‘U’ revisited: Sputnik Photos in Ukraine 2008-2010
[Carpathian village, Ukraine, January 2010 © Jan Brykczynski]
Traditions around Christmas time are still very much alive. Here, a young boy is dressed as Death holding a scythe. He and twelve other men go from house to house performing scenes related to the Nativity.
Between 2008 and 2010, the members of Sputnik Photos explored the different regions of Ukraine in an attempt to address questions of identity and society which were – and are -- often hidden by geopolitical considerations. The result of this in-depth study was ‘U’, a photo essay which took the form of a self-published book and a travelling exhibit.
As its name implies, not without humour, Sputnik Photos is a collective of independent photographers from the countries of the former Soviet bloc who see their role as ‘transmitters’ filling in the gaps left by the mainstream media. Immediately after its founding in 2006, they set out on an ambitious project dealing with the illegal labour market… in the new member countries of the European Union (At the Border, 2006-2008) by showing the day-to-day lives of individual migrants in Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia but also those of their families in Belarus and Georgia. Other long-term, human-scale projects have followed, in Ukraine (‘U’) and Belarus (Stand By, 2010-2012), but also Iceland (IS[not], 2011) and even a 30-km stretch of the Vistula River in Warsaw (Distant Place, 2013).
Given current events in Ukraine, and current media coverage of them, I decided to take another look at ‘U’, if only to get beyond the daily stream of images showing protesters, policemen and politicians. In the process, I decided to ask the Sputnik photographers whether they’d be willing to comment on a few of the images from ‘U’ in the present context. With their usual combination of enthusiasm, professionalism and generosity, they accepted.
What follows are photos and captions from the 2010 book, accompanied by the photographers’ remarks, basically confirming what they had seen in the course of the project.
My warmest thanks go out to all of them, along with a thought for Ukrainian photographer Viktor Suvorov, one of Sputnik’s founding members, who died in an automobile accident in 2006 at the age of 32.
BOIKOS – Jan Brykczynski
[Carpathian village, Ukraine, June 2009. Interior of an old house. © Jan Brykczynski]
[Carpathian village, Ukraine, March 2009. Anna going back home from a local shop. There are many small shops in the village, which makes life easier, especially since some parts of the village are inaccessible during the winter. © Jan Brykczynski]
[Carpathian village, Ukraine, June 2009. Volodia posing for a portrait next to his car. He is one of the few young guys in the village who have their own cars. © Jan Brykczynski]
There are some parts of Ukraine, like the Carpathian Mountains in the southwest, where people live a life that is very much isolated from what happens in Kiev. These events have and probably will have very little if any influence on their daily life. Historically, their passports changed six times over the course of the 20th century but that has not greatly affected their culture and the way they live. The mountains are far from the capital city and (what is probably better for them) far from the interest of the politicians, weather those coming from Kiev,Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest orVienna. Life is much more about cycles of nature and the cycle of life and death than about anything else. J. B.
THREE DAYS TO EUROPE – Andrej Balco
[Statue of Lenin in front of the Antratsyt city hall, 6 March 2010 © Andrej Balco]
[A neighbourhood storefront in Antratsyt, 4 March 2010 © Andrej Balco]
[Pasa, the son of a successful Antratsyt businessman and city councillor, in the family living room, 1 March 2010 © Andrej Balco]
Antratsyt is an average town of eastern Ukraine, filled with coal mines, water problems and Russian nostalgia. A majority of population lives at the edge of poverty, without any chance for a better life. The average salary is 1000 hrivnas (around 100 USD). Some people try to make more money by working several jobs at the same time. Some look for entertainment in the local DK (House of Culture), while the others try to escape into drugs and alcohol. The few wealthy people in the town are unable or unwilling to resolve the economic problems of the local society. As a result of this dire situation, the young generation dreams of leaving the town and going abroad.
Please use the original text but add that maybe a small change in the title could reflect what I feel now. The new title would then be: FAR FROM EUROPE. A. B.
