living in recreational vehicles has exploded in the Portland area (and other parts of the country) in recent years, and it has stirred controversy. RV’s and motorhomes are everywhere, parked in residential and industrial areas, often in rows. This year, according to the 2017 Point-In-Time homeless count, a greater portion of unsheltered people reported sleeping in vehicles than in 2015 – and that percentage has climbed over the past decade. Notably, in 2017 over a half of the unsheltered families with children slept in vehicles. I decided to pitch this story to the magazine Non/Fiction, a quarterly focused on long-form reporting and based in Warsaw. My story, titled On Wheels, appears in the winter issue focused on the theme of “Home”. I spent several days with each of the couples and individuals I portrayed. I sat inside their RV’s, petted their cats and dogs, and listened to their stories, humbled that I can return to a large, warm house after the interview. I am most grateful to those who opened their doors to me. I learned to overcome my own stereotypes and saw that “home” can be many things to many people. And it matters little whether it has wheels or a foundation. 

Here are the proofs of the pages. Because the magazine is really a good-sized book, it doesn’t post its stories online. You can also see the photos I produced as part of the story. Click on each thumbnail to call up a full-page proof. 

Magazine: Waiting in Ventimiglia

Gosia Wozniacka international, storytelling

When I visited the French-Italian border on the Mediterranean coast, I was shocked by what I saw… hundreds of young boys huddled on the beach, all staring at the sea. I still remember their confused, dejected eyes. The locals told me of Frenchmen in mountain villages above Italy aiding these boys, as well as women and children – a sort of French Underground Railroad. For this, they were condemned by the state, detained and brought to court. At press time, the results of their appeals were still unknown. Now we know: university professor Pierre-Alain Mannoni received a two-month suspended prison sentence on appeal, while farmer Cedric Herrou a four-month suspended prison sentence. Herrou was also again detained and placed under house arrest. Read about why these two Frenchmen risked – and continue to risk – their livelihoods and more in my story for the Pacific Standard magazine.


Writing the Rockwood cookbook

Gosia Wozniacka Reflections, Uncategorized

I’ve started on a new, exciting project – something different, professionally speaking, yet complimentary of my journalism and life experiences. I’m working on a cookbook! Rockwood Food Stories will be published by the City of Gresham, which abuts Portland. My role: find participants, cook and eat with them, then write the recipes and the stories. Given that I love to cook, I feel I’ve won the lottery! 

The cooks hail from Kabul, Guatemala City, Baghdad, Minsk, and Cairo, among others… they’re housewives, chefs, food entrepreneurs, speaking in Arabic, Russian, Spanish, a little or no English. This, then, is Rockwood —  one of the most ethnically and racially diverse areas in the region. It has the highest concentration of immigrants and refugees in the Portland Metro area; more than 60 languages are spoken here. The newcomers come to Rockwood because this neighborhood on Portland’s edge is chock-full of low-income apartment housing complexes. It’s affordable, not yet gentrified, and it lacks many resources – including a grocery store. Rockwood’s residents tend to be poor, and many are learning to survive in a new country. The food they make is an anchor to a world rapidly being lost, the ingredients and flavors a reconstruction of home. 

I have been welcomed into their kitchens, invited to chop, stir and smell. Allowed to observe the intimate acts of home cooking. Summoned to listen, to eat, to learn. Sometimes with the help of a translator, often through gestures. Always with our hands.

Essay: Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Gosia Wozniacka essay, Reflections

I occasionally write personal essays. They allow me to analyze and understand what I’m living through or seeing, to gather scraps of experience into a unifying whole. Essays leave vast space for storytelling; they tend to be more intimate. Maybe that’s why readers respond to them readily.

This past January, I transformed into a college professor. Over six months, I taught Journalism 101 and Digital Reporting (photojournalism, audio and video production). Teaching college journalism was an intense and absorbing experience. I enjoyed sharing my skills and stories with the students. But teaching, it turned out, was about a lot more than that. This month, as a guest blogger on the Rough and Rede blog, I write about those first months of teaching.

Read the essay here: Notes from a greenhorn teacher

Investigative Reporting: An escape from the Church

Gosia Wozniacka international, investigative, storytelling

The man did not hesitate. He knew this single-aisle Gothic church with a slender tower. It was here he was baptized and attended mass as a child. The old priest was hearing confessions in the confessional. When he finished, the man followed him.
“I know you,” the parish priest smiled benignly. At the office, he pointed to a chair, then reached for the glass armoire behind his desk. He pulled out a voluminous Book of Baptisms and quickly browsed through it.
“Maciej Psyk… I can’t find your last name. Nothing can be done.”
“But that’s impossible. Can I have a look?”
The priest passed the book to him. On large, withered pages, columns of dates and names of newborns, parents, and godparents were recorded chronologically. Each column included the creed: Roman Catholic. Psyk’s name was nowhere to be found. He stood up, thanked the priest and left. It was July 2008. (…) 

So begins my five-month investigation into how the Polish Catholic Church, with the blessings of the Polish government, has circumvented and abused data protection and privacy laws. The story was produced as part of my residency with the Polish Institute of Reportage, a program focused on long-form & literary journalism.  Though I can’t translate the whole piece – it’s pretty long – here are some of the highlights: 

A month after arriving in Poland, I read an article that sparked my curiosity: the Polish Catholic Church had just simplified its procedure for apostasy, by way of which a person can renounce or leave the church. 

I was intrigued, to say the least. Religion is an integral part of the Polish cultural and social landscape; it permeates and shapes everything, from architecture to values to relationships. The Catholic Church is also very much involved – and often actively interferes — in national politics. That this Church would let members of its flock leave with such ease was fascinating and somewhat suspicious.

As I started doing research, I realized there was a lot more to this story. The church was, in fact, promoting apostasy – essentially a meaningless procedure, since under canonical law baptism cannot be erased – to counter a wave of dissenters who had decided to leave the church with the help of secular law. They had been baptized as children, but no longer believed in God and/or disagreed with the Church’s meddling in politics. And, like my main character Maciej Psyk (who opens the story), they wanted to be removed from church registers. 

For six years, they fought so that the secular law – Poland’s Personal Data Protection Act – would be deemed more important than canonical law. Hundreds of cases were filed in the Polish courts, and continue to be filed. This litigation campaign is partly based on a similar approach in Italy, where former Catholics won (also through the courts) the option of leaving the Church under secular law – the Italian Data Protection Act. Italians no longer need to follow the religious procedure of apostasy to leave the church. Instead, they can send a letter to their parish priest, who must make note that they’ve left the church for good. Similar campaigns have also been successful in France, Belgium, and Spain. 

In Poland, things didn’t go so smoothly. In short: parish priests and the Church leadership hired lawyers to fight the lawsuits. The cases went through the appeals process. For the first few years, the court declined to honor the country’s secular law, arguing that canonical law had a higher standing. Once the cases reached the Supreme Administrative Court, there was a breakthrough. The judges ruled on the side of secular law: “Leaving the church should be considered only on the basis of secular law,” they wrote, “because it concerns the freedom of conscience and religion and the protection of personal data, ie. the fundamental rights of citizens.” After that, the Polish agency in charge of personal data ordered hundreds of parish priests to note in their Books of Baptisms that their parishioners had left the church. 

Many of the priests refused to follow those orders, and government officials didn’t interfere. And within three years, the higher court reversed its own decision and gave canonical law the upper hand. No one knows exactly why. It could be that the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) had just won the election and the Church was one of its closest allies. Whatever the reasons, the verdicts uncovered a state that the Polish government did not wish to admit: that the separation between Church and State isn’t yet a full reality in Poland. 

And why, you may wonder, is data protection important for churches? For one, churches now use complex online databases to store myriad information about their parishioners – from their beliefs and family relationships to financial information. Some of those databases may not be fully secure, based on some testing of sample databases, and it’s not known whether database administrators (mostly priests) properly follow security procedures. Also, churches in Poland sometimes post names and addresses of parishioners who didn’t pay church dues, for example. Church leaders also use the total number of parishioners in Poland to get government subsidies and other perks.  

It was fascinating and challenging to report this story. I pored over hundreds of pages of litigation, sat in on several cases in Warsaw, interviewed in person half a dozen participants throughout Poland, spoke to countless experts and lawyers, read government documents, etc. I loved reporting in Polish, my native language. One challenge was to use the techniques of narrative writing to write a story that concerned hundreds of court files. To do this, I chose several characters and told the story through their personal lives and legal cases. I think this was a great approach. 

If you read Polish and don’t have paid access to Gazeta Wyborcza, here’s a PDF of the story. 

Essay: The Memory Keeper

Gosia Wozniacka essay, Reflections

I would like to share a very personal essay I wrote as a guest blogger for the Rough and Rede blog. It’s part of a series of original essays published on that blog every summer. My essay looks at the current migration crisis through the lens of a long-ago refugee. Much time has passed since I left communist Poland with my family, and I can now tell with certainty that the costs of displacement are steep, sometimes damaging. And yet, we move forward, we change and grow. We must.  

You can read it here: The Memory Keeper, a letter to new refugees


Roseburg shooting, stories

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

During the week in Roseburg following the shooting, I was part of an AP team that included several reporters, videographers, and photographers. Covering a mass shooting is easier when you’re part of a great team of journalists. We produced multiple stories, too many to list, but here are a few I worked on that stood out.

