OLEKSANDR CHEKMENYOV is one of the leading contemporary photographers in Ukraine. His works have frequently been published in Time, The Guardian, Vice, Libération, and many other international news outlets. But Chekmenyov is not a traditional photojournalist. His photographs have often been included in exhibitions of contemporary Ukrainian art and purchased by international art museums. His chosen genre is the portrait. The Ukrainian photographer prefers to produce images, distinct from but akin to each other, of people photographed in the same context (dwellings of the poor, hospitals, war zones). As a result, his repetitive catalogs of human types convey the story of a population suffering economic deprivation or the anguish of victims of war. Chekmenyov has created a striking and disturbing collective portrait of contemporary Ukrainian society. At the moment, the photographer creates a series of portraits of both participants and victims of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, documenting both the heroism and suffering of the Ukrainian people. The NYT Magazine published a part of the project.
Citizens of Kyiv
Chekmenyov started to make portraits of the people of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, last March when the danger of the Russian attack on the city looked imminent. He photographed pensioners, people finding shelter at the metro stations during the air raids, and young members of the territorial defense force who took arms in their hands for the first Time in their life. This collective portrait of the citizens of the besieged city reflected both resolve and despair, suffering and bravery manifested during the first weeks of the war.
Oleksandr Chekmenyov grew up in Luhansk in Donbas region. Since his young days, he observed the life of coal miners, their exhausting and risky labor, and economic deprivation. He also photographed the illegal coal mining, which developed at the end of the 1990s. Chekmeyov wrote, “I was told that the mine is like a magnet that draws the miners to it and doesn’t let them go”. From 1994 to 2011, he chronicled the everyday reality of the region, wherein, in 2014, Russia ignited a bloody and destructive war.
In 2014 in Time Magazine, Simon Shuster wrote, “In 1994, the local government in the city of Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, found itself in need of a photographer. The Soviet Union had just collapsed a few years earlier, and like all of its newly independent states, Ukraine had to go through the process of issuing new passports to all of its citizens, roughly 50 millions of them. As if that wasn’t enough of a problem, many of those citizens were shut-ins, elderly and bedridden, and in order to take their passport pictures someone had to go around making house calls with a camera”. Chekmeneyov volunteered to make needed snapshots and visited, accompanied by two social workers, houses of old and invalid. He made the passport photos and, at the same time, created a stunning visual record of the poverty and desolation of the elderly.
War in Donbass
From 2014 to 2016, Chekmenyov many times visited Donbas and documented people’s suffering during the first stage of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Destroyed villages and bombed-out towns became a backdrop for the images of human suffering in his photographs. His lens painstakingly recorded the ruined lives of the region’s population turned into a pawn in Putin’s geopolitical games.
Chekmenyov created an impressive gallery of portraits of the Ukrainian veterans of the Second World War. He visited them in their homes in cities and villages around the country. Their faces reflect both sadness and pride. The photographer worked on the series from 2002 to 2012. Since that time, many of the models of his portraits have passed away. Fate spared them the necessity to witness the next major war on Ukrainian soil.
In 1999 Chekmenyov made a series of portraits of inmates of a mental ward. Later, the photographer recollected, “Suddenly, I saw artificial flowers on the fridge and immediately understood what a series should be…I seated each patient by the window, handed a bouquet of artificial white lilies, and asked, “ smile, please. “Then I ran into a big problem – not all sick people could smile. But I tried to make everyone laugh. Even the most challenging patients wanted to get a bunch of flowers and look into the camera. These people need very little candy, a pack of cigarettes, the same flowers, or at least our smiles. They meet every new person as the children meet their parents, whom they have not seen for a long time. They remain children who will never grow up. They are waiting for our attention”. This March, during the Russian bombardments, some of the mental wards in the East of Ukraine were ruined. Inmates were wounded or killed.
For two years (2018 -2019), Chekmenyov shot portraits of the homeless inhabitants of Kyiv. According to official statistics, more than 10,000 people in Ukraine’s capital have no place to live and must rely on support from the state and charity organizations. But these statistics are not precise. The situation worsened after the beginning of the war in the East. More than 1.5 million refugees fled the war zone. Some of them lost everything and had no other choice than to live on the streets. Around 20 percent of the homeless are over 50 years old and need medical help. According to the photographer, seven homeless people he photographed for the series died.
WITNESS /TESTIMONE / СВІДOK
FACES OF UKRAINE / ОБЛИЧЧЯ УКРАЇНИ
Texts in English and Ukrainian
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