BORN FREE GENERATION – Agnieszka Rayss
[Vika, a student who belongs to a modern dance group in Kiev, 2009. They rent the gym in a primary school in the suburbs. They redecorated the gym themselves and put the curtains in the Ukrainian national colours.© Agnieszka Rayss]
[Mariana and her baby in a housing unit for single mothers, Drohobytch (province of Lviv), 2009 © Agnieszka Rayss]
[Katia in her bedroom in Vinniki, near Lviv, 2009. Katia is 12 years old. She travels a lot, has a private English teacher and attends a Saturday economics school for kids. Although her parents care a lot about Ukrainian tradition and independence, Katia says she would prefer to live in the 'old times' because 'there were no poor people then and everybody had a job'. © Agnieszka Rayss]
Ukraine has been independent since 1991. When I was doing this photoessay in 2009, the members of the first generation born in an independent Ukraine were just entering university. They didn’t remember Soviet times at all and couldn’t imagine how Ukrainec ould be dependent on any other country.
I think a lot about these brave young people today, in 2014, just after the revolution.How do they imagine future of their country? Were they in the Maidan? A. R.
BLACK SEA OF CONCRETE – Rafal Milach
[Fishing harbour in Ilichovsk, near Odessa, December 2008 © Rafal Milach / Sputnik Photos / INSTITUTE]
[Housing block in Sevastopol, Crimea, December 2008 © Rafal Milach / Sputnik Photos / INSTITUTE]
[Jetty in Crimea, December 2008 © Rafal Milach / Sputnik Photos / INSTITUTE]
'Only a few years have passed since the Orange Revolution and people have already lost their hope that it would succeed, that they might be better off. They are confused and tired of political chaos. They were not better off in the past, it is true. But there was an order. And now their lot has not improved and there is no order either.
— Let Eastern Ukraine return to Russia, along with Crimea, and let the Western part of the country join the European Union, says Alexandr, sipping his beer. He is twenty-five and has plenty of time to drink beer even though he officially works in a hotel in Alushta.
The whole Soviet Union once stayed in the Black Sea resorts. Soviet vacationers left behind the Soviet architecture, mentality and sensibility. In Crimea, few people speak Ukrainian. The very fact that it has been recognised as an official language of Ukraine is considered by many locals as a presidential whim. But not a dangerous one if they can talk about it... in Russian.’ (Rafal Milach, Black Sea of Concrete, self-published book,2013. The text was written in early 2009,just after he returned from his trip to the Black Sea coast.)
This text was prophetic...and showed the already dense situation in Crimeaback in late 2008. R. M.
DONBAS COAL BASIN – Filip Singer
[Miners resting next to an illegal mine outside the town of Snezhnoie, Ukraine, 15 April 2009. Every day, they spend eight hours extracting coal in an illegal mine hidden away in a forest. They work with hand-held tools far below the surface, sometimes going down as deep as 150 meters. A compressor taken from an old car powers the motor that drags the coal out of the mine. © Filip Singer]
[Miner from the Lenin coal mine in Horlivka , not far from industrial city of Donetsk, 13 April 2009 © Filip Singer]
[People passing by a giant slag heap near the industrial city of Donetsk, Ukraine, 15 April, 2009 © Filip Singer]
When the economic crisis hit Ukraine, monthly salaries for coal miners fell to 100 USD (compared to some 900 USD before the crisis).Ukraine is one of the deadliest places in the world to be a coal-miner, with 75 percent of its pits officially classified as dangerous. Since Ukraine became independent in 1991, more than 3,700 Ukrainian miners have lost their lives in accidents.
My perspective today: What is happening now in the East of Ukraine is not big shock for me. This industrial region is completely different from those of the west and Kiev. The ethnic Russian have long supported Russiain hopes of economic stability. People in Donbas coal basin still dream about the time of the former USSR, when Eastern Ukrainewas a rich, stable region with heavy industry. Since the collapse of the USSR, most of the activity in the Donbas has shut down and people don’t have work. The situation is really explosive and in my opinion,Crimea is not the last crisis. The Eastern part of Ukraine will be next. When I was working on the project about the miners, all the people I met supported Yanukovych because they wanted closer ties with Russia. F.S.