Our dramatic narrative retelling of the shooting: Oregon shooter showed little sympathy in calculated killings Roseburg shooting narrative

A Sunday story on churches’ response to shooting: Pastor’s sermon: ‘Violence will not have the last word’ Pastor’s sermon story

And an important story about mothers, guns and mental health: Mother-son bond over guns links Oregon, Connecticut slayings Mother-son bonds  

Roseburg mass shooting

Gosia Wozniacka AP PHOTOS, AP STORIES, Reflections

Events like the Roseburg UCC college shooting are always difficult to cover. As a reporter, you work like a machine, 12 hour days on auto-pilot, and your emotions and exhaustion only catch up with you later. What’s most difficult is having to approach families whose world just collapsed. How to journalistically cover a tragedy like a mass shooting and still be a decent human being? I don’t have a good answer, I don’t know if it is possible — but some moments give me hope that it is.

Most families affected by the shooting don’t want to speak with reporters, and there are dozens if not hundreds of reporters trying to call on them, to intrude on their grieving. It feels exploitative and invasive. But we have to do our jobs. I try to approach the families with respect, imagining what it would be like if I was in their shoes. What gives my job meaning is the families or individuals who do want to share their stories. They tell them in great detail. And you can sense that the telling of the story is cathartic, that in recounting events they are trying to understand and order their world again, to honor those who were hurt or who are gone. Their stories help us all grieve.

This was the case when my colleague and I interviewed, for AP Video, a pastor whose daughter miraculously (and that is not an overstatement) survived the deadly rampage inside the UCC classroom. We were the first reporters to interview pastor Randy Scroggins. He sat near the altar at New Beginnings Church in Roseburg and told us in excruciating detail what his daughter witnessed during the shooting and how she was saved by a classmate who had rolled onto her after being shot, soaking her with his blood. Because her clothes were bloodied, the shooter likely thought she was dead and shot everyone else around her instead.

My eyes filled as the pastor recounted the story, and later when he took a phone call from that classmate’s mother. He sobbed while talking to her, then leaned for several minutes against the church wall and continued to weep. And though the imagery of being saved by blood was too strong to miss inside a Christian church, that morning the father trembling over his daughter’s life was more present than the pastor. I was grateful for his story, not just as a reporter but as a person.




Wildfires’ impact on rangeland

Gosia Wozniacka AP STORIES

Wildfires exploded this summer in the Pacific Northwest. Thousands of acres were scorched. I wondered: whose land had actually burned? A lot of the land that was engulfed in flames was isolated forest, grassland, hillsides. To whom did the land belong? Then I started hearing about ranchers losing their grazing allotments in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and knew I had a story.

The vast majority of the fire-affected land was federally-owned… U.S. Forest Land, BLM Land, etc. How much of it was grazing grounds? You see, the U.S. government leases its land to ranchers across the country. This practice is especially popular in the West. Ranchers pay a small fee, and they’re allowed to run their cattle on remote federally-owned mountains and hillsides. Cows and calves share the land with the wild species. Ranchers, in turn, help with conservation efforts on the land.

Allotment grazing is a controversial practice. Environmentalists say cattle grazing destroys the land, especially near streams where riparian habitat is fragile. Ranchers, of course, say they have grazed the land for generation and are good stewards of it. In recent years, there’s been a growing practice of “conservation grazing” – using cattle to graze in prescribed ways to mimic what deer once did, as a way to get rid of invasive species and keep the fuels low in case of wildfires. Some environmentalists don’t agree with this practice, while others support it. All this to explain that grazing is prevalent on remote federal lands.

Knowing this, I figured ranchers must have suffered a lot in these fires. My AP colleague wrote about the impacts of wildfires on wildlife, including the sage grouse and other species. So I tackled the other side of the equation. It was difficult to track down exactly how much of the federal land was leased as so-called grazing allotments, but I was able to interview a good number of ranchers, forest managers, and grazing specialists at the federal agencies to get a solid grasp on this. In a few cases, I got specific acreage, and in others estimates. Here is the story link and the PDF: AP-Wildfire Ranchers

Not Portlandia


For a long time, I have wanted to write a story about a different Portland – not the hip, popular Portland of pricey artisan lattes and overgrown facial hair, but a hidden part of town where immigrants, refugees, and low-income people live: East Portland. I have lived in East Portland for several years now and have watched it change and grow into a mix of Mexican, Somali, Burmese, other immigrants, African-Americans, and working class whites. As I witnessed my neighborhood’s transformation, I grew very tired of the stereotypes featured in the show Portlandia.

Finally, a news hook materialized: East Portlanders are seeking greater representation and an overhaul of at-large elections because they feel neglected by city hall. In addition to the main story, I also reported a series of mini-profiles, so that I could better describe the lives of those who live here. The story and profiles got a great run online in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other websites. You can read the main story here: AP Big Story link or here in in PDF: AP-East Portland. And the vignettes profiles are here or here in PDF: AP-East Portland-Profiles.