Only a few hours after the first strikes on February 24th 2022 you started reaching out to different people to organize ways to find support for Ukraine. That continues more than a year after, how has this journey been for you?
Doing all this feels somehow like a biological need. However, no matter how much you could do, I can’t help but thinking is not enough, especially being abroad. Yesterday, I fell asleep to the messages of friends in Ukraine telling me about the loudest drone attack while the news reported about 20+ civilians massacred in a targeted attack on Kherson. You just can’t be going about your privileged foreign life when all of that is happening at home, everyday.
Apart from all the exhibitions and fundraisers we did for the past 14 months around the world, I’m also trying to continue my photographic work documenting these times. Last November, I joined the Cultural Descent (Kulturniy Desant) on their trip to the liberated towns of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine. It is a mission of comedians, TV personas, and famous pop-singers -some of them officially enrolled in the military- who visit the frontline and towns in the recently liberated war zones to lift the spirits of the servicemen and the Russian occupation survivors. Still, it does not feel like ‘doing enough’.
But you have been also documenting this time of history, does it not feel a part of contributing?
It does, but up to a certain extent. It’s interesting how many Ukrainians that I know, even the most artsy types, have had to rethink the role of documentary photography. It’s still one of the best -yet not perfect- ways to communicate what is happening to us with the world. I photographed a lot in the summer.
Tomorrow we are wrapping up in NYC Ukrainian Perspectives: Photography from the 1940s—Now, a big exhibition, auction and programming event that I worked on together with Fred Ritchin, Magnum Photos and American-Ukrainian grassroots charity initiative, Spilka. It is a huge project that required around six months of hard work of dozens of people, mainly volunteers. But again, it still doesn’t feel like this was enough. War is a very ‘material thing’ in many ways, and you can’t help but assess the impact accordingly. How much money did we raise? How many individual medical kits can be bought with that? The answer is always unsatisfactory. Volunteering is vital, but at times I can’t help but think that enrolling to the army is nearly the only truly effective way to resist Russian aggression.
Your last visit to Ukraine before the invasion was during October 2021. How do you recall going back under a completely different context in April 2022?
It was traumatizing. I went only for three days to the funeral of my grandmother. It was a highly agitated time in Odesa region, normally a jolly and laid-back place to be. The bridge I had to cross to get there got shelled twice only days before my arrival. The spring was in full bloom, my favorite time to be in my hometown, but everyone was expecting a major Russian assault.
Empty streets, military checkpoints, air raid alerts going off. Advertising boards were replaced with war messages like ‘Russian warship go fuck yourselves’ and you could hear the air-defense explosions regularly. The beaches where I spent the most serene of my years were mined. My Odesa apartment, without my grandma in it, felt suffocatingly empty as well.