CRIMEA, SOMEWHERE BETWEEN UKRAINE AND RUSSIA – Justyna Mielnikiewicz
[Sevastopol, 2008. Woman walking past an outdoor exhibition of weapons at the Russian Black Sea Fleet Museum © Justyna Mielnikiewicz]
[Simferopol, 2008. Tatars elders gathered in the home of poet and translator Selim Shaker one week after his death. The Crimean Tatars, deported to Central Asia by Stalin in 1944, have been returning to their homeland in recent years. Fiercely anti-Russian, they are the segment of the Crimean population which remains most loyal to central Ukrainian authorities. © Justyna Mielnikiewicz]
[Simferopol, 2008. Demonstration in the Crimean capital in defence of the rights of ethnic Russians © Justyna Mielnikiewicz]
9 March 2014 – I’m off to Crimea this evening so I really have no time to go into details. But my main thought is that what I photographed back in 2008 shows all the problems and interference we see today.Russia and the central Ukraine government were fighting for the souls of the Crimean people, with the Tartars being pro-central government, local Cossacks being used by the Russians and local Russians protesting the eradication of the Russian language. J. M. [In the end, she could not go back to Crimea because the airport was closed.]
Sputnik Photos website:
The photobook ‘U’, self-published by Sputnik Photos, is out of print. But a selection of the photo essays are presently on show at Fotodok – Space for Documentary Photography inUtrecht as part of an exhibition devoted to Sputnik Photos (through 13 April 2014).
The photographers (by order of appearance):
Jan Brykczynski (b. 1979, Warsaw, Poland), documentary photographer based in Warsaw. A graduate of the Faculty of Photography at theNational Film School in Lodz, he also studied social sciences at WarsawUniversity and photography at the FAMU Film School in Prague. In his photo essays, he often focuses on the rural regions of Eastern Europe. He has now made a photobook on the Boikos which should be available in April 2014.
Andrej Balco (b. 1973, Bratislava, now Slovakia) is based in Bratislava. He received his Master’s degree in photography from the Institute of Creative Photography in Opava, (Czech Republic). His work deals with the interaction between individuals and the environments in which they live.
Agnieszka Rayss (b. 1971, Lublin, Poland), freelance photojournalist based in Warsaw, Poland. She received her Master’s degree in Art History from the Jagiellonian University (Krakow, Poland) before switching to photography. Her interests include the relationships between post-Soviet societies and Western cultural models, gender and environmental issues.
Rafal Milach (b. 1978, Gliwice, Poland), is a photographer and book artist based inWarsaw. He studied art and graphic design at theAcademyofFine ArtsinKatowiceand photography at the Institute of Creative Photography (ITF) inOpava,Czech Republic, where he is now a lecturer. His work is informed by a penchant for story-telling which lends itself to the inventive photobooks he has published in recent years.
Filip Singer (b. 1980, Prague, now Czech Republic), is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Prague. He studied photography and graphic design and since 1999 has been focusing on former Soviet countries and various regions of Siberia. His main interest is how the environment affects people’s lives in the territory of the former USSR.
Justyna Mielnikiewicz (b. 1973, Marklowice, Poland) is a freelance photographer based in Tbilisi, Georgia since 2002. She graduated from Jagiellonian University in Krakow with a Masters in New Media and Cultural Management and learned photography hands-on at the Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza. She is working on a long-term project dealing with women, sexuality and gender in post-Soviet countries as well as the continuation of her work on regional identities in Ukraine.
Miriam Rosen is a journalist and translator living in Paris. She writes about photography, film and the images in between the two. She has been a regular contributor to French and international publications including Le Journal de la Photographie, Mouvement, Libération, Artforum and Camera Austria.
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