Ira Lupu had been planning a photography show about Ukraine for a while but on 24 February, when Russian tanks arrived and missiles started to rain down on her homeland, things pivoted horribly. “We had two weeks to get it ready,” says the New York-based photographer. “And no budget – we’re not the Guggenheim.”
But help was at hand. Picto New York printed all the works for free, while the Magnum Foundation provided sponsorship. Digital photographs, normally easy to source, could be a problem, though: photojournalist Maxim Dondyuk “is in a field, literally running around with a helmet in a war zone in a precarious situation”, explains Lupu. “Some of the works we requested from him were on a hard drive he won’t get to any time soon.”
The exhibition called In Ukraine and showing in a Brooklyn gallery, features the work of photographers and documentarians from the country, as well as outsiders with a connection, the intention being to provide an understanding of its culture that isn’t simply a reflexive reaction to war. Lupu had felt exasperated by how little westerners knew about her homeland. “Given Ukraine’s importance in foreign policy,” she says, “I felt it would benefit Americans to know it better.” She, and co-curator Fred Richtin, are already planning similar exhibitions around the world.
“This war is bringing back the trauma of leaving, refugee-style, with one suitcase,” he says Yelena Yemchuk, of her flight from Kyiv at the age of 11. Although she resides in New York, “the majority of my work has come from Ukraine. I developed my language as an artist there.” Her de ella stark black-and-white shots de ella feature kids on a trampoline and lovers in the park.
Five years ago, Yemchuk published hydro park, about the recreational space she frequented as a child. She is now finishing a book about the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in Donetsk. “The spirit of the people is blossoming in an incredible, powerful way,” she says. “The last words of every text I get, every daily conversation, are: ‘We will prevail.’”
For photographer Elena Subach, who is in western Ukraine near the border with EU countries, prevailing still seems far off: this relatively quiet area has recently been disrupted by explosions. A volunteer since the third day of the war, Subach helps women, children and the elderly cross from Ukraine into Slovakia. Waves of new refugees keep arriving. This checkpoint is the last stop before families are splintered; she is often witness to wrenching goodbyes.
“I have never seen so much love, as I have never seen so much pain,” she tells me, via email. “I could hardly photograph people myself, as I could not dare to interfere in their already fragile and ruined private space. But I understood the importance of the moment.” She has managed to photograph still lifes: objects left behind among chairs where people stopped to rest before pressing forward. “I don’t know what art will be like after the war,” she says.
The show also features images from Subach’s series Grandmothers on the Edge of Heaven, which Lupu calls “visually fun and upbeat, with bold colors and interesting compositions”. It spotlights the endearing figure of the babushka – or babusya in Ukraine. The grandmothers, wizened with time and conflict, have endured the second world war and Soviet takeovers. Subach’s photographs capture the grit they showed to survive. Despite Subach’s bright palette, her series is “also an entry point to sad conversations”. Her de ella’s own grandmother, too weak to flee, is stuck in Odessa, believed to be Putin’s next target.
Daria Svertylova had no notion that her series Temporary Homes, started in 2019, would become quite so current. The exhibition includes some of her images of her of student dorms, which are the only form of social housing in Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, she felt westerners spoke about Ukrainians reductively: “Through the prism of techno or war – it was always those two things.”
While studying in France, she returned intermittently to her homeland, concentrating on portraying Ukrainian youth. “The buildings and the living conditions are still really Soviet, but there’s a new generation of pro-European Ukrainians who’re not at all nostalgic about the past. Those born after 2000 see the country moving towards globalisation.”
Svertilova was back in Ukraine working on the project in January. On 5 February, she left a peaceful country that has since vanished. “We can’t speak about the war all the time,” Svertilova says. “And art is a nice way to speak about peace.” But it’s easier said than done. “When I look at my pictures,” she adds, “I can’t see them with the same eyes now. I just hope all of these people are safe. I hope the guys weren’t sent to war. I hope the girls aren’t in cities that were bombed.” She adds: “After the war started, I’d walk in the street and just start to cry. A couple of days ago, I heard a baby crying, and the first thing that came to mind was pictures of dead children. I’m in France, but part of me is in the Ukraine.”
Lupu shares this feeling of “being so stressed while physically safe – traumatized and always on the verge of some breakdown”. It makes productivity impossible: “You just don’t leave bed the whole day. You can’t even wash your face or do the work that brings you money.”
As a result it helped to rally foreign artists who are invested in Ukraine but not as paralyzed. Chiara Negrello focuses on Italy’s Ukrainian community of professional caregivers. “We even have a Russian artist in the exhibition,” says Lupu. This is alexey yurenevquien has been living in New York for years and contributed a project about Odessa. “I know his heart from him is aching for his country from him and the zombified Russians supporting this invasion. It’s a completely different sort of hell. He is crying and grieving with us – we are allies. It’s terrible to be a good Russian these days.”
Ultimately, is there hope – or just dread? “I don’t have any doubt that Ukraine will win,” says Svertilova. “Because of the spirit of people. The resistance is really strong. Nobody wants to be associated with Russia.”
Subach adds: “This story is not just about pain. It is also about pride for Ukrainian people who have united and become a single living organism – and for the armed forces, as well as for the courage and bravery of the people who defend the country.” She ended her email with the words: “Glory to Ukraine!”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism